Some strange strange people inhabit this land The earth lives in fear of their uranium mines They kill every livin’ sea thing with their driftnet line Some strange strange people inhabit this earth
(Kev Carmody, “Some Strange Strange People”)
Nuclear terror is nothing new to the Mirrar people in the Kakadu region of Northern Australia, whose land sits on one of the world’s richest deposits of uranium. One of the only things that lasts longer than the 40,000 years during which Indigenous Peoples have lived in Australia is the radioactive half-life of uranium ore.
In the 1970s, before uranium mining commenced in the region, the Australian Federal Government-commissioned Fox Report on Aboriginal people in Kakadu said: “They are a community whose lives have been, and still are being, disrupted by the intrusions of an alien people. They feel the pressures of the white man’s activities in relation to their land. In the face of mining exploration, and the threat of much further development, they feel helpless and lost.”
In 1979 special legislation was passed to allow the Ranger Uranium Mine to be built without Mirrar consent, removing their right of veto over the project which they had exercised. In 1982 the mining company and the Government used reprehensible tactics of duress and deceit to force the senior traditional owner of the Mirrar at the time to drop his opposition to the construction of a new mine – Jabiluka.
But before construction could start, and following mass anti-nuclear mobilisations across Australia, the Labor Government elected the following year announced its “three mines policy” limiting uranium mining operations to those already operating or under construction.
Labor lost the 1996 election and John Howard’s Coalition government announced in its 1997 Uranium Policy: “The Labor Government’s “three mines” policy has restricted Australian production of uranium. There is no commercial justification for this restriction”. It gave the green light to the Jabiluka project to proceed.
“Fight For Country: The Story of the Jabiluka Blockade” is an independent film about the campaign against the development of the Jabiluka mine, which attracted global attention and widespread support across Australia. It is written and directed by young Melbourne-based filmmaker/video activist Pip Starr, who, along with ZNet’s Michael Albert, myself, and others, spoke at the Borderlines forum on independent media making/media activism in Adelaide this March.
The film’s prologue situates the Jabiluka mine historically, geographically and scientifically, drawing on footage from Chernobyl, Britain’s Sellafield, explaining the connections between the uranium processing, nuclear power and weapons industry, and the appalling effects of radioactive pollution.
It reminds us that for many decades, nuclear colonialism has been a hallmark of the colonial oppression of Indigenous Peoples in Australia – from uranium mining and processing to the nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s. Often through the words of Jacqui Katona of the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation (set up to support the Mirrar People’s rights), it tells the story of how layers of white laws have been imposed on the Mirrar, riding roughshod over their own law, dispossessing them of their lands, and undermining their rights to determine their own futures and maintain their culture and society.
It is a story of naked corporate greed, supported by a government with dollar-signs for eyeballs, dreaming only of increasing its uranium exports for the global nuclear power industry and increasing their contribution to Australia’s GDP. And it documents the determination and resistance in a struggle that Aboriginal activist Gary Foley describes as “a classic example of one of the many ways in which the interests of Aboriginal people and the majority of people in this society coincide”.
Opposition to Jabiluka came from both the white environment movement, and from Indigenous Peoples struggling for the right to self-determination and control over their lives, resources and lands. Jacqui Katona writes that “[a]n additional mine would push Bininj [Aboriginal] culture beyond the point of cultural exhaustion to genocidal decay”. The Mirrar and their supporters have demanded that the Jabiluka lease return to the Kakadu National Park under their control.
The Ranger and Jabiluka leases are not only on Mirrar land, but also in the spectacular Kakadu National Park, one of a handful of sites worldwide listed by UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre for natural and cultural values. The Mirrar people have dreaming tracks and sacred sites throughout the spectacularly beautiful Kakadu, including in the mine lease areas.
Their society and culture are deeply connected with their lands – their country – and all that lives or grows there. They hunt, gather and fish in the Magela river, three kilometers downstream from the Ranger Uranium Mine and drink its water.
In the film, we see children swimming in a river in the Kakadu wetlands into which ERA has the legal right to release mining byproducts, while Christine Christophersen of the Bunitj clan and the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation relates the legal situation about the release and asks children about the fish and turtles which can be caught there.
The Mirrar see the Jabiluka lease presenting a genocidal danger to their living tradition, impacting on “food collection, ceremony, customary law, spiritual connection and socio-political systems”.
The company which owns Ranger and Jabiluka, Energy Resources of Australia Ltd (ERA) boasts of a sound environmental record, and the Howard government has backed that claim up, despite countless environmental incidents, including radioactive leaks, unrelenting opposition and mounting international research detailing the environmental and health dangers of the nuclear mining industry.
“Fight For Country” focuses on some of the spirited direct actions at Jabiluka, lock-ons, rallies, courtroom battles, benefit concerts and arrests. Over 5000 people from all over Australia and overseas travelled to Jabiluka in support of the Mirrar to participate in a blockade of the mine which lasted for months.
There were well over 500 arrests during that time, which also saw Jabiluka Action Groups across Australia mount local activities to stop the new mine. “Fight For Country” includes footage and interviews recorded at pickets outside the offices of North Ltd in Melbourne, then the parent company of ERA.
This film is well-researched, interspersed with dry Australian humour, told with passion and urgency, and features music by some of Australia’s finest performers, including Kev Carmody, Andy Alberts, Powderfinger and Regurgitator.
It also looks at some examples of tactics employed by the mining company and the government to counter the opposition – which will be familiar to others confronting transnational corporations elsewhere in the world.
From the outrageous arrest of Mirrar Senior Traditional Owner Yvonne Margarula by “anti-terrorist” police for “trespassing” on her own land at the mine site, to newspaper advertisements taken out by North Ltd smearing those actively opposing the mine as terrorists in an attempt to undermine growing popular support for their cause.
From shonky environmental assessments conducted by company scientists and endorsed by government bureaucrats, to Canberra’s shameful, no-expense-spared (and ultimately successful) lobbying and PR campaign directed at UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee in 1999 to block the placement of Kakadu on the list of “World Heritage in Danger” as a result of the uranium mining.
In August 2000 global mining giant Rio Tinto became majority shareholder of ERA. ERA estimates that the depleted Ranger mine has about another ten years of operation left. Jabiluka had been scheduled to start production last year but there has been no work on the mine site since August 1999. It remains on “environmental standby” after the Mirrar used the veto provisions of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act to refuse permission for ore from Jabiluka to be trucked by road to Ranger for processing.
To build a new mill at Jabiluka would cost over Aus $ 150 million – which the company does not want to spend at a time of low world uranium prices. Rio Tinto says that it does not support Jabiluka’s development in the short term, but it remains possible that it may sell ERA as it has tried unsuccessfully to do before. If that happens what guarantee is there that a buyer would not seek to develop and operate the mine?
Since its release last year, “Fight for Country” has become all the more poignant with recent revelations of serious environmental mismanagement by ERA including repeated cover-ups of contamination, delays in reporting leaks and the misreporting of water quality test results.
Between January and early March 2002, ERA are known to have breached their own uranium benchmark regulations (put in place to supposedly allay concerns about high levels of uranium entering Kakadu) four times. In January, uranium levels in the Swift Creek, which runs through Kakadu, downstream from Jabiluka, rose up to six times above levels upstream of the mine.
Tests by ERA taken at Corridor Creek, close to the Ranger uranium ore stockpile in early February were not reported until later that month despite a requirement that they immediately notify all stakeholders of any breaches. They showed uranium levels in the creek had reached nearly 2000 parts per billion – 4000 times the drinking water standard.
Then on April 11, at a monitoring point in Corridor Creek, contamination was found to be seven times higher than levels recorded in February. ERA and Australia’s Office of the Supervising Scientist have repeatedly claimed that wetland filtration systems on the site return water to within Australian drinking water standards before entering Kakadu. Corridor Creek connects to the Magela River system which is so vital to the Mirrar people.
In a joint charter signed in 2000, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Mirrar people committed to ending all mining in Kakadu, not just at Jabiluka.
This April, Yvonne Margarula strongly reiterated the Mirrar people’s position at the Rio Tinto annual general meeting. She said:
“All the Mirrar are together; we are united against any more uranium mining on Mirrar country. No amount of money, no amount of political pressure, no backroom deals, no bribery or blackmail will make us change our mind. We cannot change the law and the law is that we protect our sacred sitesâ€¦We will continue to resist more mining on Mirrar country. We have no choice – this is our land and our life, we can never leave, we must protect it.”
The fight for country continues.
To order Fight For Country, contact Rockhopper Productions at [email protected]