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The first peoples of the continent have a great sense of responsibility for the treasures buried in the earth, treasures that should never be brought to the surface. Their descendants continue to speak truth to power against the uranium mining companies.

In every landscape, the Indigenous people of Australia see a manifestation of the creative forces of ancient times, a power of the past that still resonates today. Thus, their bond with the environment is very deep: humans can never appropriate nature, they can only tend and care for it. The land mass was first settled 15,000 years ago; even today, Aborigi­nal people remember the names of places that have been under water for 15,000 years, places named by their ancestors when New Guinea and Tasmania were still connected to the continent via land bridges. Songs and dances help preserve the knowledge from the past in the collective memory. This includes warnings not to hurt the interior of the earth. The most well-known message is that of the rainbow serpent. The serpent created the mountains and lakes and sleeps under the earth. It is said that its sleep shall not be disturbed; otherwise deadly forces will be unleashed that humans cannot control. The rainbow serpent, according to today’s First Nations people, is the guardian of the uranium veins. The late Joan Wingfield, an activist of the Kokotha Nation in South Australia, gave an insight into the living earth at the 1992 World Uranium Hearing in Salzburg, when she talked about Galda, the stumpy-tailed lizard and the Olympic Dam uranium mine: “The first shaft dug goes right through the stomach of the lizard. At that shaft they mine uranium, the yellowcake, gold, silver, copper, lead, all the materials found in that area. When you open up a real lizard, you will find exactly the same colors you found deep down inside the earth.”

Uranium mining started in Australia in 1954, although there were extractions for medical research in 1906. By the late 1950s, Australia was the world’s sixth largest uranium producer with an overall production of more than 212,000 tonnes; currently the country ranks third on the list of worldwide producers after Kazakhstan and Canada. At more than one million tonnes, the country has the largest mineable uranium resource in the world. Uranium mining has always taken place close to First Nations communities and far away from white cities. For decades, the traditional owners of the lands were not granted any kind of land rights, so when mining operations started, there were neither negotiations nor compensation payments. Only in 1993 did the federal parliament in Canberra pass the Native Title Act – a law intended to secure the tradi­tional land rights of all Aboriginal peoples. While the govern­ment proclaimed this law to be a landmark recognition of Aboriginal rights, the people affected continue to see much the same inequality as before: when a company wants to mine for uranium, the burden of proof lies with the Native Title claim­ants; they have to prove that they have had an uninterrupted relationship with their lands until the present day – an insult to those who have lived there since time immemorial.

Even when Native Title is recognized, traditional owners are still forced to negotiate with the mining companies, or are excluded altogether. If no agreement is reached, the projects of the mining company take precedence over recognition of the Indigenous land rights. There is no legal instrument to veto such decisions. Communities and groups who want to refuse access to the lands are often excluded from negotia­tions. Companies regularly use tactics of divide and rule by offering financial rewards to agreeable discussion partners, which creates lasting family disputes and erodes community. Uranium mining is only permitted in South Australia and the Northern Territory. Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales and the Capital Territory of Canberra have long standing bans on uranium mining. Queensland and West Australia have bans on uranium mining but these bans were lifted under different governments and then reintroduced.

But despite all this, some successes have bolstered the hopes of the Aboriginal nations: Jeffrey Lee, the last descen­dant of the Djok, refused to sell Koongara, the land of his ancestors in the Northern Territory. The French company Areva outbid itself to extract the estimated 14,000 tonnes of uranium buried beneath his lands. Jeffrey refused every single offer and wanted to make Koongara part of the Kakadu National Park. He traveled to Paris with a delegation and succeeded in winning the support of UNESCO, which had already declared the park a World Heritage Site in 2003. At the same time in the same region, Yvonne Margarula (see photo on title page), the Mirrar senior Traditional Owner, and her community had fought against the opening of the Jabiluka mine – and even successfully stopped construction in 2005.

The resistance against the Ranger mine right next to the national park made an impact. Uranium had been mined there since 1980, mostly for Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Germany and USA. More than 200 incidents of environmental contamina­tion have been documented. In 2019, production was finally stopped.

In the Northern Territory, on the lands of the Arrernte people, operations at the Angela Pamela mine were stopped by sustained community opposition. All mining and processing operations must finish at Ranger by 2021, and the clear focus is now on the complex and costly job of rehabilitation. In South Australia, local grassroots forces stopped the plan to extract uranium deposits in the Arkaroola wilderness reservation on Adnyamathanha land. However, in 2008, the state of Western Australia allowed uranium mining; as of 2020 there are still no operating mines in WA, although four projects have state and federal environmental approvals – Kintyre, Wiluna, Yeelirrie and Mulga Rock. Communities at each of the four sites continue to oppose these mines and have led protest actions, court challenges and community campaigns to try and stop them.

Further Information

• Australian Conservation Foundation: Campaign “nuclear free”, acf.org.au
• Don't Nuke the Climate Australia: dont-nuke-the-climate.org.au