The Australian No Uranium Mining Campaign

By Paul Dekar | 2000-07-01 12:00:00

"This is a beautiful place. Who in their right mind would think this is the place for a uranium mine?" With these words one protestor joined hundreds in early 1998 seeking to block opening of the Jabiluka uranium mine located eighty miles east of Darwin in Kakadu National Park in northern Australia. Having received necessary government clearances, North Limited, one of Australia's largest multinationals, proceeded despite a major struggle that has led to over 500 arrests there and elsewhere.

The Australian No Uranium Mining campaign has global significance because of the convergence of indigenous, environmental and nuclear issues. Belief that the rights of Australia's indigenous peoples are threatened as well as concern about nuclear proliferation motivate my concern for the campaign.

Australia's Resource Extraction

Under Australia's soil lies an estimated 35% of the world's supply of uranium. Despite the concern of some about the country's rapacious approach to resource extraction, many Australians have seen the country's uranium reserves as a safe, renewable energy source. During the 1940s the Federal government accorded uranium special status as a strategic mineral. It granted subsidies as an inducement to prospect for deposits.

To bolster Australia's prestige and shore up the power of Britain, Australia allowed the British to explode atomic bombs above ground, first on an island off its northwest coast in 1952, then on the mainland. Commercial mining started and the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (AAEC) was established. In 1954 the AAEC decided to locate Australia's first nuclear reactor near Sydney, along with the Lucas Heights Research Establishment. At the time, Australia planned to develop both nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Neither materialized. Research continues there into reactor physics and into the effects of radiation.

During the 1950s and early 1960s a number of small uranium mines opened in the Northern Territory. The oil crisis of the 1970s coincided with the discovery of extensive uranium deposits, especially at Kakadu, a region abounding in wildlife and sites of spectacular beauty. In 1977, a federal government study recommended that Kakadu National Park be created; that uranium mining be restricted to two mines; and that traditional owners be accorded major involvement in the Park's management.

The government accepted most of the recommendations, including the provision that the indigenous leaders of the Mirrar would have a voice in management issues. Over the next few years UNESCO listed parts of Kakadu as a World Heritage site, while uranium mining commenced near Jabiru and still proceeds. In 1982, the battle for a mine at Jabiluka was joined. The Fraser coalition government approved the Jabiluka mine. The next year, election of the Hawke Labour government stopped the plans. The debate rages on about uranium mining there.

The Jabiluka Campaign

In the 1980s and '90s indigenous and No Uranium Mining activists forestalled the opening of uranium mines at Jabiluka. Nonviolent efforts included legal action and public protest. In 1996, with the election of the Liberal-National coalition, the government removed restrictions on uranium mining. This paved the way for a new struggle. In late 1997, the aboriginal Mirrar people invited non-indigenous opponents of the mine to mobilize. A Jabiluka Action Group (JAG) formed, planning for a protracted legal battle. Australia's No Uranium Mining activists targeted the proposed Jabiluka mine site for a blockade. The situation looked favorable for a succesful environmental crusade, but success was not guaranteed, owing in part to four factors:

  1. claims that the mine has posed no significant environmental threat;
  2. ambivalence of the opposition Labour Party, which was not prepared to make Jabiluka a major issue in the campaign that was expected in late 1998;
  3. uncertainty about prior mine approval given by indigenous leaders;
  4. logistical difficulties of getting large numbers of people to Kakadu. In early 1998, the Commonwealth Government authorised the opening of the mine at Jabiluka. At the invitation of the traditional owners, protesters erected a camp on Mirrar-owned land about ten miles from the Jabiluka mine site. Over the next four months, several thousand protesters responded to Mirrar opposition to the mine by converging on the site. Police arrested over five hundred protesters. Most arrestees were tried before a magistrate's court, and generally, charges did not stand up. Some were convicted of trespass and fined $600. or 13 days in jail.

Interviewing protesters, I have inquired of their motivation. Most cite desecration of sacred lands, human rights violations of indigenous peoples and concerns related to uranium mining, notably disposal of trailings and lack of safeguards in the export of processed uranium. Jo Vallentine, former West Australian Senator for the Green Party arrested on July 14, 1998, stated,

I don't consider that I was trespassing when I had a specific invitation from the traditional owners, the Mirrar people, to be on land which is theirs both spiritually and legally. I am prepared to inconvenience myself to commit holy disobedience in defiance of the laws of the Northern Territory. I am obeying a higher law; to help shut down the nuclear industry worldwide is my aim.

In a Nagasaki Day (August 9) action, Ciaron O'Reilly and Treena Lenthall, long time members of Australia's Catholic Worker Movement, disarmed an excavator at the Jabiluka uranium mine site. In court, Lenthall gave her testimony. She described her Christian discipleship and her work with the poor. She explained that she had been influenced by David Bradbury's video "Jabiluka" and asked the court to show it. The court allowed the screening.

Both were convicted and ordered to pay Australian $6,673 restitution, which they refused. Their appeals having failed, they were taken into custody.

To expose excesses of Northern Territory law, a legal centre in Darwin is looking at their treatment, the handling of arrestees more generally, and media issues.

The blockade continued until the wet season. Even as the blockade and trials were going on, those who opposed the Jabiluka mine undertook other initiatives. Mirrar spokespersons Jacqui Katona and Yvonne Margarula appealed to the UNESCO to name Kakadu National Park, listed as a World Heritage area because of its natural and cultural importance, as endangered. In October 1998 a United Nations World Heritage commission visited Jabiluka and the surrounding Kakadu National Park. Commissioners found the Jabiluka mine not only threatens this World Heritage listed wilderness, but also poses a threat to the Mirrar culture and their land. In December 1998, their report appeared to result in a victory for the effort to stop mining at Jabiluka. The World Heritage Committee fully endorsed the report and called for an immediate stop to all construction work on the mine site.

Lobbying by the Australian government followed. In July 1999, UNESCO decided against listing the park as in danger. Australia must demonstrate it has undertaken an independent cultural and environmental impact assessment.The Jabiluka campaign continues. Last year, JAG took the campaign directly to those who benefit, including shareholders and employees of North Limited.

Wider Significance of the Dispute

For two decades, indigenous, environmental and anti-nuclear activists have worked to stop the expansion of the uranium industry and to maintain the cultural and ecological integrity of Kakadu National Park. The decision to proceed with uranium mining at Jabiluka has elicited growing concern worldwide. Among Canadian experts to visit the site are David Suzuki and Rosalie Bertell. They have stressed the threat to human life posed by nuclear weapons and depleted uranium. Efforts by Mirrar leaders to block expanded uranium mining in Australia represent a case study in the defence of indigenous rights. Article 19 of the Draft United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides that indigenous peoples should participate fully at all levels of decision making in matters that affect their lives and destinies.

We may also understand the campaign to stop Jabiluka mining within the framework of five principles. The first principle is the intrinsic worth of creation. The entire cosmos has value in and of itself. The second principle is the principle of interconnection. The earth is a community of inter-connected living things that are mutually dependent on each other for life and survival. The third principle is custodianship of the earth. Each generation has responsibility for future generations. Future generations have rights. Anti-Jabiluka protesters have voiced a sense of personal responsibility for future generations.The fourth principle is indivisibility of justice. Protesters affirm you cannot separate ecological justice and justice for indigenous peoples. The exploitation of environmentally safe energy sources must address the needs of the people directly affected by resource extraction.

The final principle is resistance. The earth and its components suffer from human injustice. Protesters not only cultivate concern for humanity and earth through education, lobbying and advocacy but also participate in nonviolent direct action.The import of the Australian anti-uranium mining campaign similarly extends far beyond the continent.

Paul Dekar in a professor at Memphis Theological Seminary.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2000

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2000, page 27. Some rights reserved.

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