Yes to land rights! No to uranium mining!
Yes to land rights! No to uranium mining!
Radical documentary film maker DAVID BRADBURY has produced and directed an illuminating new film called Jabiluka. Renowned for Frontline, Nicaragua: No Pasaran and Chile: Hasta Cuando, Bradbury in his latest film exposes the devastating impact uranium mining at Jabiluka will have on the environment and the lives of the traditional owners, the Mirrar people. The Mirrar have already experienced Energy Resources Australia's (ERA) uranium mine at Ranger, and they are determined to stop Jabiluka. Green Left Weeklys JON LAND spoke to Bradbury.
"Jabiluka is a symbol for many things confronting Australia: our identity and how we see ourselves at this crucial time in our history. Jabiluka involves the issues of native title and Wik, and whether we are prepared to respect Aboriginal peoples' rights to control their land", Bradbury said.
"The people at Kakadu have never formally signed over rights to the land; the Northern Land Council did so on their behalf. The traditional owners have never agreed to Jabiluka going ahead. Yet, they are obliged now to bow to the wishes of a mining company and the government."
The film explains that the Mirrar people were coerced into signing the lease for Ranger uranium mine in 1979. The World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park was also established that year in recognition of the unique wet lands and culture of the Aboriginal peoples of the region.
The Northern Land Council (NLC) negotiated the Ranger agreement on behalf of the traditional owners. They were advised that if consent was not given, the Land Rights Act would be dismantled. (The NT land rights law, the first in the country, was passed by the Fraser government in 1976.)
NLC chairperson Galarrwuy Yunupingu told a special meeting of traditional owners, prior to the conclusion of the Ranger agreement, "When you make the decision, keep in mind that we are entitled to be pushed around by any government. We are being pushed around today and we will be pushed around tomorrow. We will be pushed around forever, and that is a fact of life."
Almost immediately after the Ranger deal had been "approved", the Mirrar came under pressure to consent to Pancontinental (the leaseholder before ERA) beginning mining at Jabiluka. Despite opposition from the traditional owners, the NLC signed an agreement with Pancontinental in 1982.
Despite promises of benefits, Ranger and uranium mining have had an adverse impact on Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.
Jacqui Katona, who heads the Mirrar's Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation, stated in July, "We have no graduates of secondary education, housing is substandard, the vast majority of community is unemployed [and] health services are minimal".
Each wet season, the Ranger mine releases contaminated water from the tailings dam, polluting the Mirrar people's land and sacred sites and no amount of money can repair the damage.
The Mirrar people do not want Jabiluka to go ahead. They do not want a share, or any part of the royalties, from the $4.5 billion project.
Mining companies and their peak body, the Australian Mining Industry Council, lobbied the Hawke government during the 1980s to drop the Labor Party's three-mines policy, which it adopted in 1984.
Widespread opposition to uranium mining, made public by the huge anti-nuclear demonstrations and popular support for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the 1980s, made Labor wary of allowing more mines to be opened. Also, uranium was in oversupply on the world market.
The Coalition's election in March 1996 opened the way for Jabiluka and other sites to be developed.
By the end of 1996, Australian uranium production levels were the highest they had been for a decade (spot prices for uranium had jumped 80% over 1995-96). In October of that year, federal resources and energy minister Warwick Parer returned from a trip to South Korea and Japan talking up the opportunities for Australian uranium producers.
If Jabiluka goes ahead, it will add 20 million tonnes of radioactive tailings to the waste already produced at Ranger, which is unsafely stored. It will also lay the basis for more uranium mines to be opened elsewhere in Australia.
"Uranium is too dangerous a mineral to be unleashed from its natural state. We have a moral obligation to stop the mining of uranium.
"The Howard government has 25 uranium mines after Jabiluka waiting for approval", Bradbury said. "If we cannot knock Jabiluka on the head, then I do not hold much hope for our future.
"Once we let the uranium genie out of the bottle — which I believe was done with the three-mines policy — there is little hope of putting it back in."
During the 1980s, Bradbury was active in the anti-uranium movement, which could mobilise hundreds of thousands of people in protest.
"In researching and interviewing people for the film, I have become that much more aware of the dangers of uranium. The information on how it affects people and how little you need to be exposed to in order to get a low level of radiation poisoning — which will have ramifications from one generation to the next — is being suppressed."
Bradbury pointed to the impact of depleted uranium weapons used during the Gulf War, citing the abnormal rates of leukaemia among Iraqi children and soldiers suffering from the Gulf War Syndrome. He also believes that plutonium from uranium mined at Ranger and Roxby will be used in rockets in the United States space program.
Radioactive radon gas is released when uranium is mined. "In the case of the underground mine at Jabiluka, the gas will be pumped out through vents into the open air", Bradbury said. "Because it is heavier than air, it will fall to earth.
"Radon has a half-life of three and a half days, and working on just a slight breeze of 10 kilometres an hour, it will travel over 1000 kilometres in three days. The ability for radon to travel throughout the ecosystem is monumentally disastrous."
Workers at the mine will be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. "Research has shown that people who are exposed to more than 10 millisieverts per year will develop cancers. At Ranger, workers can be exposed to the company's guideline of 50 millisieverts per annum", explained Bradbury.
"At Jabiluka, ERA is bringing it back down to 20, but it will allow exemptions, which will mean that some workers will get twice as much as that in one year."
The campaign to halt the mine at Jabiluka is gaining momentum as environment, student and solidarity groups organise protests in support of the Mirrar people.
Yvonne Margarula, senior representative of the Mirrar, is taking legal action in the Federal Court in an attempt to prevent the Howard government granting ERA approval to export uranium from Jabiluka.
The campaign is spreading internationally: the Stop Jabiluka Campaign-Japan held a protest on November 18 outside the office of Kansai Electric Power Company in Osaka, which is a shareholder of ERA and one of its biggest customers.
"I hope this film brings people into action and makes them more informed and aware of their responsibilities to themselves, their children and present and future generations", Bradbury said.
"I hope Jabiluka will help galvanise tens of thousands of people to lobby their politicians, to get involved in environment groups like the Wilderness Society, Australian Conservation Foundation and Friends of the Earth and do whatever they can do.
"If the traditional owners cannot stop the mine in the Federal Court, the only way to stop it is by people physically blockading the site when the wet season finishes."
[A review of Jabiluka appears on page 24.]