When Muckaty traditional owners first heard about a proposed waste dump on their land seven years ago, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea.
Many thought it was a general rubbish tip that would recycle, sell reclaimed materials and provide work opportunities for people living in the remote area of the Northern Territory.
Millions of dollars were promised for roads and scholarships. In an area with few employment prospects or education opportunities, it is little wonder the offer seemed attractive.
Then came the truth. The proposal was not for a tip, but for radioactive waste. The money would not go straight to traditional owners, but to the Northern Land Council (NLC) to be held in a charitable trust. It seemed there was more to the proposal than met the eye.
This month, a seven-year grassroots campaign against the dump and a four-year federal court challenge against the federal government and the NLC came to an end when the NLC withdrew its nomination of the Muckaty site. That eliminated the need for their officials to take the stand at court in Darwin after evidence was heard from traditional owners in Tennant Creek.
The first that Warlmanpa traditional owner Marlene Nungarrayi Bennett heard about the dump proposal was on the radio. One of the witnesses questioned in court at Tennant Creek, she told of her surprise at first hearing about it on the radio and how she set about educating herself, her family and community about the proposal. Once she learned the truth about the potential impacts of a radioactive waste dump, she was firmly opposed to it going ahead.
Traditional owner Dianne Stokes, who has been a staunch and tireless campaigner against the dump since it was nominated by the NLC in 2007, was also initially in favour of it because of the benefits it would supposedly bring to the community.
It was not until Beyond Nuclear Initiative (BNI) campaigners came to Tennant Creek and explained what the waste would be, how far it had to be transported to get there and the risks associated with it, that she realised it was not a proposal she could support.
In a statement she said: “We will be still talking about our story in the communities up north so no one else has to go through this. We want to let the whole world know that we stood up very strong. We want to thank the supporters around the world that stood behind us and made us feel strong.”
With the support of BNI, over the past seven years, the community has marched in Tennant Creek annually, hosted trade union delegations, written songs and poems, made films and toured photo exhibitions.
People have travelled tirelessly around the country to build awareness and support, having conversations in regional areas and lobbying ministers at Parliament House in Canberra. Supporters have held fundraisers and information nights around Australia.
Kylie Sambo, Milwayi Kurtungurlu and hip-hop artist, said: “I joined the campaign four years ago when I wrote my hip-hop song 'Muckaty'. My sister always told me stories about our mothers dreaming, where it travelled to and from.
“That land means a lot to us, that's why we stand up to protect it. My sister always encouraged me to stand up for our people and our country, my uncle and grandfather would be very happy and proud of what we have done.
“We are in Alice Springs with good news that we have won the fight. If you think something is not going the right way then you stand up and speak, because if we in the centre of the Northern Territory can stand up and win then so can you.”
The remote area where the dump was proposed may seem to the government, industry and city-dwellers to be a safe and reasonable place to dump radioactive waste. It has, however, a vibrant community, strong Aboriginal culture and many people call it home. Radioactive waste is not something anyone wants next door. This is possibly part of the reason the government wants to relocate the waste from where it is now stored at Lucas Heights in southern Sydney.
A successful campaign by the Kupi Piti Kungka Tjuta to stop a nuclear dump in South Australia 10 years ago led the federal government to push for a dump in the Northern Territory. The risk remains that a dump may be proposed elsewhere in Australia.
Although the federal government has withdrawn its push for a radioactive waste facility at Muckaty, Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion said: "I would hope it [the end of court action] would offer opportunities for a second nomination of a northern site."
The people of Muckaty and anti-nuclear activists say: “Not here, not anywhere.” This people-powered fight will continue if another site is nominated.
[Mara Bonacci is an anti-nuclear campaigner based in Alice Springs.]