Indigenous people oppose Beverley uranium mine

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Indigenous people oppose Beverley uranium mine

In December, JILLIAN MARSH received the inaugural Jill Hudson Environmental Award from the Conservation Council of South Australia. Marsh, a member of the Flinders Ranges Aboriginal Heritage Consultative Committee (FRAHCC) and the Adnyamathanha community in northern South Australia, received the award for leading her community's opposition to the proposed Beverley uranium mine on Adnyamathanha land. EMMA WEBB interviewed her for Green Left Weekly.

In 1997, FRAHCC's annual general meeting was attended by Adnyamathanha people from Nepabunna concerned at the proposed Beverley uranium mine. Following the meeting, Marsh became involved in organising her community's opposition to the mine.

"Adnyamathanha came with a petition and asked others to sign it. They wanted to voice their concern and opposition about having the area damaged and destroyed, and at the fact that they had been sold out by native title agreements that did not represent their position. Elders in our community had said no to uranium mining before, so people at Nepabunna wanted to go along with that position", Marsh explained.

"By and large, the whole community had been excluded from the consultation process and people thought that had been deliberate. People asked FRAHCC to put forward their concerns to the state government. I also suggested that we contact the green movement and after the meeting I got in contact with the Conservation Council of SA.

"We felt isolated. We knew how the mining companies at Roxby Downs had cultivated a lot of conflict within Aboriginal communities. We were very wary about having a mining company in our area, dividing our community and having some people put into an elite position.

"More than anything, people remembered how mining at the Leigh Creek coalfield had destroyed our heritage, despite Adnyamathanha opposition. Everyone was concerned that we were again being brushed aside in the name of 'progress' and the 'national interest'."

In December 1997, FRAHCC held a community meeting at Balcanoona, close to the Beverley site and in the heartland of Adnyamathanha country.

"Environmental activists from the Australian Conservation Foundation were invited to exchange information, listen to the concerns raised by the community, talk about a campaign and work out how we could support each other", Marsh said. "It allowed the community a chance to consolidate its opposition and make a public statement via the media."

Many attempts

According to Marsh, there were attempts in the 1950s, 1970s and 1980s to set up uranium mines in Adnyamathanha country. "Back then, the site was referred to as Mount Painter. It is near Arkaroola and part of the same ore deposit as Beverley. Our people strongly opposed the mine then, for the same reasons as now.

"We regard any disturbance of these sites as a threat to our health, our environment, our culture and our heritage. It's totally at odds with our beliefs and values. This dangerous substance should be left in the ground.

"Back in the '50s, we still had our own Aboriginal law. We had a full kinship structure, we had a full law-abiding group of people who were enforcing those beliefs. In the '90s, most of the people who upheld that law have died. We have a more fragmented community. This has made it easier for the company to come in and divide people.

"What has emerged through the white legal system will never reflect what Aboriginal people want because those laws are not developed by Aboriginal people, they cannot reflect indigenous perspectives, and control will never rest with us when decisions are made to enact these laws."

In 1997, Heathgate Resources approached the two registered native title claimants. At that stage Heathgate was not legally bound to enter into negotiations, Marsh told Green Left Weekly. "When they found the claimants were receptive, they put forward a proposal.

"Many months of pressure resulted in both claimants signing exploration agreements, without the consent or knowledge of the rest of the Adnyamathanha community. An amount of money would have been handed over for offering consent. That was supported by the administering body for native title in SA, the Native Title Unit."

Marsh believes that Heathgate has used the content of the original agreements and the same bullying process as a template for how they conduct their business with the rest of the community. When the final agreements on the commercial lease were signed by other registered claimants last year, the chairperson of the Adnyamathanha Native Title Management Committee said, "we were forced into signing this agreement".

Under the state Aboriginal Heritage Act, FRAHCC operates as an independent body, separate from the native title claimants. When FRAHCC opposed the mine, it was immediately cut out of the consultation process. Marsh says that Heathgate Resources have acted illegally because "under the state Aboriginal Heritage Act [Heathgate] are obliged to negotiate with us".

FRAHCC's pressure forced Heathgate to hold a public meeting in February, 1998. The meeting, at Hawker, was chaired by Liberal MP Graham Gunn. At Gunn's request, armed police were present to escort people from the meeting if they became "disruptive". "Gunn has a tarnished reputation amongst Aboriginal people", Marsh said. "Gunn would signal to the police to shuffle people outside. Despite repeated requests, both prior to the meeting and on the day, Heathgate refused the community the right to speak and denied us input into the agenda of the meeting. When people entered the hall, they were told to sign a register or forfeit their lunch!"

International phenomenon

Marsh has met with indigenous people across Australia and overseas. She says there are striking similarities in the way mining companies deal with indigenous communities. "When the people I have spoken to describe the pressure they have been put under, how governments and mining companies have divided communities by putting some people on a pedestal, bribing some and misrepresenting the consultation process — it's all the same. It's the same pattern of oppression being used by mining companies and governments all over the world against indigenous communities.

"It's the same in places where there are indigenous heritage acts, land rights acts and treaties. These laws do not give Aboriginal people control over their own country or recognise their beliefs and culture. Even when people have the right to veto, as they do under the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, Aboriginal people were still conned into signing agreements which they have later regretted.

"Mining companies buy people off by saying royalties will provide infrastructure like schools and running water. Other people in Australia regard these as basic human rights, but mining companies use the plight of Aboriginal people to manipulate communities into a 'no-win' situation."

Marsh added that even the inadequate existing laws are being watered down to prevent indigenous people exercising their rights. "It's clear that the state governments, the federal government and the mining industry are working hand in hand to dis-empower Aboriginal people."

FRAHCC will continue to campaign against the Beverley mine. "Those of us who have fought hard for a fair deal, to expose the underhand tactics used to dis-empower our community, do so because we care about our community and our land. That is our only wish."

The expansion of the nuclear industry in Australia has provoked increasing community concern and opposition, says Marsh. "Many people are very concerned about the nuclear industry. I think being anti-nuclear is our common ground, whether you are Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal.

"We have a government that is considering taking nuclear waste from around the world, that wants to open up mines and reactors when other countries are closing them. We need to remember what happened in the '70s and '80s, when the push by the nuclear industry was held back by community opposition. Now is the time for us all to work together to again put a stop to the nuclear industry.

"People have come together on the issue of uranium mining, even though they come from different backgrounds. We are always going to have a lack of resources. It makes sense to pool our efforts. Opposition to the Beverley mine is an issue where Aboriginal people and environmentalists can work together — and that makes it a stronger campaign."