Irati Wanti - 'The poison, leave it'



"We are Aboriginal Women — Yankunytjatjara, Antikarinya and Kokatha. We know the country. We know the stories for the land. We are worrying for the country and we're worrying for our kids. We say, 'No radioactive dump in our ngura — in our country'."

In the year marking the 50th anniversary of nuclear testing at Maralinga, Aboriginal women from Coober Pedy, who knew many who died there, are campaigning to stop more nuclear dumping on their sacred land. Their campaign is gathering support from environmental and anti-nuclear groups, and by a growing network of trade unionists, including the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and the South Australian United Trades and Labour Council.

For some time, the federal government has pushed for a nuclear waste dump in South Australia to store radioactive materials from the NSW nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights. In July, the federal government forcibly acquired South Australian land that has three native title claims on it.

Those claims were annulled, as were the interests of the state government and the Pobke family, which runs a sheep station on the land the government wants to build the dump on. One of the native title claimants, along with the state government and the Pobke family, are challenging the land seizure in the Federal Court.

Senator Nick Minchin told parliament in 2000 that "Any legislation passed by the SA or other state or territory governments will not change our plans."

A poll published in the Adelaide Advertiser in July 2000 showed 95% of South Australians were against the dump. This has not stopped the federal Department of Industry, Science and Resources or the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.

The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, the senior Aboriginal Women from Coober Pedy, have opposed the dump for over five years, winning a prestigous environmental award — the Goldman prize — for their efforts. They fear nuclear waste will damage wildlife, water and the spirit of the land.

The Kungka Tjuta are very active in retaining their culture. In the words of Eileen Unkari Crombie: "We are the women who are fighting to keep the culture going. We've been teaching the younger women and the women that were taken away; teaching the people that lost the culture. We've been traveling everywhere. We really know the land. We were born on the manta, born on the earth. And never mind our country is in the desert, that's where we belong, in the beautiful desert country."

The proposed site is sacred. Eileen Wani Wingfield says that the tjukur (lore) of the people is in the land. The federal government thinks there is nothing there, "but it is full of sites ... we travel everywhere for our dreamtime stories and... sites".

The Kungka Tjuta have very practical knowledge of the land and they say: "All of us were living when the government used the country for the bomb. The government thought that they knew what they were doing then. We know the poison from the radioactive dump will go down under the ground and leak into the water."

Administration of remote storage and long distance transportation of these wastes are problematic. Proposed management of the site will last only for approximately 200 years, but some of the waste will remain radioactive for millenia. The government tells us that the waste is "low-level" radioactive waste, but the government's own documents clearly state the intention to use the dump for intermediate-level waste as well. And once the door is opened, it will be easier for higher level waste, such as reprocessed nuclear fuel rods, to be dumped in SA as well.

It seems to be a case of out of sight, out of mind, and who better to bear the brunt than traditional Aboriginal people. But if a remote Aboriginal community seemed an easy target, this has not eventuated. The Irati Wanti protest web site <>, is eloquent and convincing in the face of what appears to be bureaucratic racism.

Meanwhile the Irati Wanti campaign has been growing in popularity. It is supported by Japan's Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations, which includes 280,000 people. In August, the ACTU congress in Melbourne extended, as a priority, solidarity with the "Indigenous communities in opposition to the nuclear waste dump proposed for South Australia."

Benefits and film nights are being held by Aboriginal and other groups in Melbourne and Adelaide.

So what can we do? In the words of Ivy Makinti Stewart and Eileen Kampakuta Brown: "Whitefellas have got kids or grandchildren. What do you think about the poison, the radioactive waste? We're worrying for everybody's kids, white and black. We're tired now. You talk straight out against the poison!"

From Green Left Weekly, September 17, 2003.
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