Interview by Debra Wirth
The decision by the Hawke government on June 17 not to allow mining at Coronation Hill in Kakadu National Park is a victory for the traditional owners, the Jawoyn, and for the conservation of the region. DEBRA WIRTH spoke to the executive officer for the Jawoyn people, JOHN AH KIT, about this victory and what land rights mean for his people.
What is the significance of Coronation Hill for the Jawoyn people?
Guratba, as we call it, which is known to non-Aboriginal people as Coronation Hill, is a sacred site of very big importance to the Jawoyn people.
It is connected to the major site in the Sickness Country called Big Sunday, or Nilaynejarrang. Big Sunday is the major Bula site which is connected to Guratba, and other sites within the Sickness Country. The Jawoyn believe that Bula, the creator, rests and is lying dormant under the Sickness Country and is sort of wired up to these sites, so that if one site is destroyed then it has a chain reaction that will destroy the other sites within the Sickness Country.
There are many Aboriginal people in the surrounding areas, throughout Arnhem Land, who have ceremonial connections with Bula, and it's very important that the Jawoyn people protect Bula and ensure that Bula is not disturbed and therefore there is no mining in that part of the Sickness Country whatsoever, because it is so integral to the living culture of the Jawoyn Aboriginal people.
Coronation Hill has been mined for uranium in the past.
A part of Coronation Hill was mined in the '50s, but you must understand that Aboriginal people were not recognised in this country until the 1967 referendum.
The Department of Native Affairs had a policy of getting Aboriginal people off their traditional lands and putting them into compounds and reserves and communities of that nature, because it was seen by the government of those days that these "nomadic savages" shouldn't be left to wander around aimlessly on their country, that they should be educated like the white man and be introduced into the Western culture.
Nobody had even thought of recognising Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal traditional owners and senior custodians and therefore nobody wanted to consult with them on whether there was sacred sites in that country and whether they could allow mining to go
ahead or not — not only in the Sickness Country but throughout Australia.
Has the site recovered from the mining conducted in the 1950s, or are the effects still apparent?
There is a small hole in the hill, which has an effect on the hill, but one must also understand that the Jawoyn were very concerned when the mining had taken place in the '50s. There was an epidemic of whooping cough that struck the Aboriginal people and also some miners who died.
The Jawoyn attribute those deaths to the disturbance of Bula during the 1950s. They attribute the loss of approximately 130 Jawoyn people to the mining which was disturbing Bula.
Are the Jawoyn opposed to mining in general?
We are not opposed to mining per se. We have an agreement with two companies who are exploring for diamonds on Jawoyn traditional land. We are not anti-development. We want to contribute to the economy of the Northern Territory and we show that.
As an example, we have some land which is being leased back to the Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory. The Jawoyn did not have to consider that track, we could have asked the Commonwealth ANPWF [Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service] to look after their park but chose not to. They have concessionaires in the gorge in which people operate boat tours. We have a buffalo domestication project which is a viable one. We have a tourism enterprise which is being established.
So we're not anti-development, and we're not anti-mining, and we like to discuss with anyone what projects they would like to do on Aboriginal land.
The Jawoyn are not opposed to any development on their traditional land as long as they're involved in the process of consultation. The Jawoyn reserve the right to disagree or refuse projects that they believe aren't sound.
Does the current land rights legislation give Aboriginal people the right to veto mining on their land?
In the Northern Territory there is an act called the Northern Territory Land Rights Act; it's not a national land rights act, but it does give the Aboriginal traditional owners a veto over mining.
We would like to see the same land rights act applied nationally, if not a better form of land rights, so that there is proper recognition by the Australian government of Aboriginal people's sovereign ownership of this country.
More importantly, Aboriginal people need to develop viable business enterprises on their traditional land so that they can provide for themselves. We can do it if we're given the opportunity through national land rights legislation. We are sick and tired of going to governments and asking for money.
Do you think the current decision by the federal government on mining at Coronation Hill will stand, or do you think it will come up again in the future and you will have to fight that battle again?
It would be a very game government, such as the conservatives if they are in power after the next election, to overturn the decision that has been taken by Bob Hawke and cabinet.
The regulations for the Conservation Zone are to put it into Kakadu National Park Stage 3. Stage 1 and Stage 2 of Kakadu National Park, along with Stage 3 will be nominated — renominated in the case of Stages 1 and 2 — plus the nomination for Stage 3 will go to the World Heritage organisation internationally. We believe that 80% of Australian people, black and white, will then disallow any mining of a national park.