Radioactive racism

Friday, October 6, 2006

The following is abridged from a talk presented to the Beyond Nuclear Initiative (BNI) symposium in Melbourne, September 15-16.

The Beyond Nuclear Initiative grew from discussions last year between the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and Friends of the Earth (FoE), and the philanthropic Poola Foundation. The BNI is funding campaigners across Australia, and has initiated a range of projects and events, including this symposium.

The BNI is campaigning against the expansion of the uranium mining industry in Australia and the imposition of a nuclear waste dump on the Northern Territory, and in support of a clean, non-nuclear energy future.

On September 13, Martin Ferguson, ALP shadow minister for resources, a nuclear "true believer" and a key driver of the pro-uranium push in his party, in an opinion piece in the Financial Review, accused "anti-nuclear campaigners and various environmental NGOs, and other interest groups" of using Indigenous communities "to peddle their own ideology".

Under the heading "Paternalism — the real 'radioactive racism'", he asked rhetorically: "And what have indigenous communities got in return?" "Certainly not jobs, certainly not better education for indigenous kids, and certainly not economic and social empowerment. The simple fact is that indigenous empowerment is not in the interests of special interest groups."

It is odd that Ferguson takes such exception to the use of "radioactive racism" to describe the Indigenous experience of the nuclear industry in Australia.

Fifty years ago, Aboriginal people were removed from their lands to clear a path for atomic weapons tests at Maralinga. Thirty years ago, the Mirrar people of Kakadu were told that their opposition to the proposed uranium mine at Ranger would be overridden. Twenty years ago, the Olympic Dam mine in South Australia was given a blanket exemption from compliance with Aboriginal heritage laws. Last year, the Howard government passed laws to remove the right of Aboriginal communities to oppose the imposition of a national radioactive waste dump on their country in central Australia.

Indigenous communities here, like those in many parts of the world, continue to bear a disproportionate burden of the adverse environmental and social impacts of the nuclear trade. To acknowledge this reality is not "paternalism"; it is a precursor to building an Australia that is positive about its future and honest about its past.

And as a non-Indigenous person working to end the nuclear industry here, it is also a prerequisite to building effective and respectful relationships with those who have the most connection and knowledge of the country, and the stories where these activities are taking place — Indigenous people.

@subh = The Mirrar experience

The experience of the Mirrar community is a powerful case in point. The Mirrar estate includes the land that holds Rio Tinto's Ranger uranium mine and the stalled Jabiluka mine project. They are the community with the longest direct relationship with uranium mining and their story contains some powerful lessons.

Uranium mining in Kakadu was the focus of detailed study through the Ranger Uranium Environment Inquiry — the Fox report.

In 1977, the second report of Fox's study concluded: "The evidence before us shows that the traditional owners of the ranger site are opposed to the mining of uranium on that site ... The Aboriginals do not have confidence that their own view will prevail; they feel that uranium mining development is almost certain to take place at Jabiru, if not elsewhere in the Region as well. They feel that having got so far, the white man is not likely to stop ... We have given careful attention to all that has been put before us by them or on their behalf. In the end, we form the conclusion that their opposition should not be allowed to prevail."

If nothing else, the conclusion is very candid.

Indigenous academic Marcia Langton has described the Ranger decision-making process as taking place "while the bulldozers were revving their engines". Cultural concerns were sacrificed to commercial imperatives, and mining began. The Daily Telegraph in Sydney ran a front page story with a photo of some traditional owners under the headline "Stone Age Millionaires".

What of these huge social and economic benefits that the companies promised and governments, and some oppositions, continue to champion? Is digging more dirt the best we can do in 21st century Australia to address the continuing systemic, profound and disgraceful Indigenous disadvantage?

Following Fox there have been two further studies of the social and economic impacts of uranium mining in Kakadu and the status of Aboriginal people in the region. Both have concluded that living conditions have not improved since mining began.

@subh = Impact of uranium mining

A social impact study conducted in 1984 identified problems in relation to housing, distribution of mining royalties, government funding, alcoholism, education and employment. The study spoke of Aboriginal society being "drowned by new laws, agencies and agendas", and observed that the Aboriginal "defeat on initial opposition to mining, negotiation leading to Ranger and Narbalek, the fresh negotiations on Jabiluka and Koongarra", have lead to a society in "crisis".

A series of recommendations from the 1984 inquiry, including the view that any new mining or major industrial development in the region would "seriously intensify the grave problems already being faced" were made. It comes as little surprise that few of the recommendations were given effect.

In 1997, the aptly named KRSIS — Kakadu Region Social impact Study — found that "some of the worst fears of Aboriginal people in the 1970s have come to pass. Key social indicators like education, health and employment are as bad as any community in Australia."

Yvonne Margarula, the Mirrar senior traditional owner, in a 2005 presentation to a federal parliamentary inquiry into uranium, gave her summary of the economic outcomes of two decades of imposed mining activity on her country. "Although the uranium mining at Ranger is taking place on Mirrar country, overall we have not truly benefited from the mine. Mining and millions of dollars in royalties have not improved our quality of life", she said.

This is no testament to successful policy, empowerment or acceptable outcomes. We cannot address Indigenous disadvantage by overriding people, and then expect them to trade country for a highly polluting industry to access services and facilities that the rest of us deem fundamental.

A final observation from the Mirrar experience and Yvonne Margarula from the excellent publication Yellowcake Country. "Uranium mining has completely upturned our lives. Uranium mining has also taken our country away from us and destroyed it — billabongs and creeks are gone forever, there are hills of poisonous rock and great holes in the ground with poisonous mud where there used to be nothing but bush.

"Everyone seems to be only concerned with what is happening today or next year, yet no scientist can tell us properly what will happen at the mine site in a hundred years time when they are all gone and no-one cares.

"None of the promises last — but the problems always do."

@subh = Collective power

ACF has a formal relationship with the Mirrar organisation, the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation, developed six years ago, and called the Kakadu Charter. It recognises the adverse social and environmental impacts of mining and commits both parties to work for the development of a viable regional Aboriginal economy independent of mining — a modest model, but an important one.

ACF, FoE and other environment and community groups around the country routinely work with Indigenous people to build a respectful and an environmentally sustainable future. Our interests won't always be the same, and our differences need to be acknowledged. But where black and green concerns merge we can, and do, build powerful alliances that amplify the voices of the small in the face of the institutional power of the large.

The halting of the Jabiluka mine in Kakadu and the overturning of long-held federal plans to dump radioactive waste near Woomera in South Australia are testament to this collective power. It also helps explain the hostility of our critics.

The reality is that Aboriginal people are the original custodians. For later-entry Australians, whether we came from Ireland in chains or Hong Kong on planes, it is appropriate and respectful to listen to the aspirations of those who have cared for this magnificent land since time immemorial. This isn't rocket science, and it certainly isn't paternalism.

[Dave Sweeney is an anti-nuclear campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation. Yellowcake Country is available at ><http://www.foe.org.au>.]

Issue