Uranium and land rights


By Kim Bullimore

The fight to stop uranium mines at Jabiluka, Beverley, Roxby Downs, Honeymoon and the dozens of others proposed, and the fight for land rights are intertwined. For more than 200 years, the racist doctrine of terra nullius was used to justify legally the expropriation and exploitation of indigenous land and the destruction of indigenous culture. Australia continues to be characterised by systematic and institutionalised racism.

The white settlement of Australia brought with it notions of white superiority, sustained by Christianity and the superior military might of the European colonisers. European racist ideologists concluded that the indigenous populations were dying races. They believed that the Aborigines were a primitive race, which had been unable to develop the rudimentary skills that characterised "civilised" society — settlements, property, domesticated animals and visible signs of agricultural land use.

This racist ideology met the needs of the white invaders and justified the expropriation of Aboriginal land and reproductive resources. The most economically viable and productive land was seized, and the Aboriginal population was dispossessed or exterminated. Only land considered worthless was not seized or was later returned.

However, when it was discovered that many of these areas were rich in uranium and other minerals, the expropriation and dispossession of the Aboriginal population on these lands began again.

Radioactive racism

For more than 200 years, Aboriginal people have been fighting to win land rights and to stop the environmental destruction of their land. The nuclear industry has been one of the most powerful foes of Aboriginal Australia.

In the 1950s, the Australian government sanctioned the British testing of atomic bombs, made from Australian uranium, at Maralinga and Emu Field in South Australia. As far as the British and Australian governments were concerned, these areas were "unpopulated". But Aboriginal people had lived in these regions continuously for more than 40,000 years.

Many of the traditional people of the areas suffered radiation exposure, causing sickness, cancers and physical deformities, as a result of the tests. Today, the governments of both countries have begun investigating the effects of the atomic tests on British and Australian army personnel, but continue to ignore the effect on the traditional landowners.

Since the 1960s, Aboriginal people have continued to fight the government and the nuclear industry. In SA, the Arabunna people, led by Kevin Buzzacott, are fighting to stop Western Mining destroying sacred sites and traditional lands. The Roxby Downs mine is the world's largest known uranium deposit. Last year, Prime Minister John Howard officially opened the $1 million extensions to the mining site, which will pump unsustainable amounts of water from the Great Artesian Basin.

The Beverley and Honeymoon mines in SA have also been given the go-ahead, with little regard for the wishes of the traditional owners of the land. These mines will use one of the most environmentally destructive mining practices — in-situ leaching.

In-situ leeching involves pumping sulphuric acid into the water table to leach out the uranium. Once the uranium is extracted, the contaminated solution is pumped back into the underground water basin.

In countries where this method of mining has been used, such as Czechoslovakia, the contaminated area has spread to five times the original leaching area and has threatened other water sources. The underground water basin that is being used at the Beverley mine is situated next to the Great Artesian Basin, one of the primary water sources for the region.

These environmental consequences are of little concern to the Australian government and the mining companies for two reasons. First, despite the highly dangerous nature of the procedure, it is a relatively inexpensive way to mine uranium. Second, the land that will be contaminated by this environmentally destructive practice belongs to, and is used by, Aboriginal people. The land is valued by the mining companies and governments only for the minerals found there.

Another illustration of this racism occurred recently in the Northern Territory. Energy Resources of Australia disputed the importance, size and even the existence of the Boyweg-Almudj sacred site because production costs would be increased if it had to circumnavigate the site.

The cultural and spiritual beliefs of the Mirrar, the traditional owners, were belittled by the mining company and the Australian government, because big business places profit above everything else.

Environmental racism

Environmental racism is a term used to explain how some of the worst environmental disasters occur on land owned by indigenous peoples, in poor areas where black or migrant communities live and in Third World countries.

Because of racist ideology, which holds that people of colour are inferior, the consequences of environmental pollution in these areas are taken less seriously. The poverty of these communities also means they have less economic and social power to resist the polluting companies that want to set up operations on their land or suburbs.

Racism has been used in Australia to establish institutionalised inequality for Aboriginal people. This racism is used to justify the systematic theft of indigenous people's land. In Australia, as in many other countries, racism and environmental destruction are inextricably intertwined and will continue to be so as long as the scramble for profits dictates the way in which our society is run.

The connection between environmental destruction and racism means that indigenous people and environmental groups need to build alliances to fight against uranium mining and to fight for land rights. These alliances need to be built on mutual respect, democratic decision-making and common action.

It is only by fighting together, and seeking to mobilise the majority of the population on our side, that we can challenge the power of the uranium companies and win.

[Kim Bullimore is an Aboriginal activist, anti-nuclear campaigner and a member of the Resistance club at the University of Canberra.]