World Heritage Committee caves in on Kakadu

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World Heritage Committee caves in on Kakadu

By Jim Green

At a July 12 meeting in Paris, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee (WHC) voted not to put Kakadu National Park on the "world heritage in danger" list despite the impact on natural and cultural values from the Jabiluka uranium mine.

While the WHC expressed "significant reservations concerning scientific uncertainties relating to mining and milling at Jabiluka", only one country — Cuba — argued for an in-danger listing. The other 20 WHC delegates caved in to a massive lobbying campaign by the Australian government.

Before the WHC decision, Jacqui Katona, executive officer of the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation (GAC) which represents the Mirrar traditional owners, said, "The Australian government is desperately attempting to convince the US and other WHC members to consider Australia's financial contributions to UNESCO, the global uranium market, trade-offs in elections for UN posts — anything but the heritage issues at stake".

It appears that some countries, including Japan and European countries, were persuaded to side with the Australian government because they buy Australian uranium. Professor John Mulvaney from the Australian National University claimed that the last-minute back-flip by the US delegation may have been designed to pacify the Australian government following the imposition of tariffs on Australian lamb exports. The US's capitulation is likely to have persuaded others to do likewise.

Mulvaney said, "Only an intense and shameless exercise in vote-buying and political arm-twisting could prevent Kakadu being placed on the in-danger list in the face of such clear scientific and technical evidence".

The WHC ignored the unanimous recommendations of its advisory bodies — the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the International Committee on Monuments and Sites, and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property — for an in-danger listing. It also ignored the recommendation of an Australian Senate report and a petition from 34 members of the US Congress. Last but not least, it ignored the wishes of the Mirrar.

Progress report

PM John Howard was "delighted" with the WHC decision. Newspapers such as the West Australian, the NT News and the Australian carried editorials supporting the decision and attacking activists opposed to the mine. Energy Resources of Australia's chief executive, Phillip Shirvington, said the decision was a victory for "progress" and ERA's share price, which had fallen dramatically because of the anti-mine campaign over the past two years, rose.

The July 12 statement from the WHC asks the Australian government to submit a progress report by April 15, 2000. The report is expected to address cultural mapping of the Jabiluka mineral lease and the Boyweg-Almudj sacred site, the progress or completion of a cultural heritage management plan, progress in the implementation of a package of social and welfare benefits for Aboriginal communities (including the Mirrar), and provide more details regarding concurrent or sequential mining from the Ranger and Jabiluka uranium mines.

The Australian government and ERA agreed to limit mining at Jabiluka while the nearby Ranger mine is still operating. The dubious logic is that sequential mining will have less impact than concurrent mining. Mining from Jabiluka is expected to commence in 2001, but full-scale production may not occur until 2009, by which time Ranger will be mined out.

The delay poses no great obstacle for ERA. Shirvington said that commercial obligations could still be met. ERA did not plan to mine Jabiluka uranium for the next 12 months regardless of the WHC decision. The company needs time to bully or bribe the Mirrar people to allow Jabiluka uranium to be milled at the nearby Ranger mill. The alternative is to construct a mill at Jabiluka at an estimated additional cost of $100-200 million.

Federal environment minister Robert Hill has given a written commitment to abide by the WHC recommendation to pursue "progress in the implementation ... of a comprehensive package of social and welfare benefits, together with the Northern Territory government, for the benefit of the Aboriginal communities of Kakadu (including the Mirrar)".

According to the GAC, this concession is important because additional government funding will be provided for basic services such as water, power and sewerage. Gundjehmi says that with less dependence on mining royalties, the Mirrar traditional owners could be in a better position to fight the Jabiluka mine.

The WHC July 12 statement "acknowledges indications that a new dialogue between the Mirrar Aboriginal people and the Australian government has begun". This statement gave rise to media speculation that the Mirrar might be considering striking a deal which includes their consent to the mine. However, the GAC says the Mirrar remain opposed to the mine and will continue to do everything possible to stop it.

Katona said, "The Mirrar people now have a transparent process which we believe will lead to Jabiluka being discontinued ... We are extremely confident we can demonstrate beyond doubt the incompatibility of the Jabiluka project with the cultural values of Kakadu ... We believe that over the next 18 months Mirrar opposition to Jabiluka will prevail."

Campaign directions

Discussions are now taking place regarding campaign directions. GAC statements suggest there will be a renewed push for an in-danger listing next year, but it remains to be seen whether mainstream environment groups will support another push for this. A Wilderness Society spokesperson said, "We won't be bothering to go near this (world heritage) forum for a very long time. We'll focus all our energies now on our corporate campaign."

North Ltd, ERA's parent company, has agreed to hold an extraordinary general meeting before its annual general meeting in October. The extraordinary meeting will address shareholders' concerns regarding Jabiluka.

Don Henry, executive director of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said, "We are now going to increase our corporate campaigning activity, also our legal campaigns. There is a challenge currently under way to the legal validity of the approval processes for milling ... It's been mainly young Australians at universities who've been saying, 'This shouldn't go ahead'. It's really time for the mums and dads to ... add their voices to make sure we can stop this abomination."

A campaign update from the Melbourne Jabiluka Action Group which proposes to "give the campaign a cutting edge by putting people on the streets in direct and active opposition to the mine" indicates the perspective of grassroots activists around the country. The Melbourne JAG statement argues that mass mobilisations make it harder for the government and ERA to ignore the majority public opposition to the mine, demonstrate support for the Mirrar and are necessary to convince trade unions to actively support the campaign.

An immediate focus for the campaign is Hiroshima Day in August. Actions are planned in Brisbane, Lismore, Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Wollongong and Darwin.

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