World Heritage reports oppose Jabiluka mine


By Jim Green

On May 19, consultants to the World Heritage Committee (WHC) released reports on the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Northern Territory. The reports of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) maintain that the Jabiluka mine will have adverse impacts on natural and cultural values and that Kakadu National Park should be listed as "world heritage in danger" unless the mine is stopped.

The IUCN and ICOMOS reports were reviews of the federal government's April submission to the WHC. The government tried to justify the mine by arguing that it would not affect the national park's world heritage values.

A report by the International Council for Science, also released on May 19, makes no recommendation on whether Kakadu should be listed as world heritage in danger.

The ICOMOS report stated: "ICOMOS believes that mining operations beneath what is without dispute an area of great spiritual significance to the indigenous Mirrar people would cause irremediable damage, both tangible and intangible, to its qualities, in contravention of the generally accepted principles of heritage conservation and the World Heritage Convention in particular."

The Jabiluka mine is located in a mining enclave excised from Kakadu National Park. However, as ICOMOS argues, this does not mean that the cultural values of the park will be unaffected: "While in administrative terms it is possible to draw a line on a map in order to exclude the mining enclave from a National Park or a World Heritage site, this distinction is meaningless in cultural terms.

"The sacred sites within the enclave form part of a much larger network of sacred sites and dreaming tracks that spread over the entire region. ... The cultural links between the enclave and the Mirrar lands within the World Heritage site cannot be challenged; they form a single cultural unit.

"ICOMOS maintains its view that ... all operations relating to the proposed Jabiluka mine (including the digging of the decline) should cease, to permit a detailed cultural impact study to be carried out by independent Australian and international experts and with the full agreement and involvement of the Mirrar people."

Equally scathing of the government and Energy Resources of Australia, (ERA) which is building the mine, is a report by Professor Thayer Scudder, an anthropologist from the California Institute of Technology, prepared for the IUCN. Thayer says there is "ample evidence that the government response is, at best, full of erroneous information and interpretations or, at worst, is intentionally deceptive."

Thayer notes that the government provides no evidence for its assertion that a majority of the 533 Aborigines in the Kakadu region support the Jabiluka mine.

He also says the history of the nearby Ranger uranium mine undermines the argument that royalties from Jabiluka will be advantageous for the Mirrar traditional owners, citing a 1998 document in which the government states, "The government accepts the finding of the KRSIS (Kakadu Regional Social Impact Study) that 20 years of development in the Kakadu region has not generally translated into the social and economic benefits for Aboriginal people that was originally expected."

Thayer says: "The Australian government devotes a substantial portion of its report to attacking the credibility of local Aboriginal people's belief in the sacred and dangerous nature of what has become known by non-Aboriginal people as the Boyweg-Almudj sacred site complex.

"This public attack is considered by the Mirrar to be highly unethical and deliberately malicious. It is most distressing for the Mirrar to see their cultural heritage dissected, falsely defined and summarily dismissed by people who have never lived on Mirrar land, practised Mirrar culture or even allowed Mirrar an appropriate opportunity to explain the extent and significance of their sites in cultural context."

He continues: "The Australian government's decision to place information denigrating Aboriginal cultural beliefs on the internet is an extraordinarily improper act, hardly designed to promote the reconciliation process. It should be noted that the Australian government's attack is based on intentionally selective citations presented in the absence of any direct consultations with traditional owners and custodians."

The government lists numerous pieces of federal and NT legislation relating to Aboriginal land rights. Thayer notes that "all the legislation in relation to the recognition or protection of indigenous rights is, as a result of Commonwealth or Northern Territory government existing or proposed reforms, under threat or is already inadequate to protect the rights of Aboriginal people to manage and control their traditional lands.

"The maze of legislation — and the uncertainty which accompanies it, illustrates the Commonwealth government's ambivalence to providing justice and equity to Australia's indigenous peoples. At the very time that other OECD countries are improving policies relating to indigenous people, the government of Australia appears to be moving in the opposite direction."

According to ERA, construction of a tunnel leading to the ore-body was suspended from May 18 to 20 for "technical reasons". ERA planned to recommence drilling from May 21, and acknowledged that within "a day or two" of resuming construction the Boyweg-Almudj site would be affected.

The senior traditional owner, Yvonne Margarula, said ERA "have asked us to keep talking while they blast and drill in our sacred sites. We can't see any point in further talks. They do not take us seriously. They don't believe our cultural values have any meaning. They are trying to destroy us, but we will fight until we die."

The WHC will make its final decision regarding a world heritage in danger listing for Kakadu on July 12.