BY JIM GREEN
The federal government submitted a report on the proposed Jabiluka uranium mine in the Northern Territory to the United Nations' World Heritage Committee (WHC) on April 15.
The government was called on to explain what progress it had made in addressing concerns about the project and its impacts on the natural and cultural values which make Kakadu National Park a World Heritage site. The government's report, Australia's Commitments: Protecting Kakadu National Park, will be considered by the bureau of the WHC in Paris in June and by the WHC itself in Cairns in December.
The report is full of references to "world's best practice" — best practice cultural heritage management, best practice land rehabilitation, best practice regulation, best practice park management.
The government's report mentions the beginning of planning and construction of a $3.2 million upgrade of tourism infrastructure in Kakadu; new housing construction and major upgrades worth $1.2 million in Kakadu out-stations; planned improvements to basic infrastructure such as power, sewerage and water reticulation costing $3 million; and the provision of better employment opportunities through Community Development Employment Projects and Parks Australia.
But Jacqui Katona from the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation (GAC), which represents the Mirrar traditional owners, said the social and economic benefits promised in the government's report rely on long overdue funding from the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Commission. There is little or no new government funding for these projects.
Environment groups, such as the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Northern Territory Environment Centre, have also pointed to serious deficiencies in the report.
These include the government's unwillingness and inability to provide key data requested by the expert International Scientific Panel (ISP); the government's failure to conduct a detailed cultural heritage management plan; the government's failure to act on its commitment to strengthen the legislation regulating uranium mining in the region; and the scientific uncertainty posed by mining company Energy Resources Australia's plan to develop a uranium mill at the Jabiluka site, a plan which has never been studied in detail by the WHC.
In 1999, the WHC asked its ISP to assess the Australian Supervising Scientist's response to an ISP report. The draft terms of reference, later provided by the WHC to the ISP, also asked for "an examination of the details of any parallel activities at Ranger and Jabiluka and the revised plans for mining at Jabiluka".
The Australian government responded indignantly. Its report to the WHC says "Australia will not support a proposal by the ISP to undertake an examination", falsely claiming that such an examination would go "beyond the role given to the ISP" by the WHC.
The government's apparent nervousness reflects unresolved issues surrounding ERA's plan to build a new uranium ore processing mill at Jabiluka. The plan for a mill at Jabiluka was approved by the government two working days before the calling of the 1998 federal election. The approval followed a Public Environment Report from ERA — a form of assessment even more farcical than the government's environmental impact statements.
The method for disposing of waste tailings at the mill — devised not by ERA but by a government department — will be to dump the waste back down the mine site. Avoiding public and international scrutiny of this plan appears to be high on the agenda of both ERA and the government.
In September, federal environment minister Robert Hill appointed Adelaide lawyer Alistair (Bardy) McFarlane to investigate and report on the GAC's application for protection of the Boywek-Almudj sacred site.
According to Katona, McFarlane is a partner in a law firm that represents mine-owners, pastoralists and the fishing industry in opposing native title claims, and has no experience in dealing with Aboriginal people in northern Australia.
The government's failure to consult with the Mirrar regarding the appointment of McFarlane was arguably a breach of its commitment to the WHC to engage in constructive dialogue with the traditional owners. The GAC has since decided not to proceed with the application to protect the Boywek-Almudj site.
Although the application process was meant to precede the development of a cultural heritage management plan, Hill allowed ERA to proceed with the plan — "world's best practice", of course — with the assistance of a reference group to "advise and assist ERA". The GAC has refused to participate in the reference group.
A spokesperson for Hill told the Sydney Morning Herald on April 20, "If the green groups think it's important there be a cultural heritage plan we welcome them talking to the Gundjehmi and the Mirrar, seeking to get them involved".
For all the government's rhetoric about its "spirit of transparency and responsiveness", its report to the WHC does not canvass alternative options to resolve the impasse, such as consulting with the GAC and Mirrar over the appointment of someone better suited than McFarlane or excluding ERA from the cultural heritage management planning process.