Almost anyone struggling to get by would leap at the chance to become one of the richest people in the country. Not Jeffrey Lee, however. Born in 1971, Lee is the sole remaining member of the aboriginal Djok clan and, under clan rules, the traditional owner and senior custodian of a tract of land around 12.5 square kilometers in size. His forbears, to whom this land was home for some 40,000 years, named it Koongarra.
“It’s hilly country, full of clear springs, sacred sites and ancestral burial grounds,” says Lee. “My duty is to safeguard this land. It’s part of our heritage, I don’t want to put it at risk.” And Koongarra needed his protection – from AREVA, a French nuclear energy company, which had had its eye on the area for decades.
The reason: More than 14,000 metric tons of uranium – one of Australia’s richest deposits, with an ore grade of between 0.3 and 0.8 percent – lie buried beneath this sacred aboriginal land. In 2010, its value was estimated at around five billion Australian dollars, or more than 3.5 billion euros. AREVA had secured the mining rights – in effect, a license to print money. When the Kakadu National Park was established in 1981, parties interested in exploiting the uranium ensured that Koongarra was excluded from the park’s territory and thus from protection as a place of cultural and natural heritage. In the ensuing decades, AREVA made seemingly irresistible offers and put significant pressure – first on Jeffrey Lee’s grandfather and father, then on Lee himself – to encourage them to allow the uranium to be mined.
But the company underestimated Lee: “‘Here’s a new car, a new house; buy yourself whatever you want, then you’ll be happy.’ Their offers mean nothing to me,” Lee has stated, more than once. “My land gives me everything I need. I can go fishing and hunting; I eat what I find in the bush. This land and I are one, that’s why I don’t want it to be destroyed.”
Koongarra’s senior custodian has also seen what kind of toxic impact uranium mining can have on the environment and its inhabitants. At the nearby Ranger uranium mine, which is surrounded by the Kakadu National Park and began operating in 1981, there have already been more than 150 environmental incidents, both major and minor. According to local media reports, millions of liters of radioactive, contaminated water leaked from the mine into the environment between 2009 and 2011 alone. This is why the Djok clan’s sole surviving member chose to reject the enticements and offer the land to the Australian federal government instead. The government accepted his offer, and added Koongarra to the Kakadu National Park. Now, as part of this World Heritage site, Koongarra enjoys permanent protection, ruling out uranium mining in the future. The only way in which Lee, its champion, has benefited personally is that he was hired as a Kakadu National Park ranger. Lee’s determination drew praise from Dave Sweeney, a national nuclear campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation: “Jeffrey Lee has put country and culture ahead of personal profit and his vision means this magnificent place will be protected for all people and all time.” This says it all.