Jillian Marsh grew up in the coal-mining town of Leigh Creek, in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges. To Jillian and her clan the ranges are Adnyamathanha yarta, the country of the rock people. She remembers: “The coal itself, and where it’s located, are central to our Muda, our Dreaming, yet nobody bothered to ask our Elders for permission to extract it. It was a fundamental blow to the continuity of our ceremonial and spiritual life.” That was back during the 1950s. Jillian tells us: “During the 1990s I joined a small group of my Adnyamathanha cousins, aunts and uncles who were part of a volunteer organization called Flinders Ranges Aboriginal Heritage Consultative Committee (FRAHCC). Together we provided a safe and respectful forum for all Adnyamathanha to raise concerns, particularly in regard to maintaining our heritage. Two of the biggest issues we faced during this period were coming to terms with the introduction of Native Title legislation, designed to right past wrongs, and facilitating meaningful community consultation on the exploration and mining proposal for Beverley Uranium Mine.”
The partnership between government and the mining industry ensures that uranium exploration and mining continues undeterred by Indigenous or general public concerns in a section of Jillian’s homeland her people call virdni yarta: poison country. In August 2002, Jillian told a Senate inquiry that mining proponent negotiations with the Adnyamathanha claimants to obtain their Native titles was “misrepresentative, illinformed, and designed to divide and disempower the community”. Today, with the expansion of the uranium mining lease, Jillian, squaring off against the partnership of government and industry, points out that consultation and negotiation processes are “still ill-equipped to give a fair and equitable voice to the Adnyamathanha community.”
In 2004 Jillian was successful in winning a Doctoral candidacy placement at Adelaide University’s Geographical and Environmental Studies Department. Her PhD research topic, A Look at the Approval of Beverley Mine and the Ways that Decisions are Made When Mining Takes Place in Adnyamathanha Country: Better Ways of Caring for Culture, reads like a report from behind enemy lines.
“I want our story to be told, the way we as Indigenous Australians experience the social and environmental impacts from uranium mining and the nuclear industry.”
“I want our story to be told, the way we as Indigenous Australians experience the social and environmental impacts from uranium mining and the nuclear industry. Unless we tell it ourselves, we run the risk of being misrepresented or silenced.” Jillian’s thesis is due to be submitted shortly for assessment. She hopes to be able to continue her research in this area with assistance from the Australian Research Council in 2009.
As spiritual custodians of their ancient homeland, Jillian and other Adnyamathanha have a much different relationship to its sites and landscapes than the people punching the clocks at Heathgate Resources Ltd., a subsidiary of U.S.-based General Atomics, the proprietors of the Beverley Uranium Mine. Jillian feels that the challenge before every Australian citizen is to decolonize the way we think about and interact with each other and with the environment we have inherited. “We cannot keep exploiting and destroying our natural and cultural resources; we must become responsible and mature citizens of this nation.”
The in situ leach mining technique Heathgate Resources employs pollutes the local aquifer with heavy metals, acid and radionuclides. The government lease places the company under no obligation to rehabilitate the aquifer. With the increasing salinity of the region’s water sources, Jillian regards this alone as a terrible crime, to which she adds: “for us Adnyamathanha, culturally, rehabilitation really has a limited application. For us, once something has been disturbed and damaged or once something like a uranium orebody has been extracted, that is it – it is gone. It has been removed, it has been disturbed, it has been spiritually as well as physically damaged and it is not whole anymore, so full rehabilitation is something that cannot be done.”
In 1998 Jillian received the prestigious Jill Hudson Environmental Award for her work in educating people living near the Beverly Uranium Mine about the toxic dangers of uranium mining and how people could take an active role in community consultation. She shares her knowledge and skills with other Aboriginal clans across the Australian continent facing the same cultural and environmental devastation; she has also traveled overseas to attend First Nation conferences, observing “the same pattern of oppression is being used by mining companies and governments all over the world against Indigenous communities.”
Jillian has helped build strong alliances with green environmental organizations under the umbrella of ANFA (Australian Nuclear Free Alliance). She tells us, “If my work inspired some of our young people, that would be great.” Her PhD thesis is dedicated to a strong and healthy future for our children.