Nuclear-Free Future

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5 November 1998

Yvonne Margarula

Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory is a World Heritage Site listed for both its natural and cultural importance, a distinction it shares with such one-of-a-kind settings as the Lost City of Macchu Picchu in Peru and Mount Athos in Greece. Kakadu harbors more than nine hundred flora species, some one hundred species of amphibians and reptiles, an estimated 10,000 types of insects, one-third of the bird species native to Australia… and, at a site called Jabiluka, the world’s richest undeveloped uranium ore deposit. Some 90,400 tons of uranium oxide worth up to eight billion dollars lie beneath the red earth – earth over which an intricate, invisible network of Aboriginal dreaming trails wander. The spiritual guardians (and legal owners) of the land are the Mirrar Gundjehmi people.

There are very few legal or political obstacles left in the way before the uranium mining giant, Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), can begin operations at Jabiluka. But one hurdle the ERA professional negotiators have yet to clear has proven surprisingly formidable: Yvonne Margarula, barefoot, unimposing, an illiterate Aborigine with only a wavering understanding of English. Yvonne is the Senior Traditional Owner of the Mirrar Gundjehmi clan, a position foreign to most Western minds, but which largely means that she is responsible for the physical and spiritual well-being of her people and, preserving it for the coming generations, is the protector of their traditional lands.

“It’s my Country. I’m going to win.”

Yvonne Margarula has known since her youth that the money of the mining company cannot heal a radioactive landscape, cannot purify contaminated water, cannot re-knit torn clan structures, and cannot rehabilitate men and women who have fallen into alcoholism and substance abuse. As the Senior Traditional Owner, she is leading an on-going court struggle to invalidate the original leasing agreement for the uranium mining areas of Jabiluka made in the name of the Mirrar by the Northern Land Council. She tells us: “It’s my Country. I’m going to win.”

The blockades, demonstrations and protest marches of the Mirrar Gundjehmi together with the neighboring Aboriginal clans and a wide alliance of anti-nuke forces have attracted international attention. Yvonne and her allies are also campaigning to persuade UNESCO into declaring Kakadu a threatened World Heritage Site – a move that would prove a major embarrassment to the Australian government. The struggle of Yvonne and the region’s Aboriginal people is not only a fight to turn Northern Australia into a nuclear-free zone, but also a fight for the right of the Aborigines to determine their own destinies. A joint letter written by Yvonne Margarula together with the clan leaders of the Mirrar Erre, Bunitj and Manilakarr, states unequivocally: “A new mine will make our future worthless and destroy more of our country. We oppose any further mining development in our country… We have no desire to see any more country ripped up and further negative intrusions on our lives.”

Since April of this year when the Mirrar Gundjehmi began blockading their sacred land, fifty-five clan members have been arrested and taken into custody. Yvonne Margarula was arrested and charged on May 19, 1998, for trespassing on her traditional lands near the proposed Jabiluka mining site. The outcome of the trial is still pending.

Yvonne Margarula and the Aboriginal people, who are the bearers of the world’s longest continuous cultural traditions, tell us: “Keep the uranium in the earth.”

–Claus-Peter Lieckfeld
English version: Craig Reishus