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Indigenous communities getting dumped in it. Again. As the Federal Government pursues controversial plans to dump nuclear waste in the Northern Territory, Justine Vaisutis takes a look back on a dirty industry and its devastating and long-lasting consequences for Indigenous people.

IN 2005 YVONNE MARGARULA'S WORDS revealed the impact that uranium has had on Aboriginal people since uranium mining began in northern Australia approximately 50 years ago.

In 1952 the Australian Government took over land where uranium had been found 85km south of Darwin to establish the Rum Jungle uranium mine. There was no consultation with Aboriginal communities and the mine became--and remains--an environmental disaster.

More than 20 years later the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry was conducted to examine the environmental aspects of a mining proposal at what has become the controversial Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu. The inquiry concluded that Aboriginal title should be granted to several areas of land, but while it recognised the Mirarr's opposition to uranium mining on their country it explicitly concluded "their opposition should not be allowed to prevail."

Little has changed for Indigenous people in the 30-plus years since the Ranger Inquiry, and today Aboriginal communities still have limited rights in relation to developments on their traditional lands. Many find themselves in a position where they must choose between forming an agreement with a developer or refusing to cooperate or consent, even though this option is insufficient to prevent a project going ahead.


Legally, Aboriginal people have no right of veto in regards to uranium mining under the Native Title Act. The right of veto they have under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act can only be exercised before consent to exploration, after this the only negotiable factors are the terms on how--not whether--mining will proceed. Many Aboriginal communities are not aware that consent to exploration equates to consent to mining under this Act.

"Essentially, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act provides a right of veto but because often it is not explained properly people are left disempowered," says Dave Sweeney, ACF's Nuclear Free campaigner. "There is an improper institutional bias in the legislation, the regulation and the balance of need."

Adding to this inequality is the fact that the benefits from uranium mining to Aboriginal communities have traditionally been restricted to financial reward with little or no attention paid to the social, cultural or environmental impacts. Communities are often forced to use mining profits to provide the basic needs, services and infrastructure delivered to most Australians as fundamental citizenship entitlements by State and Federal Governments. So what may appear to be a lucrative windfall for a community can in fact be the first step towards a vicious cycle of industrial welfare and a dependence on mining profits.

Research conducted by Griffith University in 2007 demonstrated that few of the Indigenous land use agreements negotiated over the past 10 years have resulted in significant benefit to the relevant communities. Dave Sweeney is frank in his assessment: "This is not a level playing field, it's a stacked deck and we have a policy that has been driven for decades by carrot and stick".

Traditional land owners have consistently opposed uranium mining and have spoken out passionately about the negative impacts it has on their communities. The Australian Nuclear Free Alliance ( is an Indigenous controlled organisation that seeks to support communities concerned about and opposed to nuclear developments on their lands. These sorts of concerns were clearly expressed by representatives of the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation at the MAPW conference in April 1997:


"We do not feel that our people or country have been protected since mining came here. Government has forced us to accept mining in the past and we are. concerned that you will force mining development upon us again. Previous mining agreements have not protected us or given our communities strength to survive development".

By ratifying the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Australia has made a public commitment to address the historic injustices caused by the dispossession of Indigenous peoples' land and resources. Article 29 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that:

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources. [and]

2. States shall take effective measures to ensure that no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent.

But today the Federal Government is pursuing a contested and secretive plan to dump nuclear waste at Muckaty north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. The plan is based on a confidential Howard Government agreement with some of the Ngapa Aboriginal clan for cash and services worth around $12 million dollars. The lack of agreement, transparency and consultation with other Aboriginal clans that will be affected by the dump has undermined the procedural credibility of the Federal Government and provoked strong opposition by environmental groups including ACF, the Northern Territory Government and many Indigenous groups.

By failing to enforce more stringent conditions on mining companies and greater protection for Aboriginal people, Australian state and federal Governments are failing to honour their commitment to DRIP and continuing to perpetuate the falsehood that Aboriginal people benefit from uranium mining. The on-ground reality, as Yvonne Margarula observes, is very different: "None of the promises last but the problems always do".

"Uranium mining has completely upturned our lives ... uranium mining has also taken our country away from us and destroyed it--billabongs and creeks gone forever, are great holes in the ground with poisonous mud where there used to be nothing but bush."

Yvonne Margarula, Mirarr senior Traditional Owner, in Yellowcake Country: Australia's Uranium Industry, Beyond Nuclear Initiative, 2005, p8.
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Author:Vaisutis, Justine
Publication:Habitat Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 1, 2010
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