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"A National Legacy of Unutterable Shame"

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Environmental Racism and Nuclear Development

(March 28, 1993) Australia's treatment of its indigenous peoples is "a national legacy of unutterable shame". These words were used by two judges of the High Court of Australia recently to describe the aftermath of two centuries of dispossession, degradation and devastation of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia by the colonizers. Judge Brennan wrote: "Aborigines were dispossessed of their land parcel by parcel, to make way for expanding colonial settlement. Their dispossession underwrote the development of the nation."

Monica Muurlink and Dave Sweeney

In what has come to be known as the Mabo case, the High Court's long-awaited historic judgment was delivered on June 3, 1992, in a decision that ended Terra Nullius, the British claim to sovereignty which for 204 years was used to justify the dispossession of Aborigines. Terra Nullius asserted that the existing inhabitants were so primitive and barbarous in that they had no laws or social organization, sovereign or institution capable of being recognized under international law - that Australia was unoccupied, in effect.

The Mabo case centered on the Murray Islands, three tiny islands in the Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea. In 1982 the High Court was asked to rule on who owned the Islands: the Queensland government or the indigenous Meriam people. Ten years later, by a majority of six to one, the full bench of the High Court ruled that indigenous title to land is recognized in the Common Law of Australia. The Mabo decision recognized the legal validity of Aboriginal title; Aborigines can claim title if they can prove they have an historical affiliation with the land in question. This is often difficult because the displacement of Aboriginal people caused by colonisation patterns often destroy such evidence. The Court decision did not apply to private land, farmland or factory sites.

The Mabo decision is being anxiously interpreted by lawyers representing a wide range of interests, chiefly that of the mining industry. It has created a sense of nervous instability and apprehension with test cases being prepared to fully test the extent of the effects of the Mabo decision. The long-term repercussions are impossible to predict.

It is a sad truth that indigenous peoples tend to suffer the primary costs and dislocation caused by large scale resource development projects. The story of the exploration and mining of uranium in Australia is no exception.

There are currently two producing uranium mines in Australia. The Ranger deposit, located physically but not technically in the famous Kakadu World Heritage region, and the Roxby Downs (Olympic Dam) deposit in northern South Australia.

Both of these projects have generated much opposition, including from Aboriginal people. In the case of Roxby Downs, the relations between the mine operators (now fully owned by Western Mining Corporation, after their recent purchase of British Petroleum's 49% share) and the traditional owners of the land, the Kokatha people, have been characterized by indifference and arrogance on the part of the mine management. There has been no compensation to the Kokatha for the destruction of significant sites during the mine's development to date. The Indenture Agreement between the mine operators and the South Australian government overrides the preexisting 1979 Aboriginal Land Heritage Act, and the mine's special lease conditions prohibits the Kokatha access to significant sites except in the company of Olympic Dam personnel. The situation is summed up best in the words of one Kokatha elder who has stated that "They (WMC) are the worst mob."

Unfortunately there are many vested interests in Australia who by their actions appear intent to claim the title of the 'worst mob' in relation to Aboriginal people. Mining and pastoral interests, conservative politicians and the media are among these. Uranium miners have often been at the forefront of attacks on the property rights of indigenous people and opposition to any attempts to implement a codified set of national land rights.

From 1952 until the middle 1960's, Australia was the host to a series of British atomic weapons tests and trials. These occurred on the MonteBello Islands in the northwest of West Austalia and at Emu Field and Maralinga in the South Australian desert. The Maralinga tests caused extensive social and cultural dis-location as people were removed from their land to a reserve at Yalata. During the tests and trials, an es-timated 20 kg of plutonium was released into the environment primarily affecting the health of the Pitjantjatjara and Kokatha peoples. The tests were carried out in a context of secrecy and deceit and most details did not become public until the McCelland Royal Commission in 1985. The Maralinga people are continuing with their long struggle to gain recognition from the British government and to receive adequate compensation.

To add insult to injury, the Woomera Rocket range, a British testing site also near Maralinga and on the lands of the Kokatha people, is now seen as the most likely site for the storage of radioactive waste. Since Australia only has a small nuclear facility at Lucas Heights, Sydney (itself the center of current review process to determine if the need exists for a new reactor), it seems as though ANSTO (Australian Nuclear Science Technology Organisation) are preparing the way for imported nuclear waste and development of the Synroc process.

Australia contains an estimated 33% of the world's economically recoverable uranium reserves, and there are over fifty uranium deposits. In many remote parts of the country uranium exploration is taking place. In the north of West Australia, CRA (Conzinc Rio Tinto Zinc of Australia) is proposing to develop a large uranium deposit around the Rudall River National Park. The Karlamilyi (Rudall River) region is home to the Martu people of the Western Desert. The Martu have been organizing to fight the power of this large corporation and remain committed to the protection of their land and culture. A statement by the Western Desert people highlights the issue at stake:

"The mining companies continue to move over our land destroying our sacred sites and vegetation as well as disrupting animal life without consultation with the very people that this effects the most. We have lived in this land for thousands of years, yet legally we are not permitted to build permanent structures for housing and by law can be removed from the land we occupy. Our people, some 2000, live in very harsh conditions, our only contact is by radio or by many hours driving, yet we love this land, it is our way of life, it is part of our culture and our heritage."

The oppressive persuasion employed by many mining companies in securing their interests is typified by the following example of the 'negotiation' process. In May 1989, in an historic meeting of mining and tourist interest in consultation with the Martu (under a government-sponsored Social Impact Study), the Martu people declared a resounding "NO" to further exploration of uranium and any development of a mine. The response of the miners: "Well, that's why we are here, we will talk until the problems are sorted out" (meaning that they would persist in pressure until a satisfactory solution was reached from the miners' point of view). When does NO mean NO??

The Western Desert people originally objected on the grounds of heritage and culture, but have recently included another objection based on the Mabo decision.

Other uranium deposits on Aboriginal land remain on a stand-by status awaiting an economic and political improvement in the industry's fortunes before being further developed. Energy Resources Australia (ERA), operators of the Ranger mine, have announced their intention to open the adjacent rich Jabiluka deposit in the mid-1990's.

On March 13, 1993, there was federal election in Australia. Defying the odds (over 11% unemployment nationally), the incumbent Labor government was returned for a fifth term with an increased majority, in a decision that can be seen as a devil and the deep blue sea choice. The opposition Coalition Liberal/National party offered a right-wing cocktail of anti-union legislation, privatization and an unpopular Goods and Services Tax. The Coalition were committed to expanding the number of uranium mines, reducing constraints on the nuclear industry and to exploring the feasibility of domestic nuclear power, uranium enrichment and nuclear storage. They are also hostile to the principles and reality of Aboriginal control of land and see this not as a basic pre-condition for addressing the violence of white occupation of this country, but rather as an impediment to capital-intensive, resource-based economic growth. Instead we are now left with the current compromise "Three Mines Policy" of the Labor government. The Aboriginal cultural and political movement in Australia is vibrant and growing. However, the entrenched racism which has under-pinned much of white Australia's history and the priorities and policies which embody this remain potent forces.


  • Land Rights News
  • The Australian
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  • industry material
  • personal observations
  • FoE
  • WISE files

Contacts for Aboriginal communities and anti-nuclear groups:

Maralinga-Tjaruta Association, PO Box 435, Ceduna, SA 5670. Phone: +61-86-252946. Fax: 86-253076. Contact person: Archie Barton (Association Administrator).

Kokatha Peoples' Committee, Box 2085, Port Augusta, SA 5700. Contact: Ningel Reid (Chairperson KPC).

Puntukurnuparna n Western Desert Aboriginal Corp., Box 2358, South Hedland, WA 6722. Phone: +61-91-723299. Contact person: Teddy Biliabu (Chairperson).

Movement Against Uranium Mining (MAUM), PO Box K133, Haymarket, NSW. Phone: +62-2-2124538. Contact person: Murray Matson.

Friends of the Earth (FOE) Fitzroy, PO Box 222, Fitzroy, Victoria 3065. Phone: +61-3-4198700. Fax: 3-4162081. Contact: Dave Sweeney.

Greenpeace (Australia), PO Box 51, Balmain, NSW 2041. Phone: +61-2-5557044. Fax: 5557154. Contact person: Jean McSorley.



Inevitably the explosions were carried out in the lands of those who did not have the power to obstruct them. The US tested in the Nevada Desert and in the Marshall Islands, starting with the first Hydrogen Bomb explosion at Bikini Atoll in 1946 n a 15 megatonne bomb designed to produce maximum fallout over a large area. Its cloud was "accidentally" allowed to contaminate Rongelap and Utirik causing many cancers, and some 23 identified radiogenic diseases in the victims. In later tests 14 islands were contaminated. The tests continued with careful study of the live victims. The US Atomic Energy Commission's Director of Health and Safety said approvingly in 1957: "...While it is true that these people do not live, I would say, the way Westerners do n civilized people n it is nevertheless also true that these people are more like us than the mice."

Prof. Jim Falk, "In the Name of World Peace: Atomic tests in both hemispheres", WUH, Salzburg, 16 Sept. 1992.