Australia: Aborigines halt Rio Tinto mining project
The Jabiluka uranium deposit in the Northern Territory of Australia lies beneath the ancestral lands of the Mirarr Aboriginal people. The site is surrounded by, but not included in the Kakadu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The uranium deposit was discovered in the 1960s. In 1998 the Australian government granted Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), majority-owned by Rio Tinto, permission to begin work on site, despite a number of objections from the local, national and international community.
The Mirarr challenged the validity of the initial lease obtained in 1982 because they had not given their consent. UNESCO called for all work to halt until a thorough social and cultural impact assessment was carried out. And the European Parliament adopted an urgency resolution in favour of indigenous peoples concerned from uranium mining, and against the Jabiluka project, in particular.
In 1998 the Mirarr joined forces with environmental activists to blockade the construction site in an attempt to halt developments at the mine. Over 500 people were arrested during an eight-month blockade. This campaign - one of the largest environmental struggles in Australian history - combined with falling uranium prices, led to the closure of the mine in 1999. However, Mirarr continued to apply pressure and demanded that Rio Tinto clean-up and restore the mine site in keeping with the surrounding National Park. Finally, in August 2003 rehabilitation work began on the Jabiluka site began, during which 50,000 tonnes of material from the mine was put down the decline at Jabiluka.
In 2005, the Mirarr community and ERA signed a landmark agreement regarding the long-term management of Jabiluka, obliging ERA to obtain Mirarr consent prior to any future mining development. However, Mirarr continue to voice their opposition to any further development and raise serious concerns over the dangers of uranium contamination.
For example, in 2010 it was reported that millions of litres of radioactive water had seeped into the wetlands of Kakadu National Park from the nearby Ranger uranium mine. ERA denied any serious seepage, but Yvonne Margarula, a Mirarr elder, said ERA told the Mirarr "only the good stuff ... they don't tell us the whole story. [They] treat us mob like something else, like we don't know, like kids."
Photo: Mirrar child at Kakadu National Park, the site of the Jabiluka uranium mine, Australia, 1997. Credit: Friends of the Earth International
For more information, look out for MRG's State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 report (published 28 June).