Since the discovery of uranium in Australia’s Northern Territory almost half a century ago, local Aboriginal peoples in that territory have struggled to preserve their traditional homelands. The Mirrar Clan, a tiny Aboriginal community (there are currently only twenty-seven adult members) is situated where it has been for thousands of years, in what is now the Kakadu National Park. The park has been recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Area, both for its cultural and natural riches.
Under duress in 1982, the Mirrar signed the Jabiluka Mining Agreement, giving the Australian government the right to mine in territory that the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act had arguably given to the Mirrar. Mine construction did not begin then, however, because the 1983 Australian elections brought in a new Prime Minister who halted all uranium mining expansions.
But the political pendulum swung back in the 1990’s, with the election of new Prime Minister John Howard. The Howard administration brought the Jabiluka uranium mine project back to life, sending the Mirrar into action.
Led by Senior Traditional Owner Yvonne Margarula, the Mirrar began grass roots effort to save Jabiluka. A movement that began in Margarula’s living room now includes Jabiluka Action Groups all across the globe. Because of these efforts, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) sent a mission to the Northern Territory in 1998 to study the problem. WHC concluded that the threat to the Mirrar culture and to the natural resources in Kakadu National Park was grave, and asked the Australian government to voluntarily halt production on the mine. Senators in the Australian Parliament agreed with WHC, and issued a report recommending that mine construction be stopped.
The Howard government, however, chose to continue construction, while making alterations to lessen the mine’s environmental impact. The Mirrar responded by petitioning to have the Kakadu National Park moved to the World Heritage in Danger list. They received the vociferous support of U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. Rep. McKinney, an African-American woman representing Georgia’s 4th Congressional District, has compared the Mirrar’s situation to that of African-Americans in the American South during the 1960’s.
On July 12th, however, WHC denied the Mirrar’s request to move Kakadu to the "Danger" list. Instead, WHC expressed "deep regret" that construction had not been temporarily suspended, and asked the Australian government to submit a progress report by April 15, 2000. Upon the issuance of the UNESCO statement, stock prices in Energy Resources of Australia, Ltd., the company developing the mine, rose dramatically.
The materials for this case study are mostly drawn
from long, book-length materials produced by the Mirrar, UNESCO, and the
Australian government. The Mirrar publications, especially the timeline
and fact sheet, give a great overview of the issues. However, the Australian
Senate Inquiry Committee’s report – both the majority report and the Government
Party’s dissenting report – give the best detail.