Determination of Aboriginal women sparks showdown with the nuclear industry

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When Marion Armstrong, Dianna Mannigel and Jean Talbot, all women in their sixties, stepped over the barbed-wire fence onto the Jabiluka uranium mine site last year, they knew exactly what they were doing. And so did the police, who swiftly moved in and charged them with trespass.

In June 1998, Energy Resources Australia (ERA) started mine construction in Jabiluka, an Aboriginal area in the Northern Territory. The Mirrar people, the traditional owners of the land, put out a call to blockade the work, and thousands of supporters from all over made their way to Australia’s “top end.”

Among them were these three feisty heroines from New South Wales, whose part in mass arrests made headlines. Known as the Green Grandmas, they are a testament to the inclusive nature of the grassroots mobilisation to send ERA packing.

Saving Aboriginal land and a unique ecology. Jabiluka is situated within Kakadu National Park. One of 15 sites listed by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, Kakadu is not only a place of extraordinary beauty and sensitive ecosystems; to the Mirrar, it is sacred.

The region is also home to nearly 10 percent of all the world’s known high-grade uranium ore.

The campaign against the Jabiluka mine — which, to operate, still needs final governmental approval — is shaping up to be the biggest fight for both traditional land rights and the environment in Australia’s history. Twenty-three other mining and dumping projects are on the drawing boards of the uranium mining and nuclear industries. The stakes are high, and the outcome of the Jabiluka clash could decide the future of the uranium industry on the continent.

Heading this crucial struggle is Yvonne Margarula, the senior elder of the Mirrar clan, who also works as a hotel laundry attendant. Her campaign against uranium mining in Kakadu continues the work of her late father, Toby Gangale, and she has won international recognition for her leadership.

Margarula is among those who face charges for trespassing on the Jabiluka site — land that was officially granted to her people in 1982 under the Northern Territory Land Rights Act! In February 1999, two other Mirrar “trespassers,” Jacqui Katona and Christine Christopherson, were sent to jail for 12 days. Formal land rights somehow count for nothing when the interests of corporate swindlers are in jeopardy.

Big business and politicians: partners in racist crime. To undercut opposition, the nuclear industry deploys divide-and-rule tactics and exploits the abhorrent failure of government to supply indigenous communities with decent housing, sanitation, healthcare, and education. Lacking these, Aborigines are coerced into accepting mining on their lands, because they desperately need the royalties that mining brings.

Until the government directly provides for these services, indigenous communities will remain torn between protecting their cultural and natural heritage and meeting day-to-day survival needs.

In stark contrast to the conditions Aborigines face, ERA expects to make annual profits exceeding AU$6 billion (US$3.5 billion) with the Jabiluka mine operational.

Right now, however, the company is in deep financial trouble, reflecting an international nuclear power industry in decline. In the first half of the 1998-99 financial year, ERA’s profits dropped by more than 50 percent.

Pulling out all stops to make sure the Jabiluka project happens, the federal government under Prime Minister John Howard is adopting the lowest possible standards for environmental impact assessment and is obstructing public scrutiny.

Government feeling the heat. But in doing the dirty work for ERA, Howard has set himself on a collision course with the Australian people, 67 percent of whom oppose the Jabiluka mine.

International concern is also mounting. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has ratified a resolution declaring Kakadu “in danger,” recommended that mine construction cease at least temporarily, and given the Australian government until April 15 to show how it will deal with the environmental threats identified by the committee.

The 4th World Archaeological Congress, with delegates from 70 countries, supported UNESCO’s position, and further protests have come from Japan, Germany, and the European parliament.

Most promising for the fate of Kakadu is the emerging coalition between indigenous and working people, an alliance both organic and necessary. After all, Australian capitalism was built on the twin theft of Aboriginal lands and workers’ labour power!

Now Australia’s people are also expected to live with radioactive tailings left behind by the uranium CEOs. But the hundreds of thousands of Aborigines, environmentalists, feminists, students, and unionists blockading Jabiluka and demonstrating across the country are saying, “No!” And the timing couldn’t be better. The nuclear industry is gasping for breath, and the international economy is haemorrhaging.

The death of ERA and its toxic corporate kin means life for the rest of us. So let’s demand and organise for indigenous sovereignty; a nationalised energy industry under workers’ control; full corporate liability for cleaning up environmental damage; and an end to nuclear weapons production.

In fact, let’s cut off life support for all the greedy giants who stand in the way of ushering in a new, rational society, one that wisely uses the earth’s resources to create prosperity for everyone.

Marita Borton, a veteran environmental and antinuclear activist, is a member of the Health Services Union of Australia and Melbourne Radical Women.

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