Mirarr senior traditional owner, Yvonne Margarula, has written to the UN Secretary-General to express sadness that uranium from her land was used at the Fukushima nuclear plant and to request Indigenous peoples are considered in any nuclear deliberations.
The Mirrar people own the section of the World Heritage Listed Kakadu National Park that includes the Ranger uranium mine operated by Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) and the proposed Jabiluka uranium mine. The Ranger mine currently produces 10 percent of the world’s uranium.
In her letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Yvonne Margarula outlines that the Mirarr people have always opposed uranium mining on their land and were not consulted either in the 1950s when mining began or in the early 1970s when mining was expanded and a new agreement was made between the Australian and Japanese Governments for supply of uranium from the Ranger mine. She says:
“Given the long history between Japanese nuclear companies and Australian uranium miners, it is likely that the radiation problems at Fukushima are, at least in part, fuelled by uranium derived from our traditional lands. This makes us feel very sad.”
It wasn’t until 1976 that the first Aboriginal land rights legislation was introduced in Australia, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, and the Mirarr people were able to gain the legal rights to their traditional land. However, the new Act was not enough to stop the development of the Ranger uranium mine, which was completed in 1980. Yvonne Margarula says in her letter, “our ability to stop the Ranger mine was blocked by special provisions of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act.”
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Despite clear opposition from the Mirarr people, the government exempted the Ranger uranium mine, from the traditional owner “mining veto” provisions of the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976.
Both the Ranger uranium mine and the adjacent Jabiluka mineral deposits site are surrounded by the UNESCO World Heritage Listed, Kakadu National Park , but the uranium leases have been excluded from national park status. This has resulted in continuing opposition to the Ranger mine from Indigenous and environmental activists.
According to Wikipedia there have been at least 150 leaks, spills and licence breaches at the Ranger uranium mine between 1981 and 2009. In her letter Yvonne Margarula says:
“Today some 12 million litres of radioactive contaminated water lies on site at the Ranger Uranium Mine upstream of Indigenous communities and internationally recognised Ramsar listed wetlands. The mining company, owned by Rio Tinto, has suspended all milling of uranium due to the persistent water management problems and threats posed to the environment. All this is of great concern and is taking place within Australia's largest national park and our homeland, Kakadu.”
The increased rainfall this year has compounded the water management problems and the mine is now not expected to resume production until the second half of the year. According to a report in the Australian newspaper, ERA have dramatically reduced the 2011 production forecast for the Ranger mine from 3800 tonnes to 2400 tonnes and warned the market to expect a full-year loss of up to $50 million.
Despite the downgrades, ERA chief executive Rob Atkinson, remains positive about the future expansion of the Ranger uranium mine. He says, "It's one of the largest finds anywhere in the world of uranium and it's right on our doorstep, so I think it's a very exciting challenge,” reports the Australian.
Rob Atkinson concedes that there are some environmental issues that need addressing and added, “But at this point in time it is important for the company to take stock, to review in particular its costs, to review its priorities and we simply must deal with water management and getting water treatment up and running."
Yvonne Margarula concluded her letter to the UN with an impassioned and dignified request for the Secretary-General to consider Indigenous peoples’ viewpoints in any nuclear industry deliberations:
“In 2009 the European Commission found that approximately 70% of uranium used in nuclear reactors is sourced from the homelands of Indigenous minorities worldwide. We Mirarr believe that this constitutes an unfair impact on Indigenous people now and into the future. We suffer the dangers and long term impacts of the front end of the nuclear fuel cycle so that others overseas may continue to enjoy lives without the awareness of the impacts this has on the lives of others.”
Yvonne Margarula won the 1998 Friends of the Earth International Environment Award and the 1998 Nuclear-Free Future Award. She also won the 1999 U.S. Goldman Environmental Prize, with Jacqui Katona, in recognition of efforts to protect their country and culture against uranium mining.
Yvonne Margarula’s letter in fullMirarr websiteWikipedia history of uranium mining in Kakadu