One of Australia’s proudest land rights struggles is passing an important anniversary: it is 20 years since the establishment of the blockade camp at Jabiluka in Kakadu national park. This was the moment at which push would come to shove at one of the world’s largest high-grade uranium deposits. The industry would push, and people power would shove right back.
The blockade set up a confrontation between two very different kinds of power: on the one side, the campaign was grounded in the desire for self-determination by the Mirarr traditional Aboriginal owners, particularly the formidable senior traditional owner Yvonne Margarula. They were supported by a tiny handful of experienced paid staff and backed by an international network of environment advocates, volunteer activists and researchers.
Their task, somehow, was to mobilise thousands of people to travel across the continent to put themselves in the path of heavy equipment that mining company Energy Resources of Australia (which operates the nearby Ranger uranium mine) was seeking to get on to the mineral lease before the wet season set in, and linking this effort with a broader legal, political and corporate strategy.
On the other side, people deploying the full resources of the mining industry, the Northern Territory and federal governments, with backing from the global uranium lobby, speaking through a handful of corporate media platforms at enormous volume.
You wouldn’t have bet on us. Shortly before I departed for the blockade in September 1998, a friend shook his head, appreciating the effort but suspecting that it was doomed. “Mate, what’s the point? They’ve already made the decision.”
But somehow, sparked by the election of John Howard as prime minister in 1996 and the lead business page of the Australian declaring that there would shortly be 25 uranium mines in operation, something extraordinary took place.
After bumping down an overgrown track to the blockade camp site on the Oenpelli Road just out of Jabiru, the first thing you were presented with was a passport to Mirarr country. For some of us, this campaign was about the global nuclear industry; for some, it was about the abuses of capitalism; for some, it was about protecting one of the world’s most extraordinary natural places. The passport cut across all of that: whatever may have brought you here, you’re on country now, it said. This struggle is about land rights, about the ability of a sovereign people to determine what happens on their land.
This reality was brutally underscored in May 1998, when Margarula was arrested for trespassing on land her family had occupied, cared for and cultivated for at least 65,000 years. Two systems of law were now fully in collision, and at the epicentre, for a time, stood the Jabiluka blockade camp.
This dusty assemblage of tents and handmade pavilions would stand for eight months, population indeterminate, as the campaign to stop the mine scaled, and scaled, and scaled. Jabiluka action groups sprang up around the country to support the Mirarr, to go after Westpac Bank for providing finance, and to get in the face of the Howard government which had made the mine a signature policy issue. More than 5,000 people travelled to the camp over the course of the blockade, and around 530 were arrested for peaceful protest.
Stories and footage of the arrests record the hair-raising conditions in the eye of the storm. The blockade story was intimately captured by Pip Starr in his documentary Fight for Country. It reminds us that despite the rituals and formalities that can arise between demonstrators, police, contractors and legal authorities in long-running campaigns of nonviolent civil disobedience, life at the point of collision can still be risky and as scary as hell.
By July 1998, Newspoll reported 67% nationwide opposition to the project: a mine that almost no one had even heard of six months earlier. On the eve of the wet season, with storm clouds threatening to inundate the site, the blockade camp was packed down, its architectures, internal politics and subcultures passing into activist folklore. But by then, the campaign had hit critical mass and was opening eyes, ears, hearts and doors across Australia and around the world.
Over the course of the next few years careful legal, political, financial and social leverage was applied, coordinated by the Mirarr from Jabiru. Occasional miraculous good fortune played its part, and a powerful collective will was brought to bear on a simple focal point: stop the Jabiluka mine.
In 2002, following sustained political and media attention, Rio Tinto, by then the majority shareholders of ERA, announced that it was over. Jabiluka would not be mined without Mirarr consent.
Just down the road, the Koongarra uranium lease, sited across the extraordinary Nourlangie escarpment, was incorporated back into Kakadu in 2013, as a result of years of almost single-handed campaigning by Djok traditional owner, Jeffrey Lee.
That leaves the behemoth Ranger uranium mine, established 20km south of the Jabiluka lease in 1980, through brutal coercion by the Fraser government following the acquisition of 50% of the mine’s equity by the Whitlam government.
It, too, is on its last legs; Rio Tinto announced it would not expand the mine through an underground extension in 2015, leaving the company with the daunting task of securing more than 30m tonnes of finely powdered radioactive mine wastes and somehow returning the site to a state in which it can be reincorporated into the surrounding Kakadu world heritage area. Mining has ceased and the company is morosely working through the last of its stockpiles, meaning that by 2021, for the first time in four decades, no uranium oxide will be shipping out of Kakadu.
Led by the Mirarr and their representative body, the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, master planning to convert the Jabiru township from a battered little mining village to a world-class cultural and tourism hub is now well under way.
Sometimes, as my friend pointed out, the decision has already been made. But sometimes the decision is so catastrophically wrong as to demand a challenge.
Those who stood up at Jabiluka, and at the Franklin River, and those who stand today against Adani’s coalmine will be accused of standing in the way of “progress”, will be attacked by government and industry, and will cop huge fines for their acts of trespass and nonviolent obstruction.
Until we come to a more intelligent agreement about what we mean by “progress”, these confrontations will continue to happen. In many of them, the bulldozers roll, the pepper spray flows, and people and places go under the wheels. But sometimes, it’s good to know, people grounded in their law and country can prevail. Twenty years on seems like a good time to remind ourselves of that.
- Scott Ludlam is a Guardian Australia columnist