Unquestionably, the remoteness and inaccessibility of large part of northern Australia protected it from wholesale intrusion and occupation through the colonial and early Commonwealth period. Buffalo hunters and missionaries, then pastoralists were the early outsiders who came to stay. The region was climatically and agriculturally difficult with huge seasonal rainfall, storms and cyclones, with sheets of water, mud, crocodiles, poor soils for agriculture and the difficulties of the topography with a forbidding escarpment.
The word Kakadu – or Gagudju - was not properly recorded until 1912 when Professor Walter Baldwin Spencer, as Administrator of the Northern Territory, identified the language groups in the area. His book the Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia was published in 1914, by which time he had returned to the University of Melbourne. The military and engineering developments in Northern Australia during the Second World War later facilitated both mining exploration and tourism. By the 1950s western Arnhem Land and the Alligator Rivers region were within industrial, commercial and administrative reach. Also, by the mid-1960s as the national parks movement took hold. Australian thinking had developed to a stage where large tracts of unspoilt areas were set aside for the protection of the ecology or the preservation of scenic beauty, including areas of the remote tropical north.
The first proposal for a national park in region was made in 1965 when the Northern Territory was under direct Commonwealth administrative control. By the early 1970s the name Kakadu was adopted for the proposed national park. Meanwhile in October 1969 a uranium deposit was identified, to be called Ranger. In January 1971 Prime Minister John Gorton linked the two when he advised mining companies that a national park was under consideration for the region.
In May 1972 the Alligator Rivers Environmental Fact Finding Study was established to investigate resource potential and the significance of Aboriginal culture and environmental values. It was jointly funded by the Commonwealth and the mining industry. Later that year, in November, the World Heritage Convention was momentously adopted in Paris. Australia became an early signatory. At the same time the Naulabila archaeological site in Kakadu was dated to 20,000 years. Moreover, the civil rights movement gave strength opportunity and purpose to indigenous people in Australia. Clearly a number of highly significant issues were developing simultaneously and on a potential collision course.
In May 1973, prompted by the new World Heritage structures, the Whitlam government initiated an inquiry into the National Estate to investigate the terms by which Australia’s most precious natural and cultural places may be registered and protected domestically. In July 1975 that government also initiated the Ranger Environmental Inquiry. Its task was to consider uranium mining in the Kakadu region. The 1977 report duly recommended that uranium mining proceed. The fact finding study from 1972 was also finally published in 1977.
In 1976 the Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act was passed by the Fraser government and the lands of Kakadu were granted to the Traditional Owners through a trust with overarching supervision of the simultanously established Northern Land Council. However, only for the Mirarr lands (Ranger) was the right of mining veto explicitly denied in the Act. Then in 1978 the Northern Territory, as a juirisdiction, was granted a form of limited self-government and a Legislative Assembly was established with Cabinet government. The new Northern Territory government was aggressively in favour of uranium mining and stridently opposed to both the Commonwealth mandated national park and Aboriginal land rights.
Stage 1 of Kakadu National Park was declared by the Commonwealth Government on 5 April 1979 under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act (Cth) 1975. This was done despite the vehement opposition of the Northern Territory government. Then in 1980 Kakadu was nominated for the World Heritage List. In October 1981 in Sydney that nomination was approved (inscribed) just days after the first yellowcake was exported from Ranger mine.
Stage 2 of the Kakadu National Park was proclaimed in February 1984 followed by Stage 3 in June 1987. Then in December 1987 Stage 2 was inscribed on the World Heritage List. This was followed by Stage 3 in 1992 when the entire Kakadu property was renominated and reinscribed by the World Heritage Committee. Thus the Kakadu World Heritage area was complete – almost. Excisions for uranium mines at Ranger, Jabiluka and Koongarra were holes in the map if not in the ground.
Over a twenty year period - from 1972 to 1992 - Mirarr found themselves living in changed circumstances. In just two decades they got a national park with a governing board and highly complex administrative apparatus, a world heritage area with national and international operating machinery, a Land Trust, a superordinate Aboriginal Land Council (the NLC), a mostly hostile Northern Territory government, a gigantic uranium mine, a new town called Jabiru with a supermarket, hotels and a licensed club, bitumen roads, a large and fluid Balanda population, a booming tourism industry, international fame, the prospects of a second uranium mine at Jabiluka and a vast array of new rules about what they could do, where they could go and who was in charge.
Mirarr opposed plans for uranium exploration and mining on their country in the 1970s but their opposition, along with that of other local Aboriginal people, was overruled by the Federal Government when it legislated for the development of the Ranger Uranium Mine in 1976. Ranger commenced operations in 1980, the mine is now operated by Energy Resources Australia (ERA) which is majority owned by Rio Tinto.
In the late 1990s the Mirarr lead an enormous domestic and international campaign to halt the development of the Jabiluka uranium mine on their land. In 2005 the Mirarr and ERA entered into an agreement that quarantined the Jabiluka dispute by stating that mining may only proceed with the written consent of the Mirarr Traditional Owners. This agreement gave meaningful effect to policies of corporate social responsibility for sustainable development especially with respect to the rights of Indigenous peoples.
Koongarra - the third uranium deposit within the bounds of Kakadu - has never been developed. Koongarra lies on the lands of the Djok people and Senior Traditional Owner Jeffrey Lee has strongly resisted pressure for mining on his land for many years. In 2011 Jeffrey travelled to Paris and successfully sought an alteration to the boundaries of the Kakadu World Heritage Area to include the Koongarra project area. In February 2013 Jeffrey Lee's long struggle to protect his lands was recognised by the Federal Government. Koongarra was formally included within Kakadu National Park and permanently protected from uranium mining.