Uranium mining in the Kakadu region has always been controversial with three uranium deposits: Ranger, Jabiluka and Koongarra never included in the Park's original proclamation.
Yvonne Margarula’s father - the then Mirarr Senior Traditional Owner Toby Gangali - opposed plans for uranium exploration and mining on his country in the 1970s. His 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.
Since the early 1980s yellowcake from Mirarr land has been sent to fuel nuclear reactors in Japan, Europe and elsewhere.
A major and long-held concern for Mirarr and other Bininj is the possibility of detrimental impact on human health and the environment from the operations of the Ranger uranium mine.
Effective monitoring the Ranger uranium mine and the Jabiluka site is of the highest priority for Mirarr and the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation. The work of the Gundjeihmi Science Officer is dedicated to ensuring transparency and the best possible environmental protection given the extent of disruption already experienced by Mirarr in their country due to uranium exploitation. The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation now sits on the Ranger Mine Site Technical Committee as a full member. This allows Gundjeihmi formal access to information and permits direct and substantive input into decisions concerning environmental management of the Ranger Mine and the Jabiluka site.
As traditional landowners, the Mirarr bear responsibility for the impacts that activity on their land has on others. The possibility of uranium from Mirarr land being incorporated into a nuclear weapon or present at the site of a nuclear accident is therefore of enormous concern to Mirarr. Despite assurances from successive federal governments that Australian uranium is only sold to nations where there is no risk of proliferation, the fact remains that there are insufficient safeguards to ensure Australian uranium does not end up in nuclear weapons.
In April 2011, following the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster in Japan, Yvonne Margarula wrote to UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon and expressed her sorrow at the impacts radiation is having on the lives of Japanese people. She noted that, ‘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 has since been confirmed by Dr Robert Floyd, Director General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, that, “Australian obligated nuclear material was at the Fukushima Daiichi site”.
ERA has plans to expand the Ranger mine and maintain its presence in the Kakadu region. The company is seeking approval to mine a new ore body known as Ranger 3 Deeps. In March 2013 the Australian government announced that it will require ERA's proposal to build the first underground uranium mine surrounded by Kakadu National Park to undergo a full Environmental Impact Assessment. The Mirarr welcome this Government decision as well as ERA's commitment to undertake further rehabilitation work at the Jabiluka site.
An ‘agreement’ for a second uranium mine on Mirarr country, at Jabiluka, was concluded in 1982 amid great controversy. The validity of the 1982 agreement is contested by the Mirarr, who maintain it was negotiated under extreme duress.
In the late 1990s ERA attempted to mine Jabiluka and the Mirarr initiated and lead a major national and international campaign against the development. The campaign was run both on environmental grounds as well as in recognition of the rights of the Traditional Owners. The campaign involved an eight-month blockade of the site by over 5000 peaceful protesters, two federal parliamentary inquiries, a high-level UNESCO mission to Kakadu, resolutions of the European Parliament and US Congress, significant national and international media coverage, and the receipt of major international awards for Yvonne Margarula and Jacqui Katona in recognition of their role in environmental and cultural protection. To date the Jabiluka uranium deposit has not been mined. Energy Resources of Australia has committed to completion of rehabilitation of the site by the end of 2013.
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.
Over the years of the Jabiluka campaign the Mirarr remained firm in their resistance to unwanted development despite persistent pressure and confidence from the government and mining company that a mine at Jabiluka was inevitable. In their struggle to protect their country and culture Traditional Owners made it crystal clear that Jabiluka was not a sustainable option for one of the world’s largest resource companies. The outcome at Jabiluka demonstrates the role that Indigenous people everywhere should have in determining what happens to their country and their community.
The former Koongarra Project Area (KPA) lies within the traditional lands of the Djok clan and is a region of approximately 12,000 hectares. Until February 2013 Koongarra was excluded from the World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park, which completely surrounds the area. The uranium deposit is very close to the world famous Nourlangie rock where thousands of visitors view ancient rock art every year. The area is important in traditional storylines that include the Rainbow Serpent and Lightning Man. It is also home to an estimated 15,000 tonnes of high grade uranium which the French nuclear and mining giant Areva has been trying to access and develop for several decades.
Jeffrey Lee Senior Traditional Owner of the Djok clan, speaks for Koongarra. Jeffrey has long resisted Areva's promises of wealth and remained firm in his commitment to care for the land. In 2010 Jeffrey Lee asked the Federal Government to protect Koongarra by including it within Kakadu, stating at the time: "When you dig a hole in that country you are killing me. I don't worry about money at all." The Government promised to honour his wishes and three years later, it did.
The Mirarr have a company clan relationship with the Djok and have supported Jeffrey in his efforts to protect his country from mining.