The launch of the first Yeelirrie Solidarity Camp was a massive success with over 30 campaigners from across Australia and Aotearoa / New Zealand participating in the one-week event at Yeelirrie to support Traditional Owners who oppose uranium mining in Western Australia (WA).
The Solidarity Camp replaced this year's Walking for Country and was launched at the end of September as a camp-out on Tjiwarl country, better known as the Goldfields region of WA near the site of the proposed uranium mine.
Over thirty interested and passionate people listened, learned and showed their support to the people of both Kalgoorlie and Leonora in their fight to stop uranium mining on their country. For a week we travelled part of the proposed "nuclear freeway" between the Mulga Rock uranium project, Kalgoorlie and the proposed Yeelirrie uranium project.
The first night we spent in Kalgoorlie with our good friends and local hosts at the Wongathu Birni Aboriginal Centre. We were welcomed by Anangu women Debbie Carmody and her sister Libby Carmody from Tjulma Pulka Media Aboriginal Corporation. Debbie and Libby have joined many walks all over the world with Footprints for Peace and reconnected this night with many of the walkers. They have been standing up strong against the proposed Mulga Rock uranium project.
Also joining us at Kalgoorlie was Kokatha woman Sue Coleman-Haseldine from Ceduna (South Australia) and her sister Sue Thiselton, both long-time activists about the suffering from the Maralinga bomb tests and advocating for a future without nuclear weapons. They joined to stand with the Tjiwarl aunties to stop the threat of uranium mining on country.
The following day we travelled a further 430 kms to Sir Samuel to stay with Tjiwarl woman Vicki Abdullah and family at the Bellevue Gold Camp that has been negotiated with some of the Traditional Owners of the area. It was an interesting and insightful stay, raising many questions for the group.
A short drive the following day along the red earth unsealed roads towards Yeelirrie had us arriving before lunch to set up camp for four nights. We had a beautiful welcome to country by Vicky and that evening she shared her story as we sat around the fire.
This country has become very familiar to many of us who have returned year after year for nearly 10 years to show our opposition to uranium mining in WA. For many of us it is a welcome, familiar feeling in which we feel at ease amongst the beautiful mulga trees, spinifex, red earth and big blue skies.
The following day we arose early to walk to the gates of the Yeelirrie station. There are many conversations as we walk behind the Aboriginal flag leading the walkers to the gates.
A campaign update was given at the gates about the proposed Yeelirrie uranium project, and a short campaign history covering Walking for Country events, actions in Perth and elsewhere, and the legal battle ‒ three Tjiwarl aunties, Shirley, Lizzie Wonyabong and Vicki Abdullah fought hard for over 2.5 years to save their country in a legal battle against the Canadian company Cameco and the WA government. They are true warriors.
The afternoon was filled with an excellent nuclear free snapshot from Aunty Sue, Gem Romuld from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), and Mara Bonacci, SA nuclear-free campaigner with Friends of the Earth.
That evening around the camp fire, we listened to the incredible personal story of Aunty Sue Coleman-Haseldine. The story of people still suffering from atomic bomb testing in SA more than half a century ago. It was a powerful reminder of this deadly and toxic industry that we are trying to stop. Aunty Sue was born just before her family's desert lands to the north were bombed by the deadliest weapon we know by the British government. She told of us of the invisible killer that she had experienced through grand-daughters' thyroid removals and the still-born jelly babies born in her family.
"Anything to do with uranium mining and nuclear there is no winners, everybody loses. You can never feel guilty about what happen in the past, you can't turn back time but you can work together for a better future," she said.
A STOP sign sits at Yeelirrie Station. The women here are locked out of their own country. Some miners and governments are putting these stop signs up here. These companies and governments have only come in lately ‒ these people have been here forever and they don't have the right to go beyond the signs without someone saying so.
We headed out to good allies and local station holders, Colin and Marilyn from Youono Downs. Marilyn had invited all of us to come over and take showers and cool off in the oasis of their station. We settled in to listen to Marilyn and Colin's concerns about the uranium mine project. As they have been fighting for many years, they also had many stories to share!
Back at camp and surrounding the fire, we heard the great stories from Bilbo Taylor with his incredible experience of remote blockading. From stories to strategies we listened to the dangers, the rewards, the creative and fun ways of remote blockading. For many years, Uncle Kev, Bilbo and others kept a constant vigil on BHP's Olympic Dam uranium mine in SA.
On our last full day at Yeelirrie, we revisited the core themes of the camp, and broke off into smaller working groups to discuss campaign options. We came away with six working groups for ongoing campaign work ‒ communication, outreach, creatives, fundraising, resources and spokes group.
We have a richness in this campaign that is from the connection to people and connection to this country. We have built a solid base and this will continue to slowly build should we need to fight by blockading. People are preparing themselves for the long fight. Our three core themes for the camp ‒ a 10-year campaign strategy, Yeelirrie blockade, and active campaigning now ‒ were all addressed during the week and clear outcomes achieved.
Red earth deep in our pores, the landscape etched in our minds, relationships deepened, we leave feeling satisfied to stand with the Tjiwarl women and community that tirelessly fight to stop uranium mining on their country. We stand as one, we stand together.
See the video at https://vimeo.com/366701061
A longer version of this article, with lots of photos, is posted at www.ccwa.org.au/yeelirrie_solidarity_camp_2019
Tjiwarl women win conservation award for uranium mine campaign
"Over the decades they have seen off at least three mining companies, including BHP, and in the process they have given strength and courage to their own community and many others."
Three Tjiwarl women, Shirley Wonyabong, Elizabeth Wonyabong and Vicki Abdullah, have been awarded the Australian Conservation Foundation's 2019 Peter Rawlinson Award for their decades-long campaign to protect their country and culture from a proposed uranium mine at Yeelirrie in outback Western Australia.
"Shirley, Elizabeth and Vicki, along with other Tjiwarl people, have spoken up for their country and culture around campfires, in politicians' offices, on the streets of Perth and in Western Australia's highest court, all the while looking after their grandchildren and each other," said ACF's Chief Executive Officer, Kelly O'Shanassy.
"Every year for the last eight years, these women have taken people from all over the world through their country on a one-month walking tour. In this way, hundreds have seen their land. Over the decades they have seen off at least three mining companies, including BHP, and in the process they have given strength and courage to their own community and many others."
The latest company with ambitions to mine uranium at Yeelirrie is Canada's Cameco, which hopes to dig a nine-kilometre open mine pit and destroy 2,400 hectares of native vegetation. Cameco's proposed mine would use nine million litres of water a day and generate 36 million tonnes of mine waste that would remain radioactive for thousands of years.
The WA Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) rejected Cameco's proposal because it was almost certain to wipe out several species, including rare stygofauna (tiny subterranean creatures that live in the groundwater) and the entire western population of a rare saltbush, and harm other wildlife like the Malleefowl, Princess parrot and Greater bilby.
But state and federal authorities went against the EPA's advice and approved the mine.
Shirley, Elizabeth and Vicki took the matter to court – eventually to the Supreme Court of Appeals – which dismissed their case, confirming conservationists' fears that an Environment Minister can legally approve a mine knowing it would lead to the extinction of multiple species.