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Australia: Women at forefront of Jabiluka resistance

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Women respond to the nuclear threat

(May 11, 1999) A simple yes from Yvonne Margarula would make her an instant millionaire. As the senior elder of the Mirrar tribe, the traditional owners of the Jabiluka area within Kakadu National Park, Margarula is in a unique and troublesome position. Only she can give the mining giant ERA what it needs under law-- permission to allow uranium to be excavated from Jabiluka and trucked to ERA's nearby sister mine, Ranger, where it would be milled.

(509/10.5019) Caroline Milburn - Some people in the Northern Territory call her the A$210 million (US$140 million) woman --the amount ERA says it would pay in royalties to local Aboriginal people during the 25-year lifetime of the Jabiluka mine. But there's a hitch. Margarula is refusing to play ball. This 42-year-old woman, thrust into the leadership of her tribe after the death of her father, is the figurehead of what has become an international campaign to stop the mine going ahead within the boundaries of Australia's most famous national park.

Yvonne Margarula cannot read or write and her English is so poor she prefers to converse in her native language, Gundjehmi, one of three Aboriginal languages she speaks. Until now she has refused requests from foreign and Australian journalists to be interviewed at length. But the growing renown of the Stop Jabiluka campaign has led her fellow campaigners to convince her to agree to an interview using a interpreter. Campaign headquarters is a small portable building at Lakeview caravan park, in the mining town of Jabiru, 250 km from Darwin. An air-conditioner wheezes noisily in the stifling tropical heat as a couple of children wander in and out of the rooms. Campaign jumble is everywhere. Desks are cluttered with leaflets and files, columns of photocopying paper are stacked on the floor. Letters of support from interstate schoolchildren and hand-painted protest banners are pinned to the walls. A Japanese environment group has sent a massive black, red and yellow banner.

When Margarula arrives she is exhausted and impatient, having spent the past three days attending a meeting of the Kakadu board of management. Its Aboriginal board members come from three different language groups. The board does not have an interpreter so discussions are held in broken English, making proceedings laborious and slow. Margarula is plump, with a girlish, tinkling laugh. Conway Bush, a distant relative who works in the office, says she is a forthright woman who "doesn't put up with any shit". She seems wary. The interpreter employed for the interview is 400 km away and takes part via a speaker's phone.

Margarula admits her poor grasp of English can be frustrating, especially now that meetings with government ministers and officials eat into more of her time. Yet she has no desire to be fluent in English and when she begins to speak Gundjehmi her power as an orator becomes clear, even through the language barrier. "This is Aboriginal land and on this land we live our own culture, we have our own language", she says. "We grew up speaking our own language and we want to hold on to our own language." Margarula was born in the bush near the South Alligator River bridge, two hours' drive from Darwin. She and her family lived in paperbark houses, following her father Toby Gangale from place to place in Mirrar country, while he worked in the buffalo industry. Gangale was paid in flour, sugar and tea leaves by the white buffalo hunters. Yvonne, her sister and mother spent their days hunting and collecting kangaroo, long-necked turtles, yams and wild honey. She learned some English from the buffalo hunters and during a short stay at a bush school, but the family's traditional lifestyle made it difficult for her to attend regularly.

That way of life changed suddenly when uranium was discovered in the 1970's. Her parents fretted about the burgeoning white population in the area and the impact it would have on sacred sites. Mining officials pressured local Aborigines to support mining exploration in the area. The Ranger uranium mine, 22 km from the proposed Jabiluka mine, went ahead in 1980 after the Fraser government introduced amendments to the Land Rights Act to remove the Aboriginal right of veto over Ranger. The Mirrar, as the traditional land owners, had no power to withhold their consent to the Ranger mine. "When the mining started the money appeared and houses started going up everywhere", Margarula says. "Aboriginal people were given cars as payments for their agreement for drilling and mining. The most notable change was access to alcohol. Lots of old people died from drinking. There were a number of places, the mining camps especially, where alcohol was just handed out to Aboriginal people. Large amounts of money were given to key people like my father. He drank a lot of alcohol, a lot of beer. All of a sudden there was family stress, problems with food, problems with sleeping and all the arguments associated with money. The mining company did that to my father to get what they wanted."

In the late 1970's Margarula's father, as the Mirrar's senior traditional owner, came under increasing pressure from miners to give his consent for the new mine, Jabiluka. Some Aborigines from other clans who did not own the land, but stood to benefit from the cultural network of shared resources, also nagged him to give permission. Margarula believes his consent for Jabiluka was obtained under duress. "I watched the mining company wear him down", she says. "They continually came to pick him up for meetings. There would be meeting after meeting after meeting. He would say to me, 'I don't want this.' He would try to escape by going hunting but they would always find him. All this stress just wasted him away until he became sick."

"I feel very sad now. I think about that whole process from the beginning to the end of his life. I watched all the money, the cars, the houses, the alcoholism and it depresses me to think about." Gangale died in 1987, five years after he gave consent to the Jabiluka agreement. Despite the agreement, the mine did not go ahead in the 1980s because of a string of unforeseen events. The price of uranium fell and conditions for uranium miners soured with the election of the Hawke Government and the growing political power of the environment movement. The company that owned the Jabiluka mining lease, Pancontinental Ltd., sold it to the owner of the Ranger mineral lease, ERA in 1991. A crucial condition was attached to the lease transfer. If ERA wanted uranium ore from Jabiluka to be milled at Ranger, it would have to get agreement from the traditional owners. Two years ago the 27 adult members of the Mirrar clan formally withheld their permission for ERA's proposed mine.

Like her father before her, Margarula has had many meetings with mining company officials intent on trying to persuade her of the advantages of the mine, estimated to be worth A$6.2 billion to the Australian economy. To her their attitude towards Aboriginal people is the same as that of their predecessors in the '70s--insincere. "They call lots of meetings, they put a lot of heavy pressure on us, they promise all sorts of wonderful things and tempt us with wonderful promises", she says. "They seek to divide us and bring one group against another so that we fight each other." Margarula has met the environment minister, Senator Robert Hill, several times to discuss the mine's fate. "He (Senator Hill) says, 'Oh you Aboriginal people, you have a very important place here, I think what you are doing is wonderful'", Margarula says. "He talks as if he gives some credit to us and our lives, but he has the concerns of non-Aboriginal people at heart as a priority". When told about Margarula's comments, a spokesman for Senator Hill said the decision to approve the mine was based on the best scientific advice and the interests of all Australians, regardless of their backgrounds. He said ERA might opt for the more expensive and environmentally intrusive option of building a mill at Jabiluka allowed under the original agreement, if the Mirrar continued to say no.

Unusual for a traditional Aboriginal woman, Margarula is not married. She lives with her sister's family and children in a makeshift house at Nourlangie, an Aboriginal settlement about 45 km from the suburban neatness of Jabiru. As a teenager she was promised to an older man in an arranged marriage, but he died before the wedding took place. She says she has no inclination to marry because the battle to protect her country takes up most of her time. Last year she went to Paris with a delegation to warn the annual meeting of Unesco's World Heritage Bureau that the mine threatened Kakadu's cultural values, a trip paid for by public donations. She is on numerous committees created by the Northern Land Council and the federal government.

And now she is involved in a legal struggle, waiting to see whether the Northern Territory's Court of Appeal will overturn her conviction for trespassing on the Jabiluka mining lease. Money and white law will not convince her that the site belongs to someone else. "We hunt on that floodplain and we rely on the animals and plants. That mine will interfere with a sacred site... it will spiritually poison the area. It can have a catastrophic affect on us."

Source: This article was written by Caroline Milburn and first published in the March 13, 1999, issue of the Australian newspaper, The Age.
Contact: Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation, PO Box 245, Jabiru NT 0886, Australia