November 2018

The Nation Reviewed

Saving Jabiru

By Helen Sullivan

What happens when a Northern Territory town reaches its mandated expiry date?

On a winter’s afternoon in the town of Jabiru, in Kakadu National Park, it is 34 degrees. The grass is dry and the cicadas thrum from somewhere beyond the heat. The town is quiet, and the faded green exterior of a large, crocodile-shaped hotel absorbs the sun. A brightly painted bakery has its shutters down.

Jabiru, a three-hour drive from Darwin, is a mining town home to just over a thousand people, a fifth of whom are Indigenous. Built in 1982, before fly-in-fly-out was the done thing for remote mining projects, Jabiru was established to service the Ranger Uranium Mine, once one of the largest in the world. Today, it is one of the main service points for Kakadu National Park, and relied upon by park rangers, campsite managers, shop owners and the people living on surrounding outstations.

But theirs is a town with an expiry date. As part of the mine’s contract, its operator Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), which built Jabiru, is legally obligated to rehabilitate the town – to return the land to its original state – shortly after its lease runs out in 2021. This rehabilitation includes demolishing purpose-built housing and other structures, and switching off Jabiru’s power and water supplies. In turn, this threatens Jabiru’s shops, and education and health services.

Some of Jabiru’s residents have other ideas. In the offices of Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation (GAC), established by the Mirarr people in 1995 to represent Indigenous rights in the area, CEO Justin O’Brien and his team are hard at work.

In July, the Northern Territory government and GAC released a plan not only to keep basic services running but also to turn Jabiru into a tourism hub. The “Jabiru Masterplan” will cost close to half a billion dollars and require significant federal government and private sector funding, yet to be secured. Early draft plans released in March depict aerial views of seven new angular crocodile-shaped buildings converging around Jabiru Lake. The lake itself will be kept free of living, snapping crocodiles so that locals and tourists can enjoy year-round swimming. The plan includes a luxury hotel, glamping facilities, business incubation and education services, and a “World Heritage Interpretive Centre”.

“The Ranger Uranium Mine, when it was first established, was set up under a particularly unique set of arrangements,” says O’Brien. He explains that in 1974 Gough Whitlam’s government signed a deal at three in the morning at the Lodge in Canberra with Ranger’s consortium, which includes Rio Tinto. Later that day, Whitlam held a joint press conference with Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka of Japan to announce that Ranger would supply uranium to Japan.

At the time, there was significant opposition to uranium mining in Australia, as well as calls for Indigenous land rights and the establishment of the Kakadu National Park. So, the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry (or the Fox report, after Justice Russell Fox) was launched in 1975 to determine whether the benefits of uranium mining were worth its impacts on the environment. Fox concluded that the risks were “serious”, but gave qualified approval.

In the meantime, the Woodward royal commission had been looking into Indigenous land rights, and its recommendations resulted in the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. Land rights afford Indigenous Australians much greater power than native title claims. In particular, land rights mean owners have veto powers over development – of a road, or a large uranium mine, for example – on their land. The 1976 Act explicitly excluded Ranger from the Act’s veto provisions.

“There was no stopping this mine,” says O’Brien, even though “everybody was opposed to it”. The Madjedbebe rock shelter, the site of Australia’s longest human habitation, around 65,000 years old, is 15 kilometres from Jabiru. “Until 1974, when this road was miraculously built out here ‘for the army at Gove’ – bullshit, it was built for this – there hadn’t been much interaction with white people. There had been the buffalo hunters, the missionaries and that’s it. Yvonne [Margarula], our boss, she knows the tree she was born under. She knows the season. She doesn’t know the date, she doesn’t know the year. There are no census records of Aboriginal people then.” Margarula is a senior traditional owner, and leader of the Mirarr.

In 1998, Margarula led protests against another proposed mine on Mirarr land, which saw 5000 people blockade the site at Jabiluka for eight months. The protest worked: Jabiluka was never mined.

O’Brien moved to Jabiru following the protest and never left. His eyes, a reddish brown, appear to glow when he speaks angrily or with conviction, both of which he does often throughout our interview. GAC first raised the issue of what was going to become of Jabiru in 2002, he says.

“I think I’ve got the patience of fucking Job, to be honest. And so have my bosses, the Mirarr. They’ve got even more patience than me.” O’Brien explains that the native title claim on Jabiru – there are no land rights as it’s not defined as Aboriginal land, as per the 1976 Act – is one of the longest-running in Australia. It was lodged in 1997.

The town’s uncertain future is paralysing economic activity. “Imagine – in 2020 there’s a massive demobilisation of the workforce. Off goes the mill. Within months, off goes the power supply. Within a year or two, they close down the airport.”

The bakery is already up for sale, but interested buyers couldn’t get loans. The Crocodile Hotel had wanted a loan for amendments to its roof, and a local campground wanted to spend money upgrading its facilities. All were unsuccessful with the banks.

Later, at the Jabiru Sports and Social Club, a resident tells me that the man-made lake at the centre of the town was built so that when the time came for rehabilitation, the buildings and debris could be pushed into it, the lake filled, and the town gone. An acquaintance who works in mine rehabilitation tells me this is a common solution. The sports club, where people are drinking beers while they watch the footy, play pokies, or chat and smoke outside, sits near this man-made lake. Someone else at the bar remembers walking over the land before the lake was built.

I sit down at a table with Paul, who was born and raised near Jabiru. His worry is what happens to the people who live in – and take care of – Kakadu National Park, should Jabiru be closed down. “You still need park rangers. Therefore, you’ll still need a clinic. You’ll still need a police station. You’ll still need a school for them kids,” he says.

I ask O’Brien if he sees the masterplan as a way to decolonise Jabiru. He replies that, as someone who is of German-English-Irish heritage, it’s not really for him to say.

“One can get too easily distracted by the politics … Here I am in a trench. There aren’t that many of us in this building and we are constantly assailed by people wanting to erode Aboriginal people’s rights and standing.

“The agents of colonisation here, having said that, were the park and the mine. They came and they saw and they conquered and they took. And they put the Aboriginal body into the political, state-controlled space.”

There are areas of Kakadu known as Bulajang, or “sickness country”, by the Jawoyn people, who are the traditional owners of country south of Jabiru. Legend has it that the Jawoyn creation ancestor Bula buried his spirit in these areas. The Jawoyn have long believed that if you disturb Bulajang you get sick. Bulajang areas, which were mined from the 1950s until 1964, correspond with uranium and other mineral deposits.

ERA is cautious and noncommittal when it comes to the masterplan for the town, and chief executive Paul Arnold declined to be interviewed. The company’s legal requirements extend only as far as rehabilitation: returning the land to its pre-development state. ERA is not obligated to fund the masterplan, nor has it said it will. In ERA’s press release “welcoming” the masterplan, Arnold states that ERA “will continue to have a significant presence in the region for a number of years” and is “determined to make the transition for those affected as smooth as possible”.

Forty years ago, the plan devised for Jabiru failed to consider that nearby residents would come to rely on the town for schools, doctors and all the other things an Australian town offers: football games, a bar, visitors, a bakery selling crocodile-meat pies. The town would change the lives of the Indigenous people upon whose lands it was built, for better or worse, and its impacts on the community could not simply be undone.

In the GAC boardroom, a framed, brittle poster from the successful Jabiluka blockade leans against the wall. O’Brien speaks excitedly about the chance for Jabiru, under the plan, not only to educate visitors about the complexity of the Mirarr’s ancient and enduring belief system, its sense of balance and give and take, but also to interpret what’s happened recently: mining, land ownership and the radical forging of a unique community. “Where else,” he asks, “could you bring this whole host of issues to bear?”

Helen Sullivan

Helen Sullivan is a Sydney-based freelance writer. She has appeared in The New Yorker and The Guardian


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