December 2023 – January 2024


Park of the covenant

By Anthony Ham
Kakadu National Park

Kakadu National Park. © MJ Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

With the Ranger Uranium Mine now closed, Kakadu’s traditional owners want the government to make good on the original promise of a national park in their care

In January 2021, the Ranger Uranium Mine, surrounded by Kakadu National Park, finally ceased operations after nearly half a century. To outsiders, Ranger had always seemed like an anomaly: the mine was a deep and unsightly scar in the heart of Australia’s largest terrestrial national park. Kakadu was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List for its pristine wilderness and Indigenous cultural values in 1981.

When the mine fell silent 40 years later, the complicated work of rehabilitating the land began. On June 30, 2021, Jabiru, the nearby service town where construction began in 1979, was handed back to the Mirarr people, on whose ancestral land the town and the mine were built.

The handover was, said then environment minister Sussan Ley, “the start of a new chapter and a bright future for Jabiru” that would support “the preservation of the cultural and natural values of Kakadu National Park”. It was, she concluded, “a proud day in Australia’s history”.

Indeed it was. But the mine’s closure and the return of Jabiru were also smokescreens that concealed Kakadu’s dark history of dispossession and dysfunction. Should the current situation continue, Kakadu’s story could become a tale of paradise lost.

First Nations people have walked the wetlands and escarpment country of Kakadu for at least 65,000 years: one of Australia’s oldest-known human occupation sites, Madjedbebe, is located in the Jabiluka mineral lease, which is totally surrounded by the park.

The idea of protecting what we now know as Kakadu National Park first surfaced in the mid 1960s, when Kakadu was a sparsely populated Wild West frontier between the Arnhem Land mission station of Oenpelli/Gunbalanya and Darwin; the first all-weather road from Darwin didn’t reach Kakadu until 1974. At the time, interest in Kakadu was motivated more by mining companies eager to extract Kakadu’s uranium reserves than it was by any concern for the region’s wildlife, ecosystems or First Nations communities.

It was an unusual time. The Cold War, angst over nuclear proliferation and popular anger in Australia over French nuclear tests in the Pacific squared off against the need for an economic windfall as a result of a global energy crisis. On the one hand, there was the idealism behind the push for environmental protections and Aboriginal land rights by the Whitlam government. On the other, the country’s desperate need for foreign currency. In the tension between these two contradictory impulses lay the origins of Kakadu National Park.

The push for the Ranger Uranium Mine began under the Gorton and McMahon governments. But it was under Gough Whitlam that Ranger and Kakadu became entwined as a package deal, with Ranger as the driving force. In October 1974, under the so-called Lodge Agreement, prime minister Whitlam and his minister for minerals and energy, Rex Connor, confirmed a 50 per cent government stake in the mine. The following day, the prime minister announced that Australia would be exporting uranium to Japan.

By then, Ranger had acquired an irresistible momentum. Although the issue of land rights was gathering support, especially after the Whitlam government set up the Woodward Royal Commission in 1973, there was little doubt at the time that uranium would trump land rights.

In July 1975, four months before its dismissal by the governor-general, the Whitlam government announced a two-part inquiry to examine the environmental impacts of the mine. The second part of the report, by Russell Fox, then chief judge of the ACT Supreme Court, was released in May 1977. It contained the following conclusion:

The evidence before us shows that the traditional owners of the Ranger site and the Northern Land Council (as now constituted) are opposed to the mining of uranium on that site. The reasons for the opposition … would extend to any uranium mining in the Region. Some Aboriginals had at an earlier stage approved, or at least not disapproved, the proposed development, but it seems likely that they were not then as fully informed about it as they later became. Traditional consultations had not then taken place, and there was a general conviction that opposition was futile. The Aboriginals do not have confidence that their own view will prevail; they feel that uranium mining development is almost certain to take place at Jabiru, if not elsewhere in the Region as well. They feel that having got so far, the white man is not likely to stop. They have a justifiable complaint that plans for mining have been allowed to develop as far as they have without the Aboriginal people having an adequate opportunity to be heard.

In spite of this finding, the Fox report concluded that “There can be no compromise with the Aboriginal position; either it is treated as conclusive, or it is set aside. We are a tribunal of white men and … [w]e hope, and have reason to believe, that the performance of our task will not be seen by Aboriginal people in a racial light at all … In the end, we form the conclusion that their opposition should not be allowed to prevail.”

Instead, there was a quid pro quo offer: in return for a uranium mine, the Commonwealth government promised the traditional owners a national park, which we now know as Kakadu.

In August 1977, prime minister Malcolm Fraser approved the Ranger Uranium Mine. Despite near-universal opposition within the Aboriginal community, the Fraser government remained eager for their imprimatur and placed intolerable pressure upon community leaders to publicly back the proposal. The chairperson of the Northern Land Council at the time, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, told NLC members that “If we don’t sign the agreement, Mr Fraser has told me he has power to block the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, and that he will stop funds to the outstations.” Yunupingu backed the project.

Just in case, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, which was passed in 1976 and became law in 1977, vested power in the governor-general to override the veto given to First Nations peoples in projects of this kind, if such projects were deemed to be contrary to the national interest. And in case there was any remaining doubt, the legislation explicitly exempted the Ranger mine from any veto power.

“Woodward said that to deny Aboriginal people a veto over mining would be to deny them the reality of their land rights,” says Justin O’Brien, who was chief executive of the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation from 2008 until September this year. “That is exactly what happened.”

In a ceremony on November 3, 1978, the Commonwealth government and representatives of the First Nations communities of Kakadu signed two agreements. One paved the way for the Ranger mine to proceed. The other created Kakadu National Park.

As O’Brien tells me: “You need to see Kakadu in its context: it’s a place where a deal was done. Kakadu became the major compensatory piece for the loss of the veto, for the imposition of mining – it was, ‘well, you’ll get a national park.’ In truth, this was a 100-year lease signed when they were bent over a barrel, with uranium mining being forced upon the community. The cruel irony is that the very thing that was supposed to be a major benefit has been such a disappointment, and such a divisive thing, for Aboriginal people.”

Despite the fraught process surrounding the national park’s creation, the early years of Kakadu were a time of great optimism. Susan O’Sullivan, an Indigenous rights lawyer who has worked with Kakadu’s traditional owners for more than two decades, describes it as a “golden period”, thanks to the quality of the bureaucrats that were drawn to Kakadu in the early years and the inclusion of First Nations people in decision-making, which was groundbreaking for the time.

Kakadu exists on the lands of the Bininj-Mungguy peoples, who are grouped into several local descent groups or clans. Senior elders from the different clans were deeply involved in decision-making in the park and, together with the Commonwealth government bureaucrats, a policy of joint management of Kakadu emerged and was ultimately codified in legislative reform by the Hawke government. Back then, says Peter Christophersen, a First Nations land manager in Kakadu who comes from a family of traditional owners, “they were employing the right people within the right areas. There was an element of trust that people would do the right thing.”

There was also a strong sense of ownership of the park among Kakadu communities. “When you read what was said at the time,” says O’Sullivan, “Kakadu National Park was not created for tourism. It was not created even really for World Heritage values. That wasn’t a thing back then. It was a social impact mitigation measure for uranium mining. That’s why they did it. That’s how it was offered to Aboriginal people. The quid pro quo was: ‘We’re going to mine uranium. We’re going to do that. In exchange, we’re giving you – you – a national park.’ A lot of people don’t understand that this was deeply embedded in the minds of Aboriginal people. They thought it was theirs. You get the mine. We get the park.”

At the same time, the situation for Kakadu’s First Nations communities was dire. “The current civic culture is one in which disunity, neurosis, a sense of struggle, drinking, stress, hostility, of being drowned by new laws, agencies and agendas are major manifestations,” wrote Colin Tatz, respected anthropologist in his 1984 report “Aborigines and Uranium”. “Their defeat on initial opposition to mining, negotiations leading to Ranger and [short-lived uranium mine] Nabarlek, the fresh negotiations on [further uranium deposits] Jabiluka and Koongarra, new sources of money, the influx of vehicles, together have led the project to an unhappy verdict: that this is a society in crisis.”

As the first generations of Kakadu’s elders and bureaucrats passed away or moved on, the early trust between the Commonwealth government and First Nations communities frayed. And as the relationships that had held Kakadu together fell away, the structures of governance for the park fostered a growing sense of paralysis.

Under joint management, an elected board became the peak decision-making body. It consisted of scientists, government representatives and members of local Aboriginal communities, yet few members of Kakadu’s First Nations communities with whom I spoke had ever voted or understood the process of nominating for the board. Bypassing traditional authority structures within First Nations communities, the board instead became a source of alienation for First Nations people.

“The board of management is a completely opaque process that makes the papal conclave look transparent,” says O’Brien. “It’s not even clear who votes, and nor is it clear how people get represented on the board. It’s all mostly in English, but even if it’s in Language, the ideas, the concepts, the bureaucratic mode in which everything occurs is just Canberra, Canberra, Canberra.”

Instead of negotiating directly with communities and with Kakadu’s traditional owners, the Commonwealth government deals with the board. When asked about the joint management model, Christophersen is searing in his criticism: “I’ve always called it ‘disjointed management’. And we’re on the brink of a divorce. The honeymoon’s over. Yes, there are quite a few Aboriginal people employed. But the land is still suffering. It wouldn’t matter if you employed another 100 Aboriginal people. It’s about engaging with the correct people, with biodiversity and cultural management programs that meet the needs of Traditional Owners and satisfy the park’s regulatory requirements. The one-size-fits-all approach in Kakadu over the last 40 years is obviously not working. If nothing changes, it will simply continue with the disempowerment and disengagement of our people.”

It’s a common refrain. “Historically, the employment of local Aboriginal people is very low,” says O’Brien. “Local Aboriginal people in the main have been several steps removed from management and employment in the park service. By the mid 1990s, locals were not getting any financial benefit from the park. They’re not getting it from tourism. They’re not getting jobs from the park. They’re not getting jobs from the mine. They’re not getting a say over where and how they can live. The roads aren’t graded. Their houses are not maintained.”

Adding to the dysfunction is another structural roadblock: Kakadu sits within the portfolio of the Commonwealth Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water.

“The environment department is not Indigenous affairs,” says O’Sullivan. “It has nothing to do with native title at all, and nothing to do with Aboriginal organisations at all. Kakadu is in the wrong portfolio. For the governance arrangement to be in the department of environment is a diabolical mistake.” And, she adds, “most of the money for Kakadu National Park is paying for public servants and consultants in Canberra”.

O’Brien agrees. “You’ve got our largest national park with a complex history and our oldest human occupation site, a mining agenda, and that whole reserve is run by a bureaucrat with a small team in an offshoot of an offshoot of an offshoot of the mega department of the environment.”

The story Kakadu tells the world has begun to unravel. And it has everything to do with the historical structures that govern the park.

Just how far Kakadu has strayed from its promise became evident in 2019, when Parks Australia built a new walking track to the summit of Gunlom Falls, one of the park’s major attractions with a natural infinity pool overlooking waterfalls. Parks Australia was charged the following year with illegal construction, after it emerged that the track strayed too close to a sacred site of the Jawoyn people. Four years later, the track remains closed.

This serious breach was one of a number of missteps that led to intervention by then minister Ley. After representations by local First Nations communities, some of whom threatened to close the park entirely, the minister sacked a senior bureaucrat, and the director of Parks Australia left his position. But no changes were made to Kakadu’s governing structures, which have remained the same for decades.

Advocates for change argue that only a new model – one in which the Commonwealth government negotiates and consults directly with the traditional owners – can heal Kakadu. It’s what lies behind a process aimed at renegotiating existing lease arrangements. There are already promising signs behind the scenes that the Commonwealth government may be willing to take a new approach, and stakeholders are quietly hopeful that Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek may be ready to engage.

“This is something that the restructuring of the lease would do – restructure how people negotiate things on their country,” says Christophersen, who is at the forefront of rehabilitating the Ranger mine site, tasked with planting almost a million trees. “Is it through the board? Or something more inclusive?”

O’Brien asks, “Why should we be sitting here in 2023 adhering to leases which were negotiated when people were over a barrel in the late 1970s, with a Commonwealth government forcing a uranium mine on them?”

“The board of management is not where Aboriginal people make serious decisions,” says O’Sullivan, “because the board of management is a thing created by governments in the 1990s when a very centralised approach to Indigenous affairs prevailed. It’s a 1990s model we’ve all moved on from. The world has changed. In 2023 in Australia, you deal directly with Aboriginal groups. That is the way you broker anything with Aboriginal people now. You meet people where they are, whether that’s a prescribed body corporate or a native title group or a traditional owner group under the Land Rights Act, and you enter into an agreement about what you as a government are going to do.”

Removing Kakadu from the environment portfolio could also provide the impetus for much-needed cultural heritage surveys, which, remarkably, have never been carried out in Kakadu. A smaller-scale survey on the Ranger mine lease identified around 120 cultural heritage sites.

According to O’Sullivan, who negotiated the survey with the mining company, in the Ranger project area “there is an agreement about protecting those sites, monitoring them and not damaging them. That level of protection of cultural heritage is so far above Kakadu National Park that it’s unbelievable. You walk out of the mine and into the park, and you can do whatever you like. There has never been a survey – nothing’s recorded, not even at the visitor sites, not even at [rock art site] Ubirr. There’s stuff everywhere, and is any of it recorded? No. That’s how they got Gunlom wrong.”

Under current models, Gunlom could be the tip of the sword.

“There have been other Gunloms,” says O’Sullivan. “We just haven’t discovered them yet.” And there may be worse to come, she warns. “There are environmental disasters unfolding. There are horses and donkeys and pigs and buffaloes wreaking havoc. Can we shoot them? The answer they’re getting from the board of management is usually no. Saltwater and mimosa weeds are invading the wetlands, as well as other issues.”

Alongside the possibility that, in the absence of accurate cultural heritage surveys, Parks Australia and other stakeholders could stumble into a repeat of the Juukan Gorge debacle in Western Australia, Kakadu’s World Heritage Listing could be in danger.

“In July 1999, the World Heritage Committee met,” says O’Brien. “I was there when they debated whether or not to list Kakadu ‘in danger’. It was only by a hair’s breadth that they didn’t. Now we’ve got fires out of control, a massive drop in biodiversity and speciation, ferals and cane toads, and traditional owners – who are part of the cultural listing as well – who are disengaged, infuriated, sidelined and often taking the government to court.”

And then there’s Jabiluka. The Jabiluka mine, also in the heart of Kakadu, is majority-owned by Rio Tinto and has never fully proceeded; protests in 1998 led to a clean-up and an agreement in which the company agreed not to develop the mine without the consent of the Mirarr. The Jabiluka area, however, remains outside the protections of the park, and Rio Tinto has never formally surrendered its right to mine the site.

“One way that it could get significantly, disastrously worse would be if we don’t permanently protect Jabiluka,” says O’Brien. “Jabiluka is the jewel in the crown. What’s on that mineral lease is completely and utterly priceless. These are the reasons why Kakadu is UNESCO World Heritage listed – hundreds and hundreds of rock art galleries with thousands and thousands of paintings, archaeological sites, our oldest human occupation site.”

As long as the push for new lease agreements remains stalled – by the pandemic, then a change in government, and then the focus on the failed referendum – Kakadu remains in peril, as it has been since the park was first created in 1978.

In recent years, various traditional owners have threatened to close the park altogether. Could that happen if nothing is done?

“It doesn’t run within us,” says Christophersen, “unless you really push us to some godforsaken place. We would rather negotiate and show that we want to move forward as a people and that we want to make it work. But people talk about these things because our voices aren’t being heard.”

Christophersen is silent for a few moments.

“But that’s government, isn’t it?”

Anthony Ham

Anthony Ham writes about wildlife, conservation and current affairs for magazines and newspapers around the world.

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