New Internationalist

Green & Black

Issue 382

Alex Kelly and Carla Deane find Aboriginal Australians ‘talking up strong’ against the nuclear industry.

Martin Wyness / Still Pictures
The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, the senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy celebrate the collapse of the Australian Government’s plan to impose a nuclear waste dump on their land. Martin Wyness / Still Pictures

‘We, Aboriginal people, hold the key to survival on this land. We are the authority of this country. We call on all peoples to take notice of what we are saying. The Old Country is angry. It is talking, “Be aware!” It has seen the people come and go. We say: “No, No, No, No, No to the Roxby Downs mine and the radioactive waste dump.” Our people and our ancient country, Lake Eyre, are about to retaliate against this evil force, to stop us and our lands from being sacrificed. We will unleash energy and power that cannot be imagined by the human mind to stop this evil force.’

In various pockets across Australia, people are ‘talking up strong’ against the nuclear industry, taking action against uranium mining companies, and scrutinizing the way that companies and government agencies interact with their communities in negotiating ‘consent’ to expand the industry. In the face of ongoing dispossession and marginalization, Aboriginal communities are inspiring the wider Australian community to take action with some amazing outcomes.

Poisoned past

Australia’s history as a colonial nation and its legacy of institutional racism sets the scene for the continual exploitation of Indigenous lands. Since colonization in 1788 and the establishment of the Australian sovereign nation under the guise of terra nullius – ‘empty land’ – there has been a continual disregard for and lack of understanding of Indigenous cultures and peoples. The Western concept of ‘nature’ as something to be exploited for profit has created a legacy of two centuries of dispossession, oppression and deep divisions within Indigenous communities. The nuclear industry exemplifies this trend.

Uranium was first ‘discovered’ by European Australians in the 1890s, however many Indigenous ancestral creation-dreaming stories talk of ‘sickness country’ in areas with high uranium deposits. The Adnyamathanha people of the rocky country in the northern Flinders Ranges in South Australia (SA) tell a story of rancid yellow Emu vomit in particular pockets across the eastern side of their country. People were advised to avoid these areas whenever possible, and to ‘lay low’ when the east wind was blowing. It is believed by many Adnyamathanha that extraction of this yellow-green poison is highly risky to the people and land of this region and to humankind in general. Cautionary messages for the need to respect this part of the land have been passed on for generations and continue to influence the ways that Adnyamathanha pay homage to their homeland and their ancestors.

However, the mining concerns seeking to exploit lucrative uranium deposits on Aboriginal lands have failed to show similar respect. As one mining company representative declared at an Indigenous community forum: ‘We are here to extract uranium from the ground – that is our primary purpose.’

Driven by world events and economic gain, the uranium industry in Australia began its expansion in the 1930s with ore mined at Radium Hill, SA. The first major mine was the government-owned Rum Jungle, Northern Territory (NT) which operated from 1954 to 1971. Australia emerged as a major supplier of uranium for the world’s nuclear electricity production, despite not having its own domestic nuclear power capacity. Today, Australia’s share of the world’s uranium resources is about 28 per cent of known exploitable reserves and it currently produces about 20 per cent of the world’s mined uranium.

Big smoke

But mining is not the only consequence of the ‘Atom Age’ that Aboriginal peoples have been forced to endure. In the 1950s the Menzies Government granted Britain permission to test its nuclear warheads in Australia, which it did with devastating consequences. Some Indigenous peoples living in the South Australian desert were loaded on trucks like cattle and sent to mission camps away from the blast area. Others were never found or warned about the tests. Warning signs were written in English and just one man was employed to alert people over a 500km square area. People in surrounding districts tell of a puyu pulka (big smoke) passing over them that induced sore eyes, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. Many people died and the fallout of the tests is still felt today with radiation-related illnesses passed down through generations.


The cycle at play in the South Australian desert is mind-boggling. Atomic tests in the 1950s were followed by uranium mining, and now there is a Government proposal for a nuclear waste dump. Here again the completely different understandings of country emerges. The Government and much of the Australian public regard the desert as a barren wasteland – the ‘outback’ – a desolate empty place adequate for weapons testing, uranium mining and the dumping of nuclear waste. But for the people for whom this country has been home for thousands of generations, this country is alive with stories, culture and life.

The Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, the senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy, SA remember the puyu pulka from the 1950s tests and this tragic exposure to the effects of radiation sickness. It is this that informs their staunch opposition to the Government’s proposed waste dump. In July 2005 their campaign was successful when the Government overturned its own plans to site the dump in South Australia.

‘All of us were living when the Government used the country for the Bomb. Some were living at Twelve Mile, just out of Coober Pedy. The smoke was funny and everything looked hazy. Everybody got sick. Other people were at Mabel Creek and many people got sick. Some people were living at Wallatinna. Other people got moved away. Whitefellas and all got sick. When we were young, no woman got breast cancer or any other kind of cancer. Cancer was unheard of with men either. And no asthma; we were people without sickness.

‘The Government thought they knew what they were doing then. Now, again they are coming along and telling us poor blackfellas “Oh, there’s nothing that’s going to happen, nothing is going to kill you.” And that will still happen like that bomb over there… We’ve been fighting this radioactive waste, this poison, for many years. Arguing about it, talking to people, asking people to help us. They might help us, but they’ll really be helping themselves. Whitefellas have got kids too; we all have to live in the country.’

‘We’ve been fighting this radioactive waste, this poison, for many years.... Whitefellas have got kids too, we all have to live in this country’

The level of poverty in Indigenous communities allows companies and Government to broker deals and effectively divide communities against themselves. Royalties have been incredibly small and have had very little tangible benefit in communities. In Kakadu, studies show that after 20 years of mining there has been no net gain to the community. Instead, there has been an increase in social disruption, dislocation and erosion of culture, increased substance abuse, domestic violence and alcoholism.

So what agency do Indigenous people have to veto encroachment on their country? The fact is, sadly, very little. The introduction of land-rights measures in the 1970s was supposed to ensure Indigenous heritage-protection and recognition of ownership of land prior to colonization. Yet the wisdom of Indigenous knowledge continues to be trivialized or ignored. Furthermore, Native Title legislation has been watered down to placate industries and big ranchers across the country.

The generosity and strength of Indigenous communities talking up for their country from an incredibly poor resource base is profound. They have shared knowledge about the country which in turn has helped to transform traditional notions of the exploitation of nature and ownership towards one of stewardship. The Aboriginal notion is one of living on country as opposed to locking it off as ‘wilderness’. They have broadened environmentalists’ awareness of the cultural and social aspects of environmental issues. This has helped to cultivate a much tougher, more self-aware and solidly grounded environmental movement in Australia – one based on justice. Beyond this gift to social and environmental movements by asserting their right and duty to protect country, Indigenous people are challenging unsustainable industries and notions of relating to land. As the nuclear industry is now being sold as a solution to climate change, Australia’s ‘Green and Black’ alliance can avoid this trap and continue talking up strong against the poison that has caused so much damage to people and planet.

Alex Kelly is a freelance journalist and environmental campaigner based in Alice Springs, Australia.
Carla Deane is a human rights activist based in South Australia.

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