| Jabiluka: A Danger to Kakadu?
Kakadu may be Australia's ancient wilderness, but that hasn't kept the government of the land down under from adapting the park to more modern uses. Especially when those uses could yield millions upon millions of dollars.
Jabiluka, an uranium ore body located within the park and on the land of an aboriginal tribe, is at the heart of an international controversy pitting the forces of capitalism against the proponents of conservation. Energy Resources of Australia Ltd. (ERA), a company backed by the nation's government, is building an uranium mine at Jabiluka even as international environmental organizations strive to stop construction.
Australia contains nearly a third of the world's uranium reserves, but commands only 10 percent of the global market. However, with new mines like Jabiluka planned, the nation hopes its uranium exports will reach 26 percent of the world total by 2002.
According a 1998 report of the World Heritage Committee (WHC), an international conservation body that declared Kakadu a World Heritage site in the early 1980s, the Jabiluka mine threatened dangerous environmental damage. The World Heritage designation singles out Kakadu for special care due to its outstanding natural and cultural values.
The Mirrar, the aboriginal people who occupy the land that contains Jabiluka, also were adamantly against the mine. Two aboriginal leaders, Yvonne Margarula and Jacqui Katona, were extremely persuasive internationally in their opposition -- so much so that earlier this year, both were awarded a prestigious environmentalism prize, the Goldman, for their efforts.
To deal with what it considered a potentially devastating situation for the park, the WHC requested from Australian authorities "a detailed report on their efforts to prevent further damage and to mitigate all the threats to the World Heritage cultural and natural values of Kakadu National Park, Australia." The WHC asked that the report, which was to be delivered on April 15, 1999, "address these threats posed by the construction of the Jabiluka mine, by the mining of uranium ore at Jabiluka, and the alternatives for milling the ore at Jabiluka."
In accordance with the WHC, Australia presented a report about Jabiluka on April 15. And as one might have expected, the debate concerning the mine was anything but settled.
Australia's report went so far as to suggest that WHC plans to declare Kakadu an "in danger" area due to the mine were completely unfounded. While the government admitted that it would adopt new safety measures to complement those already in place, it felt that there was no reason to stop work on the Jabiluka mine.
The report earned quick and outspoken criticism from the Mirrar clan and the WHC. The Mirrar felt that the Australian brief contained "misinformation, blatant omissions and outright untruths." In particular, the Mirrar dispute the contention that Margarula had consented to the mine's construction in 1991.
The government spent approximately $1 million on the report and supplementary public relations work aimed at swaying international opinion into Australia's corner.
What laid ahead for Jabiluka and Kakadu? The bells tolled in Paris on July 12, 1999, where at a special "extraordinary meeting," the WHC heard the arguments of the Mirrar clan and ERA, and issued its response. And after reviewing all the evidence, the WHC opted not to declare Kakadu "in-danger."
However, the WHC did establish an 18-month stay on mining, during which time ERA has to prove how Jabiluka can proceed without damaging Mirrar cultural values. While both the Mirrar and government felt the WHC proceedings were constructive, both groups still remain at odds.
ERA was pleased with the WHC decision -- the company's stock rose sharply after the announcement -- but did not hesitate to point out the toll the Jabiluka controversy has taken. The mine, which was supposed to begin production in 2001, will not open until at least 2006, the company reports.
In spite of the WHC ruling, many international environmental organizations will continue to lobby against the Jabiluka mine.