At the invitation of the Australia Conservation Foundation, Ecotrust Canada President Ian Gill travelled Down Under and reports on an initiative to work with the country’s impoverished Aborgines to create a conservation economy.
JABIRU, Northern Territory, Australia – In this tiny outpost inside the boundaries of Australia's famed Kakadu National Park, the last of the “cool” weather (it's around 36-degrees Celsius) signals the beginning of the end of the tourist season. Soon, it will be seriously hot, and tropical deluges that mark a season known simply as “the wet” will flood many parts of the park and make travel impossible.
So, for a few months at least, the crocodiles will get a rest from the tourists, and will fatten up the in the billabongs on plentiful fish and bird life, and anything else silly enough to stray too close to the water's edge.
Meanwhile, a company called Energy Resources of Australia will fatten up on its continued mining of uranium ore at the Ranger mine, an egregious industrial anomaly inside the boundaries of the park and, more to the point, on “country” whose traditional owners, the Mirarr mob, have stood up bravely in opposition to mining in their ancestral lands.
Yvonne Margarula is the Senior Traditional Owner of an Aboriginal community that numbers just 28 adults and a raft of kids living in outposts near Jabiru. The Mirarr lost their battle in the 1970s to keep the Ranger uranium project at bay, although they famously beat back a second mine at nearby Jabiluka by blockading the site in 1998. Yvonne was arrested and charged with trespassing on her own country. She and her fellow Bininj clan members are revered by Australian conservationists for that stand, and rightly so, although the Mirarr are not much keener on the park than they are the mine.
Kakadu was also imposed upon Mirarr country and, while it is supposedly a model of co-management between the Australian national parks service and the indigenous people of the North, the Mirarr say their views are not listened to by parks bureaucrats.
The impact of the mine on the Mirarr people has been devastating. The town of Jabiru didn't exist 30 years ago and now, fuelled by mine wages and tourism enterprises that offer little to the Mirarr, it displays all the social pathologies that afflict indigenous communities when they meet the modern world at a resource extraction frontier.
The Mirarr aren't short of money – a benefits agreement with the mine ensures there's plenty of that to go around. The Mirarr's economic development arm, the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, is housed in modern, smart-looking offices on the edge of town. But the people still lack many of the things that money is supposed to be able to buy: good health care, stable employment, good educational facilities, basic housing, and a sense of ownership of their future.
Of course, at some point the mine will run out. If the Mirarr succeed on keeping the other major ore bodies in the ground, they will have preserved a chance to build a conservation and cultural economy in Northern Australia. A study by Land & Water Australia and the Australian Conservation Foundation suggests that Ecotrust Canada's work in rural communities in British Columbia could be a model for communities like the Mirarr.
Building a cultural and conservation economy won't magically repair the damage that has been done here, but it might offer hope to a community that deserves a better future than Australia is offering right now.