The Fu­ture End of Town

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by He­len Sul­li­van

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-fly­out 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.

Early draft plans re­leased in March de­pict aerial views of seven new an­gu­lar crocodile­shaped build­ings con­verg­ing around Jabiru Lake.

“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”.

“One can get too eas­ily dis­tracted by the pol­i­tics ... Here I am in a trench.”

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?” M

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