Environmental Justice Case Study: The Jabiluka Mine and Aboriginal Land Rights in Australia’s Northern Territory

Table of Contents

The Problem

Controversy has surrounded uranium mining over the past few decades, but has become increasingly volatile in the wake of nuclear accidents like Chernobyl. Likewise, the byproduct tailings of uranium mining, which often contain 85% of the radioactivity of the original element, are being targeted as toxic environmental pollutants (Krockenberger, 1998). Communities near uranium production or tailings dumping facilities are becoming aware of the inevitable health dangers that result from uranium mining. The siting of uranium mines in people of color and low-income communities is tragically a global phenomenon.

The siting of a uranium mine within the boundaries of Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory has raised numerous environmental and health questions. Potential radioactive leaks into surrounding wetlands not only severely endangers the fragile ecosystem of the Alligator River system, the river system so vital to Kakadu National Park, but also threatens the health of nearby Aboriginal communities who depend on the river for drinking water and food.

Jabiluka Site

(Image courtesy of www.uiuc.com.au)

In response to accusations, mining companies often highlight the economic benefits that uranium-mining facilities would create for the host community. The creation of jobs, a stimulated economy and financial security are touted as reasons host communities should embrace such opportunity. In the case of the Jabiluka mine site, which is currently being constructed on historically native lands, mining royalties have been offered in excess of $200 million dollars to the local Aboriginal community as a mitigation tactic (Energy Resources of Australia, 1998).

The problem today is that Aboriginal communities are being asked to forego a healthy, traditional lifestyle in exchange for monetary compensation and job opportunity. Although mining companies often claim that the economic benefits offered by uranium mines far outweigh the deleterious environmental or health effects, they rarely address the problem of worker exposure to dangerous levels of radioactivity.

In addition, the Australian government supports economic growth and therefore is a staunch proponent of the Jabiluka mine. Aboriginal communities are facing the bleak reality of losing cultural ties to their land and being exposed to health hazards, as the result of a government motivated largely by financial gains. Specifically, the Mirrar people, who live adjacent to and are directly affected by the Jabiluka site, feel the government has made no attempt to honor the "cultural value" of land to native people. They argue that the Australian government has continually traded the worth and tradition of Aboriginal community and culture for dollars (Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation, 1998).


The Jabiluka mine controversy dates back to the early 1970s when Pancontinental Mining Limited discovered high-grade uranium deposits in the Northern Territory. As early as 1969, uranium had been found at what is now known as Ranger Mine, located about 240 kilometers east of Darwin. By 1977, an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) had been approved for the Ranger Mine and by 1979 construction was under way. In the mean time, Pancontinental Mining was preparing an EIS for an underground mine and mining facility at nearby Jabiluka (located only 20 kilometers north of Ranger Mine). During the EIS evaluation process, Kakadu National Park was declared, encompassing over 6,000 km2 of land. In 1982, the Northern Land Council, representing some Aboriginal landowners, approved mining at the Jabiluka location (a decision that is now claimed to have been reached under duress). Subsequently, the Northern Territory Government granted a 42-year mining lease. The Jabiluka mine lease, at present, is entirely surrounded by World Heritage Listed Kakadu National Park.

The Australian Labour Party (ALP) dominated Australian government in the early 1980s. With the election of ALP Prime Minister Hawke in 1983, a "Three Mine" policy was adopted that effectively halted any further construction of Australian uranium mines other than those already active. While the Labour Party was in power, the construction of new uranium mines was safely relegated to the back burner. Kakadu National Park continued to expand under the Hawke and Keating Administrations, and by 1993, all three stages of the park had gained World Heritage Listing.

The mid-1990s marked the rebirth of uranium mining in Australia. In 1991, Energy Resources Australia (ERA) purchased the Jabiluka site for $A125 million from Pancontinental Mining Limited (Energy Resources of Australia, 1998). Jabiluka remained an undeveloped plot of land while the Hawke Administration resided in Parliament House. In 1996, however, Prime Minister John Howard and his Coalition Government gained power. Soon after the elections, ERA presented its EIS to the pro-uranium mining Howard Government. In October 1997, the Minister for Resources and Energy approved the Jabiluka EIS. Construction commenced at the Jabiluka site on 15 June 1998.

From the time the pro-uranium mining Howard Government was elected in 1996, environmentalists and traditional Aboriginal land owners have been protesting against Jabiluka. The Jabiluka Blockade is a national movement of students, environmentalists, scientists, and concerned citizens that has been both violently and nonviolently opposing the Jabiluka mine. At times, physical efforts by Blockade participants have ceased trucks and equipment from entering the Jabiluka site. At other times, their vocal opposition has forced political delay. Even as late as October 1998, the Blockade was still successful in its attempts to draw highly controversial attention to Jabiluka mine. Media attention has been focused on the dispute since day one and has been compounded by both the vociferously and physically confrontational nature of the dispute, and by the involvement of influential supporters like Peter Garrett of the rock band Midnight Oil.

Midnight Oil performs outside the lease - photo Andy Gough

(Image from http://www.ozemail.com.au/~greenntt/jabiluka.htm)

Protesting at the Jabiluka Blockade – photo Andy Gough

(Image from http://www.ozemail.com.au/~greenntt/jabiluka.htm)

Re-election of the Howard government in early October 1998, however, "eliminated the final threat to the development of the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Northern Territory, sparking a 16% jump in shares of mine owner Energy Resources of Australia (Howarth, 1998)." The Jabiluka Blockade Campsite closed in October 1998 due to the beginning of the wet season in the Northern Territory. ERA claims "mine development is proceeding well and first production is envisaged in 2001 (Uranium Information Centre, 1998)." Environmentalists and Aboriginal leaders have vowed to continue their fight against Jabiluka.

Key Actors

Energy Resources of Australia Limited (ERA)

"ERA is a 68.4 per cent owned subsidiary of North Limited, a diversified resource company, and has strong shareholder-customer links with electric utilities in Japan, Germany, France and Sweden (Energy Resources of Australia, 1998)." ERA became a public company in 1980. Its main objective is to sell uranium oxide (U3O8) mined at the Jabiluka and Ranger Mines to electric utility companies in Japan, South Korea, Europe and North America. In addition, ERA sells "uranium concentrates" developed outside Australia to these interests. According to ERA, the company is "intent on maximizing profitable sales by maintaining a secure portfolio of medium and long-term sales contracts and, as the third-largest uranium mining company in the world, has maintained a good reputation within the market place (Energy Resources of Australia, 1998)."

The Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation - Traditional Aboriginal Land Owners

The Mirrar Gundjehmi people have inhabited part of what is now known as Kakadu National Park for over 60,000 years. In 1982, Aboriginal Land Commissioner Justice Toohey recommended that the title to the land be granted to the Mirrar. He stated that "Mirrar…(are) a local descent group under a primary spiritual responsibility for the sites and the land. There [is] no dispute that members of the group are entitled by Aboriginal tradition to forage as of right over that land (Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation, 1998)." The Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation was created in 1995 to look after the interests of the Mirrar Gundjehmi people. Ms. Yvonne Margarula is the senior traditional owner and as such, is responsible for "the welfare of the Mirrar people, and for their country (Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation, 1998)." Ms. Margarula has spoken publicly about how disheartened the Mirrar are by the potential disruption to ancient burial sites near Jabiluka.

Environmental Groups

Environmental organizations in the fight against Jabiluka include the Australian Conservation Foundation , Friends of the Earth (Sydney), The Wilderness Society (Sydney), The Environment Centre NT, Lismore-Campaign for Nuclear Free Future, and many others. They argue that highly radioactive uranium tailings, left behind in the wake of mining at Ranger, continue to threaten the environment in this region. Moreover, they argue that although tailings will be buried underground at Jabiluka, unless there is a rigid monitoring program in effect for hundreds of thousands of years, the tailings will inevitably permeate the Alligator River system. They also oppose the use of uranium in any type of weapons production, which they claim could be an indirect result of uranium mining at Jabiluka.

The Howard Government

Prime Minister John Howard, of the Australian Liberal Party, was elected to office in 1996. His Coalition Government is highly economically motivated, and supports projects that create jobs and stimulate the Australian economy. The Howard Government has been characterized as being "committed to promoting ecologically sustainable projects which will create jobs for Australians (Inwood, 1998)." The Howard Government is in favor of environmentally "safe" uranium mining.


Kakadu National Park covers a 20,000 km2 region, throughout which Aboriginal communities are interspersed. Although Jabiluka lies on its own land lease, it is entirely surrounded by parklands. The oldest known site of human habitation, called Malakananja II, is located on the lease site. Thus, the historical and cultural significance of this piece of land alone is immense. The population of the Northern Territory during the last census (1991) was 190,500 while that of the Jabiru region of the Northern Territory, within which the Jabiluka lease is located, was 7,250 (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, 1998: Australian Bureau of Statistics Statsite). This was 60% of the population of the Northern Territory. It is projected that by the year 2001, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Population will jump to 10,000 (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, 1998: Australian Bureau of Statistics Statsite). The Northern Territory, therefore, is the fastest growing state or territory in Australia.

Poor housing conditions are often a characteristic of Aboriginal communities in the Jabiru region. Twelve percent of the Jabiru region population lives in housing that is classified as "improvised" accommodation. Improvised dwellings are defined as "a structure that is being used as a dwelling that was not designed as or converted into a dwelling acceptable to the majority of the Australian population. This includes tents, traditional shelters and sheds (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, 1998: Australian Bureau of Statistics Statsite)." Hypothetically, the lure of jobs provided by a uranium mine may be seen by Aborigines as a way to better their lot regardless of what health risks such an occupation may pose. Likewise, Aboriginal unemployment rates twice as high as the unemployment rates for the total Australian population would also lead Aborigines to be lured by the prospect of jobs at a mine (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, 1998: Australian Bureau of Statistics Statsite). See Figures 1 and 2.

Fig 1 Labour Force Status, Jabiru Region, 1991

(Image from http://www.atsic.gov.au/)

Explanation of Figure 1: "People may not be in the labour force for a number of reasons. People who are attending school, TAFE and university are often not participating in the labour force. Housewives and non working parents are another large group in the "not in the labour force" category. Also included in the "not in the labour force category" are those people who have retired or who rely on government benefits other than unemployment benefits (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, http://www.atsic.gov.au/regions/jabiru/jabiru.htm)."

Fig 2 Employment Status of Labor Force Participants, Jabiru Region, 1991

(Image from http://www.atsic.gov.au/)

Population structure is one major factor to consider when studying human health affects of a uranium mine site in the Jabiru region of the Northern Territory. Young children and youths are particularly vulnerable to environmental pollutants as their growing bodies incorporate more pollutants than those of adults. One of the main arguments by environmentalists opposed to Jabiluka is that uranium leakage (from uranium tailings) will contaminate the water system of the Alligator River. Therefore, Aboriginal children consuming water from this source could be threatened by uranium contamination. Because infants, children and youths make up a proportionately high percentage of the population in this region, uranium contamination could have long-term health effects (See Figure 3).

Fig 3 Life categories, Jabiru Region and Northern Territory, 1991

(Image from http://www.atsic.gov.au/)

Existing health trends of Aborigines in the Jabiru region of the Northern Territory show life expectancies much below that of the total Australian population (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, 1998: Australian Bureau of Statistics Statsite). For example, the life expectancy of female Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders is 65 years, which is significantly lower than the 80 year life expectancy for the total Australian population. Infant mortality rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are three times higher than the total population rates. These existing health trends highlight the compounding threat a uranium mine could pose to nearby Aboriginal communities.


Environmental organizations, Aboriginal groups, ERA and the Howard Government have employed numerous strategies to either hinder or facilitate the opening of Jabiluka mine. Environmental groups and Aborigines have learned about each other’s objectives and concerns through open dialogue and have found strength in working together to oppose Jabiluka.

The Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation was formed in 1995 to help highlight the Aboriginal people’s concerns about mining on Native lands and has worked productively with environmental groups to stimulate public awareness. Environmental groups have harnessed support for their cause by staging peaceful rallies, which have drawn highly influential activists like Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil, to the front lines. The long-standing Jabiluka Blockade has been pictured in almost every Australian newspaper and public demonstrations in major cities like Sydney and Melbourne have been a favorite evening news item. In addition, the internet has been an invaluable resource in promoting the Blockade and in reaching activists throughout Australia. It has been used to focus letter-writing campaigns on influential and powerful Parliamentarians.

Environmentalists have also participated in sabotage of ERA’s Jabiluka mine, one occurrence being the August 9, 1998 disarming of uranium mining equipment by members of Jabiluka Ploughshares. Ciaron O’Reilly and Treena Lenthall marked the 53rd Anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki by dumping human blood over and hammering on mine equipment (Jabiluka Ploughshares, 1998).

Most recently the environmental strategies to oppose Jabiluka have taken on a significantly international scope as the World Heritage Listing of Kakadu National Park has been questioned. World Heritage experts visited the Jabiluka site in early November 1998 to determine whether or not the World Heritage qualities of this region are indeed threatened by the siting of the Jabiluka mine. This was the direct result of "damming submissions to the delegation…made by Aboriginal traditional owners, the environment movement, the Academy of Humanities, the Academy of Scientists and other expert critics (Hogarth, 1998)." These allegations include:

  1. "That the oldest known site of human habitation – Malakananja II – is part of the Jabiluka lease, despite being shown in World Heritage documentation as being protected.
  2. That the development of Jabiluka contradicts the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia’s Biological Diversity, adopted under obligations to the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity.
  3. That new findings by leading Australian scientists cast major doubt over the Commonwealth Government’s environmental approval process for Jabiluka, especially regarding the safety of Kakadu’s internationally famous network of wetlands (Hogarth, 1998)."

Environmentalists around the world insist that the mining of Jabiluka will set a disastrous precedent for World Heritage Listed sites.

The main strategy of ERA and the Howard Government, conversely, has been to minimize discussion concerning the environmental impacts of Jabiluka and to focus attention on its economic benefits to both the Aboriginal community and to the country. According to ERA, mining at Jabiluka will not only create jobs, but it will also "add $4.5 billion to GDP over its 28-year life (Horsburgh, 1997)." ERA also feels that $150-$200 million in mining royalties, to be given to Aborigines, is more than sufficient mitigation for any loss to traditionally sacred lands.

ERA is accused of using the strategy of catalyzing conflict within the Aboriginal community by "promoting the purchase of a tourist facility on Mirrar land by a non-Mirrar Aboriginal group (Hordern, 1998)." By offering economic relief to one Aboriginal group, the environmental or native title complaints of another Aboriginal group may be seen as less valid.

ERA has also waged battle in the courts. Judicial review of a Federal Court decision reached in May 1998 to "restrict Northern Territory Mines and Energy Minister Eric Poole from issuing an authorization for mining in the World Heritage listed Kakadu region under the Uranium Mining Act of 1979" turned out in favor of ERA. The Court found that "the Northern Territory government appropriately issued authorization to develop the controversial project" and that ERA could continue with construction (Illawarra Mercury, 1998).

The Howard Government has continually rebuked claims by environmentalists that uranium mining in Australia is unsafe by citing its strict adherence to environmentally safe projects. The Howard Government claims that it will only approve uranium mine projects if they are "subject to rigorous and transparent environmental impact assessment and…if [they] meet the highest environmental standards (Inwood, 1998)."


Jabiluka mine construction began on June 15, 1998. ERA and the Howard Government have, thus far, been successful in maintaining political support for continued construction. Environmental groups and the Mirrar people have not given up hope, however. Currently, environmentalists are relying heavily upon the findings of World Heritage experts. World opinion could put increased pressure on the Howard Government to cease operations at Jabiluka


UPDATE: As of December 1,1998, the full World Heritage Committee found that the "proposed Jabiluka mine exposes Kakadu ‘to a number of serious threats which are placing it under both ascertained and potential danger (Australian Conservation Foundation, 1998).’" In a statement by Peter Garrett, ACF President and lead singer of the band Midnight Oil, a call to halt all operations at Jabiluka was made:

"[The Committees] first recommendation simply is that ‘the proposal to mine and mill uranium at Jabiluka should not proceed’, which totally vindicates the stand taken by the traditional owners of the land in question, the Mirrar people, and the ACF in opposing the project. The Committee’s decision and the report are the highest level of censure Australia has had to date from the world community on our protection of World Heritage sites and must not be ignored (Australian Conservation Foundation, 1998: )."

The Howard government and Energy Resources Australia are now under immense pressure from the world community to immediately halt operations at Jabiluka until further assessments can be made during a six-month review period.


Unfortunately for environmentalists, construction of the Jabiluka mine has already commenced. Hope was given to environmentalists and Aboriginal leaders, however, in November 1998 when World Heritage Experts visited Kakadu National Park to assess the potential threat a uranium mine could pose to the World Heritage qualities of this region. Environmentalists and Aboriginal leaders should seize this opportunity to gain global support for their cause. Media attention worldwide focused on the destruction of a World Heritage listed park by the Australian government and Energy Resources Australia could force the Howard government and/or ERA to cease construction of Jabiluka (see UPDATE above).

Besides harnessing global political support for an end to Jabiluka, environmentalists and Aboriginal leaders need to work in concert to highlight their environmental, health and land-rights concerns rather than allowing these arguments to stand alone. A united front against Jabiluka, linking environmentalists concerns about wetland destruction and the end-products of uranium mining with Aborigines concerns about destruction of sacred sites and detrimental health effects from contaminated water, should be solidified. Unifying the separate concerns voiced about Jabiluka into one package would create a more powerful tool to halt further construction of Jabiluka. While the powerful pro-uranium consortium has been successful thus far in putting out the small fires, a united front would allow environmentalists and Aboriginal leaders to be considered equal players in this dispute.

Lastly, nowhere in the entire scope of the Jabiluka controversy has there been any mention of this dispute as an "environmental justice" issue. Perhaps the Aboriginal community needs to initiate an environmental justice movement, as has occurred in the U.S., to bring legal and media attention to the fact that both Energy Resources of Australia and the Howard government promote environmental injustice to Aboriginal people. Aborigines must be afforded the same rights as white Australians to lead healthy, safe and peaceful lives free from environmental degradation and cultural dilution.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, 1998: http://www.abs.gov.au/ Australian Bureau of Statistics Statsite.
Australian Conservation Foundation, "WORLD SAYS NO TO JABILUKA MINE - ACF CALLS FOR CONSTRUCTION TO STOP", December 1, 1998, http://www.peg.apc.org/~acfenv/mr011298.htm.

Energy Resources of Australia Limited. "Jabiluka Overview-Key Findings of the Jabiluka EIS and PER: Aboriginal Owners." http://www.energyres.com.au/jabiluka/overview.html.

Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation. "Statement of the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation." 11 October 1998, http://www.peg.apc.org/~acfenv/tostate.htm.

Hogarth, M. "Kakadu’s heritage listing at risk", 26 October 1998, Sydney Morning Herald, page 2.

Hordern, N. "Miner is dividing to conquer", 17 August 1998, Australian Financial Review, page 7.

Horsburgh, S. "Chain Reaction: Plans for A Uranium Mine in Australia’s Kakadu National Park Outrage Environmentalists and Divide Local Aborigines", 20 October 1997, Time – South Pacific, No. 42: Vol. 15, No. 16.

Howarth, I. "Stable Political Landscape Lifts ERA Shares." Australian Financial Review, 6 October 1998, p20, http://archive.fairfax.com.au/cgi-bin/debit.archive.

Illawara Mercury, "Kakadu mine wins in court", 17 October 1998, page 54.

Inwood, G. 1998. Response to Letter by Charles Roberts to Australia Federal Politicians, http://www.octa4.net.au/catacomb/gi.html.

Jabiluka Ploughshares, "Heroic Acts of Citizenship", 11 October 1998 http://www.freespeech.org/ploughshares/index.html.

Krockenberger, M. "Mining in Kakadu National Park." 11 October 1998, http://avoca.vicnet.net.au/~seaus/savekakadu.html.

Uranium Information Centre, "Jabiluka", http://www.uic.com.au/prime.htm.