There are wide-ranging matters arising from the impact of uranium mining and milling on Aboriginal communities in the Alligator Rivers region of the Northern Territory. It is equally important to recognise that many of the matters do not derive fundamentally from uranium mining but more generally from the impact of European society, economy and industry. This embraces pattern of life and schooling, relationships between parents and children, schooling and friendships.
Many of the problems observable in Jabiru and its environs are evident elsewhere in the Northern Territory whether or not there is a mine in the vicinity. Jabiru itself is viewed as a mixed blessing, providing Aboriginal people with access to services and amenities they may not otherwise have had, but also bringing a decline in Aboriginal culture.
Other concerns which have come to the Committee’s notice include:
The processes whereby decisions about exploration and mining are made, the role of traditional owners and time-scales for decisions. Traditional Aborigines, in particular, do not invariably find formal European frameworks and deadlines congenial in terms of their own customs.
There is a particular criticism that some members of Aboriginal communities feel compelled to agree to mining in order to secure a range of services such as housing, education and health.
The Northern Land Council is very critical of the formal framework under which the Ranger mine operates. The NLC negotiates with the Commonwealth under the Land Rights legislation; ERA secures authority to operate from the Commonwealth under the Atomic Energy Act.
The NLC would prefer to negotiate directly with ERA, as it negotiated directly with Queensland Mines about the now rehabilitated mine at Nabarlek.
There is a general concern that there should be more systematic interest in the impacts of mining and tourism on society in the Alligator Rivers region. This concern has two aspects. It partly relates to substantially greater attention to the impact of mining on society in the region. A second aspect is the means whereby information about scientific research and analysis is communicated and explained to communities potentially affected by mine operations. This is especially applicable to communities located down-stream from the mine.
It is generally considered that few of the benefits expected to come from uranium mining have been realised. Broadly, available evidence indicates that benefits have generally been over-estimated. Very few Aborigines have been employed at the mines, although there have been attempts periodically to provide more such employment.
There is a view, though it is not uniformly held, that those who do seek and take employment at the mine come from more distant locations from groups not materially affected, including from Western Australia.
Aborigines, especially local Aborigines, have found Kakadu National Park a more congenial place of work than the mines. But there is ambivalence about the Park, with the activity it brings to the region and limitations on freedom of movement around the country.
Housing, sewerage, education and health are not seen to have improved in the two decades of mining. This failure to improve living conditions and related social amenities stems largely from an abdication of responsibility by the Northern Territory Government. There is also concern about the use of royalty equivalent income to provide services (S 98, 2). When payments have not been so used, as in the case of Nabarlek, they have been used on consumer goods, mainly vehicles.
Declining and patchy attendance at school brings with it an increasing problem of declining literacy levels.
It is considered that since mining commenced, some problems have been aggravated. Alcohol abuse is by far the most conspicuous of these problems.
Distribution of royalty-equivalent monies is a source of concern and controversy. It is unclear whether or not there was any enduring benefit arising from such payments from mining at Nabarlek.
The picture is more complex in relation to Ranger. The Gagadju Association has been entrepreneurial in the use of money which has been paid to it, establishing a range of businesses and funding education opportunities for youth.
The Gagudju Association is the Aboriginal community on whose land Ranger is located. It is a royalty association, that is, a body set up to receive royalty-equivalent payments from the mine. It provides a range of services to its members including housing, health and education, transport and employment, as well as income in the form of annual distributions of approximately $2,000 per member. Children, on attaining majority, are entitled to approximately $23,000.
The Association runs a number of businesses. The most well-known is the Gagudju Crocodile Hotel Resort in Jabiru. The Association also runs other tourist facilities such as Cooinda Lodge and Yellow Waters river cruises, though these operations are indirectly dependent on royalty equivalent monies. The Association has bought and operates a Mobil service station and a screen printing business.
The Association is nonetheless criticised for not bringing a better standard of living and for the absence of dividends from investments.
During the operation of Nabarlek, total royalties in the order of $17 million were paid under the QML agreement. The royalties were mainly distributed as cash payments; motor vehicles were by far the largest single item of expenditure.
The royalty association, the Kunwinjku, also made a number of investments. The Association made a loss on both the investments and loans.
A study of Nabarlek concluded:
. . . there are no indications that long-term economic status will be adversely affected, as there are few indicators of a sustained improvement in life style owing to access to mining monies. In other words, the generally low economic status of most Aboriginal members of the Association remains unchanged . . . The cessation of mining will most likely see a return to the previous welfare regime. (J.C. Altman and D.E. Smith, The Economic Impact of Mining Moneys: the Nabarlek Case, West Arnhem Land, ANU Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research No 63/1993, 20)
There was a hope that royalty equivalent payments would be a way of improving the living conditions of Aborigines and of providing an economic base for a secure future and for self-determination. But the royalty equivalent payments have also been a focus of constant pressure between immediate spending and investment for the future, the consequences of access to royalties on the availability of government assistance, dependence on royalties, and the use of royalty equivalent monies to provide services and amenities that would otherwise be provided by government.
A 1986 appraisal of the Gagudju record observed that:
While its investment record is certainly not perfect, the Gagudju Association has achieved considerable success in grasping that opportunity. Its capacity to do so has depended on restricting individual royalty distributions and spending on services. Not all agree with the Management Committee’s policy in this regard: in some cases their disagreement simply reflects a desire to have more money available for personal purchases of consumer goods, in others a conviction that the current social and economic status of Association members is so low as to demand immediate use of royalty income to raise it.
Irene Wilson noted in her research paper:
In this context the Gagudju Association is criticised for not being accountable to the Aboriginal people and measuring their performance in terms of European economic measures rather than in terms of meeting obligations to family and community members. Disagreement on how royalty equivalent monies are spent may have led to the recent formation of the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation and contributed to the current disputations between the Gagudju Association and the NLC.
Payment of royalty equivalent monies is often linked to questions of independence and Aboriginal self-determination. In his 1986 study O’Faircheallaigh observed:
. . . royalty payments have created an opportunity for effective exercise of self-determination. It seems clear, therefore, that mining can fulfil the expectations of Aboriginal groups or communities whose land is used in major mining projects, but that its ability to do so is crucially dependent on payment of substantial royalty equivalents.
(O’Faircheallaigh, op cit, 12)
Mick Alderson of the Gagadju Association has stated that:
Self-determination: its our country: we’re living in it and we want land to have and to use, whether it’s mining or tourism, mainly tourism, and that’s the way we become independent.
(Radio National, ‘Jabiluka: Yvonne says “No” ‘, Background Briefing,, 16 June 1996)
Irene Wilson commented:
Others argue that the royalty regime replaces dependence on government with dependence on mining and is no real basis for self-determination.