It was recently revealed that the French nuclear corporation Areva has been exploring for uranium in the Carpentaria basin in Far North Queensland for uranium deposits. The basin includes the south west of Caper York and the north east of the Gulf country. Areva state that Australia possesses some of the largest uranium reserves in the world and that tens of thousands of hectares are of exploration interest.
Areva already have a track record in Australia. They are the same company that Kakadu Traditional Owner Jeffrey Lee refused to allow to mine on his ancestral lands. As the senior Traditional Owner from the Djok clan and custodian of Koongarra where uranium was found, Lee decided to never allow mining in the culturally and ecologically sensitive area.
Despite this opposition, Jeffrey Lee endured years of pressure to allow mining in the former Koongarra Project Area, long excluded from the surrounding Kakadu National Park and World Heritage area.
Turning his back on personal wealth, Lee chose to prioritise country and culture over cash stating; “I could have been a rich man. Billions of dollars… You can offer me anything but my land is cultural land.”
Only last year did the threat of uranium mining on Jeffrey’s country get laid to rest with the area finally and formally added to Kakadu. With the right to veto mining afforded to Traditional Owners in the Northern Territory under the Land Rights (NT) Act 1976, Mr Lee had the legal power to say no. Fortunately for all Australian’s – now and in the future – he exercised this power.
Unfortunately, this opportunity is not afforded to Traditional Owners under Queensland’s Aboriginal Land Act 1992. On Cape York Peninsula Areva has largely flown under the radar, and have been exploring in the Mitchell, Coleman and Gilbert river basins and areas further south and south west.
Much of the recent exploration occurred in areas where old geological surveys have established the presence of detectible levels of surface radiation. To many Traditional Owners, these places are known as sickness country, or poison country, and are often considered sacred. Upsetting the poison and letting it out into the landscape would be a disaster, particularly in the life giving and food providing Mitchel River basin.
As one of the biggest basins in northern Australia, the Mitchell River has one of the largest mean annual flows of all Australian rivers and supports the most complex tropical floodplain environments in Australia.
Kowanyama, which translates roughly as ‘place of many waters’ is a small community with a population of just over 1000 people near the Mitchel River delta.
According to a study into the social and economic values of the surrounding freshwater environments by the CSIRO and the Kowanyama Aboriginal Land and Natural Resource Management Office, hunting and fishing within the network of lagoons, creeks and rivers of the Mitchell River floodplain made a significant contribution to household food. This in turn had economic importance, measured against the replacement value of likely alternatives available in shops.
Clearly, the health of the Mitchell River and its tributaries affects the health of the people who rely on its waters for food, culture and lifestyle. As a healthy functioning ecosystem, the Mitchell River floodplain region is part of the real northern food bowl.
When Campbell Newman went to the 2012 Queensland election with a ‘crystal clear’ commitment not to overturn the State’s ban on uranium mining, Areva were already warming up their drill rigs. Uranium mining is a dirty game and we’ve already seen severe contamination from leaks at Rio Tinto’s Ranger mine in the Northern Territory. Given the amount of wet season flooding on the Mitchell River, there is no doubt of direct risk to the Cape’s rivers from any future uranium operation.
What’s more, it seems as though the public’s right to contest and object to mining proposals is being eroded. Regardless of whether you live next door, downstream or elsewhere, your rights to contest mining proposals was diminished with the introductions of the Minerals and Energy (Common Provisions) Act 2014 (Qld) recently. This heavy handed law takes away our rights to contest around 90% of mining projects in Queensland.
Our healthy rivers and waterways are more than just unallocated commodities for the resource sector to consume and then dispose of. Our quality of life, through culture and lifestyle, depend on the life-giving water of the regions spectacular and precious river systems.
Queensland’s Newman Government began its term in office with a commitment to work with the people of Cape York to protect the region but instead delivered their Cape York Regional Plan – a process that promised much, but offers zero long-term environmental protections.
In the Mitchel River basin we are already seeing in-stream mining, a massive increase in exploration and increased sediment loads in aquatic environments. Introducing the risk of uranium contamination into the Mitchell and other rivers would be a disaster for people and country. It makes no sense to threaten the resource that sustains life with the ill-conceived and fast-tracked digging of a mineral that threatens life.