Searching for Uranium in Western Australia


The Martujarra are a traditional Aboriginal people of the Western Desert of Australia. After a generation of living on the edges of the cities, these people have returned to the desert to reestablish a modified traditional lifestyle. The Martu people chose sites in and around the Rudall River National Park for their permanent camps, believing that the region would remain undeveloped because of the national park designation.

Ironically, concurrent with the Martu's return to the desert came an influx of mining exploration companies intent on making the "unpopulated" desert "wasteland" produce. Canning Resources Pty. Ltd (CRA), a South Africa-based multinational mining company, began exploration in the Rudall River region in 1977, in 1985 CRA discovered a major deposit of uranium within the Rudall River National Park. Despite agreed-upon restrictions - i.e., a moratorium on new roads in the area - CRA has established a "temporary camp" staffed by 100 people, with facilities for testing, separating, and storing uranium samples. CRA continues bulldozing roads to explore new sites within the Rudall River National Park, areas chosen without consulting the Martujarra - stewards of the land for more than 50,000 years - to avoid violating sacred sites.

In 1972 CRA began exploration at Cotton Creek/Pungurr, which lies within the national park boundaries, without an exploration permit. They blasted trenches into the side of this sacred site to take ore samples and declared the site a copper mining prospect. Despite protests by the Martu people (who have no land rights from the Western Australia government), the miners refused to leave Pungurr until the Martu set up camp right next to the site. The Martu camp remains to this day the only successful attempt at curbing CRA's activities in the Western Desert (see map).

Who will benefit from the proposed uranium mining? Certainly not Australia. Most of the mining exploration companies in the Western Desert are multinationals based in Europe, Japan, South Africa, or North America. The profits will go to other countries, but the problems will remain in Australia. CRA's proposed dumping site, for example, is located directly over one of three underground rivers that supply the continent of Australia with fresh water. That single radioactive dump will contaminate not only the water and food supply of the traditional Aboriginal people who still hunt and gather food from the desert, but also the fresh water supply of every community downstream, which includes Perth and all of southwest Australia.

"While Man Don't Care 'Bout Me"

In mid-July I find myself sitting next to David Kahn, an American video producer, as we bump through the desert of Western Australia in a four-wheel-drive Toyota. We are going to make a video of the Martujarra people, presenting in their own words the challenges they face in maintaining their culture amid the uranium mining taking place on their traditional lands.

A fully loaded semitruck rolls in front of us, crammed with groceries, gasoline, and windmill parts for punmu, one of the desert camps. En route to the camp we will cover 850 km on a pair of tire tracks that run more or less east across the desert.

After dark we stop by the side of the track and gather fallen wood from the dry, spiny shrubs. Small fires flicker in the open desert. Shafts of light illuminate the surrounding trees and shrubs. I sit wrapped in my sleeping bag, the winter night threatening to bring frost by morning. I look up as Razorblade, one of the Aboriginal men, comes to join our campfire.

"White man don't care 'bout me." Razorblade sits staring at the campfire, the orange light reflecting off his smooth, black forehead. David and I sit and listen to his story. He begins slowly, pauses to shake his head, then gathers momentum, the words cascading like sand from an outstretched hand. "He take this land, pollute the water with uranium, and I die. I drink the water, and I die. I eat the animals that drink that water, and I die. This is my land. I belong to this land. If this land goes, I die, I got no where else to go, this my home. I die, and he don't care."

The old man before us speaks with a directness common among the desert people. Emboldened by beer, consumed in part to ease the sense of hopelessness about the destruction of this land, he repeats the tale. Any form of liquor is outlawed in the desert camps - a self-imposed rule among the Martu - so Razorblade has been drinking steadily to finish off a six-pack of beer before we arrive at Punmu.

"That's why we're here," says David quietly. "We're trying to do something so that white people will listen."

"Maybe you fellas trying to help," says Razorblade. "Yeah, you all right. But most white folks, they don't even know we alive. They don't care about us. Just want to kill our land, and us, too."

Life in the Desert

After sunrise, we pile into the vehicles and continue across the desert, pushing to reach the desert camp by sunset. The "desert" is not want I expected. Tall eucalyptus trees, white bark brilliant under the desert sun, grow throughout the desert. The yellow blossoms of mulga bushes cascade in plumes from the branches. The winter rains have catalyzed an explosion of wildflowers, revealing in the distance patches of purple and yellow and blue.

Despite first appearances, this land is rich with water - underground water, not far below the surface. The Martu people depend on the underground water through wells and windmills. When they are traveling and hunting, they rely on the open water supply. For the Martu, water is life.

Camels lope along the road, dingoes trot among the dunes, and kangaroos bounce amid the mulga bushes. "Bustards" - bush turkeys - strut on the sandy, red earth. The desert is bursting with life. And everywhere, eternally, are the flies - dive-bombing eyes, ears, nose, open mouth. The only way to avoid them is to keep moving, squint, and cover your ears - I know now why most desert Aboriginal people wear hats.

This area is part of the land traditionally walked and hunted by the Martujarra. Martu is their word for "people," one of 500 societies inhabiting Australia when Captain Sir Arthur Phillip sailed into what is now Botany Bay in 1788. The number of languages has dwindled to about half that original 500, yet most of these desert people are multilingual, often speaking at least three (some up to eighteen) different languages. Today those languages - many once considered "extinct" in linguistic circles - and the cultures that spawned them are strengthening. Many of the people who "belong" to the central and western desert (they talk about "belonging to the desert" instead of the desert belonging to them) are moving away from the cities to reestablish "camps" in their traditional lands.

About 30 years ago many aboriginal people left the desert to move to the edges of the cities, often drawn by a longing to join migrating family members. Family bounds are strong, powerful enough to draw an entire race of proud people into shantytowns on the edges of burgeoning cities. Certainly family was not the only draw. Subsistence living in the desert is grueling work, and the relative ease of a money based economy fueled by government handouts was appealing. The result, however, was appalling: uprooted from a culture whose strength is a deep sense of place, whose essence is bounded with the fabric of the land, hopelessness and despair seeped into the fragmented family groups. Alcohol eased the immediate pain but atrophied any long-term solution.

Over the past 20 years the Martu have returned to their traditional lands to reestablish their culture on their own terms. Far from creating a nostalgic reenactment of their nomadic life, they bring elements of the European culture that soften the hard edge of desert survival: four-wheel-drive trucks, solar panels to generate electricity for lights. Aboriginal people are pragmatic, not at all romantic about the challenges of surviving the harsh desert climate. If a certain technology makes life easier, they use it.

A People of Actions, Not Words

Moving into an Aboriginal culture, I enter as a child. The community has many unspoken agreements about behavior and perceiving the world. They see such a visitor as a well-meaning person "who hasn't been grown up properly." Adult-children are a bit more embarrassing because they usually take longer to learn, and the weight of age makes toe-trodding more conspicuous. Simple things such as waiting at the edge of camp and asking to use the water faucet before walking through the camp or not joining an all-male circle unless invited - all blatantly obvious to these people - are new territory for me. Traditionally newcomers wait at the edge of a camp until they are welcomed by someone inside the camp. They can wait outside the camp for minutes or for days before being recognized. Unwelcome visitors die of thirst or hunger if they are not skilled in desert survival. And women never join a men's circle uninvited, nor do men intrude on the women's gatherings. Without a proper upbringing, I have to rely more on my intuition to sense if something would be offensive.

"Please" and "thank you" do not exist in this culture. Courtesy comes on an action level, not through words. If I want to welcome you into camp, I bring wood and build a fire. "Hello" and "good-bye" do not exist, either. The Dreamtime, the essence of aboriginal culture, is an endless weaving of past, present, and future. "I came out of the Dreamtime, and I will return to the Dreamtime." In other words: I never really go away, so why should I bother with dates and linger over good-byes? Once the Dreamtime has taken hold, I am drawn back endlessly in mind and body, pulled by an irresistible, timeless force. I am part of the Desert, and the Desert is part of me.

These people are deeply intuitive and extraordinarily observant, more so than any western European people. Learning stems from observation. I feel childlike in my ability to keep my mouth shut and learn without directly being told how to do something or how to act. These people watch my actions and pay little attention to my speech - so different from the culture in which I have grown used to buffering situations with words. They do not understand white people who come with "good intentions" and never actually produce anything.

Traditionally, desert Aboriginal people had to maintain a nomadic lifestyle to disperse their impact on a fragile, inhospitable environment. Movement ensured that an area would not be overhunted or overcamped. The vast storehouse of knowledge about how to travel in the desert, how to live together, and where to find food and water is preserved in the people's cycle of songs and stories. These song cycles trace the people's journey through the desert, describing every rock, bush, waterhole - even specific areas to dig yams or other "bush tucker." The songs also depict the journey of Dreamtime ancestors, heroic beings who moved across the formless land and created land formations through their activities.

For thousands of years the Martujarra literally have followed the footsteps of their ancestors, claiming these sacred routes as their own path of travel across the desert and retaining the weave of the practical and the sacred through their journey.

Children learn these stories, often to absorb specific lessons. A child visits a particular site, listens to the story, and then touches the actual makings of that I can touch and see and smell and taste is a repository for vast, sacred knowledge. The stories of a people do not make sense away from their ancestral home. Sacredness is rooted in a place, in the here and now, The essence of sacredness is embodied in matter, the very stuff of creation, and this mingling of spirit and matter is inseparable in an Aboriginal understanding of the world.

The song cycle of the Dreamtime ancestors also becomes the practical map for moving across the desert. After years of being away from their home country, a land perhaps known among the younger generation growing up in the cities only through the song cycles, the Martujarra people returning to the desert can walk with complete confidence to the site of a waterhole, the knowledge of its position retained in the song-story cycle, and uncover a layer of pavement to reveal the water beneath. Their knowledge is specific - site specific - to within inches. That is the power of their mental technology, preserved through oral tradition.

Searching for Uranium

We arrive at Punmu just after dark. We stop first to see Ditch, who lives with his extended family next to the landing strip, about a mile from the rest of the camp. He is the "boss man," the elder of the community, and any new visitor must see him before entering the central area. He gives initial clearance; tomorrow we will meet with the "council" for final approval.

In the morning we sit in a sandy hollow littered with cigarette butts. Flea-bitten camp dogs track around the circle, gently sniffing us before they settle into the sand. One stays next to me, belly up, eager to have her stomach scratched. We wait while the men assemble in a loose circle, with the women scattered some distance back, around the edges.

David and I describe the skills we have to offer in making a video, and David passes around some of the publications that he thinks might be helpful to "get the word out" about what is happening here in Rudall River. Shortly after we finish, three men stalk into the circle, obviously in a hurry - a mining company representative and his hired help, an anthropologist and an archaeologist.

The Uranerz mining company rep unveils a series of photographs (complete with two token Aboriginal workers prominent in the display) to explain how the company goes about testing to find deposits of "gold, copper, silver, uranium, coal, and diamonds."

With a company name like "Uranerz," who is this representative kidding? Everyone knows the visitors are testing for uranium. Since CRA's discovery of a major uranium deposit in 1985, Uranerz and many other exploration companies have secured leases in and around the Rudall River National Park in hopes of finding more uranium, as well as gold, silver, diamond, platinum, and copper deposits. Neither CRA not the more recent exploration companies will be alone in the Rudall River area; 60 km north of CRA's exploration camp is the Telfer Gold Mine - one of the largest gold mines in the world - which has been in full operation since 1977. CRA officials seem confident that the Western Australia government will gladly, even eagerly, approve full mining operations. Certainly the CRA "exploration" camp has taken on an air of permanence, complete with two swimming pools and a staff of 100.

The phenomenon of foreign multinationals finding a warm welcome in Australia seems odd. Why is Australia so eager to open its natural resources to exploitation by outside countries? Even harder to understand is why the welcome is entertained in the Rudall River area, which was designated a national park in 1977. In Australia, the designation "national park" appears to guarantee nothing in terms of protection.

How can the Australian government argue that these developments support "progress?" Whose progress? Certainly not Australians - white or Aboriginal. The United States, South Africa, Germany, and Japan, to name a few, will reap great benefits from the ravage of the land, but Australians will be left with a denuded, poisoned, irradiated landscape to call "home."

Uranerz, an exploration company jointly owned by a Japanese and a German firm, is ready to explore a tract of land that overlaps the northwestern territory of the Rudall River National park. During the presentation I turn to Kate, a woman who has been working with the desert people for 10 years, and whisper, "Why can't these people just say no to the mining company and ask them to get the hell out of here?"

"They don't have any land rights," says Kate, bristling with irritation, "no recognition by the government that this is their traditional land. They have no right to ask these people to leave."

I swallow, my mouth dry with bitterness as I watch the exploration company representatives enact this drama. This same company learned its lesson about including traditional people in its plans a couple of years ago when it started mining in the Northern Territory of Australia without consulting the local Aboriginal population. The Aboriginal people there organized a successful roadblock that stopped the mining operation.

The company rep invites Ditch, as community elder, to choose three men to bring with him in the company's six-seater plane. Ditch chooses his men and also insists that David and I come along to film the trip, an unexpected request that the company, in its attempts to be completely open and honest about its operations, cannot easily refuse. The rep, arms crossed and knees locked, considers for a moment and then nods curtly: "Yes, they can come."

Grim Reality

After four days of filming the Uranerz exploration camp and some of the sites, David and I return to Punmu for a brief rest. Two days later we set off across the desert - with about a dozen Martu women packed into a Toyota - to visit other desert camps of the Martujarra people. During our journey David and some of the Martu men from another camp visit the CRA mining camp unannounced, to observe the company's activities firsthand. The reality is even more depressing than the reports we have been hearing.

"KEEP OUT. Contaminated Area. This means YOU!" read the signs posted outside buildings where people work in white suits and masks. They are separating ore and testing samples, storing the tailings in these buildings. The edge of the camp is located only 25 feet from the Rudall River National Park border. All of the roads to and from the camp run through the park - not simple truck paths, but wide, flat roads maintained by huge grading machines.

All the proposed exploration areas mapped out by one of the CRA officials lie within the park boundaries. The company chose these areas without first consulting the Martujarra about avoiding sacred sites. The head geologist, in fact, informs Ditch that they were told not to speak with anyone at Punmu.

When Ditch asks about the proposed dumping site, the geologist insists that the tailings from the uranium mines will cause only a small amount of local contamination. Brian, a man who has been working for 10 years in the desert with Aboriginal people, points out that they have positioned the proposed dumping site right on top of a major underground river that flows south to Perth and other major cities in the southwest. Australia is a relatively dry continent with only three major underground rivers. The radioactive tailings will contaminate one of those three rivers and thus the entire watershed that it supplies.

The company officials are dumbfounded. They never thought to check for an underground water supply.

A warning

Despite the physical struggle to survive in the desert camps and the ongoing threat of destruction from potential uranium mines, a sense of strength surges through the Martujarra that I rarely have encountered among western European people. The West now searches for ways to develop its inner resources, a void gnawed into existence by the demands of material development. The Martu, in contrast, approach the world with a rich inner awareness that is just beginning to come to terms with the shaping of the material world mastered by the West. The Martu core is ancient and solid, but the challenges they face threaten to crush the ways crystallized by tradition. The transition might be painful, but the people firmly hold faith in their ability to reestablish their culture in the desert camps.

The Martu have returned to their Place, to the Home that melds the sacred and the practical in the vortex of the land. The Home, however, is far from secure. Ironically a people seeking to reestablish their culture away from western European influence find that that same culture follows them into the desert in the form of mining companies determined to make the "wasteland" produce. The companies, however, may be surprised by the fruits of their efforts.

An Aboriginal story tells of a nest of luminous, green eggs guarded by the Ant People. Any disturbance to this nest of eggs will anger the Ant People and cause great changes to the planet as a whole. The luminous eggs in this prophetic story are uranium, a force that can unleash great destruction on this planet when uprooted from its place.

Such stores, the elders remind us, come as warnings. A good prophet is one whose predictions of destruction do not come to fruition because the people heed the warning and follow a new course. Prophecies foretell an outcome based on the assumption that we continue our present path - we can change direction and alter the outcome if we choose.

How You Can Help

If you would like to help, let the Australian government know that you are aware of the Martujarra people, the proposed CRA uranium mine, and the Rudall River National Park in which they plan to mine. Let them know that the Martujarra people are visible to the world and deserve an opportunity to pursue their way of life on their traditional lands. Write to:

Hon. Peter Dowding

Premier of Western Australia

Parliament House, Harvest Terrace

Perth, Western Australia 6000


Hon. R.J.L. Hawke

Prime Minister of Australia

Room M94, Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600


Hon. Gerard L. Hand, MP

Minister of Aboriginal Affairs

Room M11, Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600


Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: