'Fear of the Invisible'


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Massacres to Mining PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 14 July 2008 01:50

Foreword for the 2008 Edition


Massacres to Mining




This book grew out of the author's involvement in the continuing Aboriginal fight for their lands, with its first edition launched in the UK and Holland in 1979 by an Aboriginal delegation from Northern Queensland that came to ask RTZ and Shell to respect their rights to the lands that their people still occupied and used. 

They came with the story of how they defeated the Dutch when they first arrived - an oral history that is still recounted in detail by Aboriginal ‘bards' yet it happened in 1606. They also announced that they intended to defeat Shell. Their campaign in Holland was so successful that, astonishingly, Shell promised the delegation before TV cameras to leave the 580 square miles of monsoon forest they had planned to strip mine for bauxite at Aurukun in northern Queensland, not far from the remains of the houses and well of the old Dutch settlement.

But RTZ responded very differently. Lord Shackleton, its Deputy Chairman, insisted during a three-hour meeting at their headquarters that the morality of Australian laws was solely a matter for Australians. He insisted that RTZ had an obligation to use the law as it stood to benefit their shareholders, no matter if it robbed Aboriginal people. The Queensland Government had given his company a 1,000 square mile mining lease over much of the largest Aboriginal Reserve in Eastern Australia, despite this forested land still being hunted and gathered by Aboriginal people.

The first Australian edition of this book was launched in 1981 in front of RTZ's Melbourne skyscraper, but the doors were barred to the publisher, the author and an Aboriginal delegation when they jointly tried to present the book to the company. The journalists present were given a note by RTZ warning that, if they covered the book launch, legal action might result.  We could not have paid for the resulting publicity. Full-page favourable reviews appeared in major papers as well as major pieces on the ABC - and no legal action ensued.

Following this, the author worked on films on Aboriginal issues for the BBC and ABC, and co-produced with Aboriginal Elder Robert Bropho the 1985 AFI Best Documentary Nominated film ‘Munda Nyuringu: they have taken our land, they believe it is theirs, they won't give it back,' probably the first film to tell of ‘the stolen generation, the issue for which an Australian Prime Minister would apologize in 2008. We interviewed Aboriginal people seized from their parents since, ‘as they had some white blood they were capable of education.'  The ‘Full-Bloods' were abandoned without government provision of education.

In 1989 the author began work on her film "The Diamond Empire' on how the diamond industry was engaged in world-wide exploitation. This project had its genesis in the Kimberly of NW Australia after RTZ declared it intended to take over the ancient ‘Barramundi' sacred ritual site of Aboriginal women at Argyle, since the company wanted the diamonds that lay underneath. The author was smuggled into this by Aboriginal elders to show her the beauty of what was about to be destroyed. She was, in the mid-1980s, the mining officer of the National Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils.

But at that time she was optimistic that things were about to improve. Anthropologists supported the claims of the Aborigines at the Argyle diamond site. The Pitjantjatjara regained several thousand square miles in Central Australia and it felt as if the Aboriginal people were starting to walk taller and with more confidence. Many communities were leaving mission stations to live in the bush in ‘outstations' to teach their children their traditional survival knowledge. However poverty persisted for most. They still lived on average twenty years less than Whites. (A 2008 survey of 4,000 Aboriginal houses found only one third had the facilities needed to wash a child.)

In 1990 the author began work on blood diamond issues. She travelled to the Canadian Arctic to work with communities threatened by diamond mining on their caribou rutting grounds. In South Africa and Namibia De Beers banned her from diamond mines, but the African workers smuggled her into them - and showed her film within them. In New York the top diamond cutter William Goldberg told how he was pressured not to be in her film. ‘They phoned me and said you worked with Australian Aborigines and made life difficult for mining companies.' He still agreed to an interview, but afterwards found his diamond supplies severely restricted.

Meanwhile resentment built up in Australia against Aboriginal victories in the courts. Professor Larissa Behrendt of the University of Technology in Sydney reported: ‘Prime Minister John Howard won power in 1996 in part on a platform to claw back the native title rights recognized by the Australian High Court in 1992; in part on a platform that was xenophobic and anti-immigrant.' She added: ‘Howard had a very personal passion for reclaiming the national story to one that celebrated the white settler past and rejected what he called a "black armband" view of history, one that paid too much attention, in his view, to the atrocities committed against Indigenous people in the past.'

Thus books such as this became disregarded, despite being solidly based on historical documents, despite having outstanding reviews. When its publisher was taken over, the new company allowed it to go out of print, saying the public had moved on, despite sales never dropping.  Australia refused to sign the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the United Nations General Assembly. The Federal Government seized control over Aboriginal townships and enterprises in the Northern territory.

But in 2008 the Howard Government fell and a new Labour government led by Kevin Rudd swore it would right these wrongs, beginning with an overdue apology in Parliament. He stated: ‘I MOVE that today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history. We reflect on their past mistreatment. We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generation ... We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.'

So why are we putting this book back into print in 2008? Because only with a good understanding of history can we put things right for the future. We must understand why things went wrong in the past if we are to make sure these things can never happen again.

This book documents how mining companies went onto Aboriginal lands and tried to either fool their elders or to overrule or manipulate them. This has not stopped. In May 2007 Yvonne Margarula, Elder of the Mirarr people, made clear her people would not agree to the development of the Jabiluka uranium deposit, despite RTZ comments to the contrary. This is reportedly the world's largest unmined deposit. She pointed out that the nearby RTZ Ranger uranium mine had led to despair and ills among those dispossessed.

A council of senior Aboriginal women is currently leading the fight to stop the building of a national nuclear waste dump on Aboriginal land near Woomera. Many years ago I went to visit these people. They took me to a settlement set up some two days journey into the desert where they taught their children how to live in and care for their lands, a vital enterprise if they are to survive as a people. The only white people present were the teachers they had hired to ensure their children learnt what they must to survive outside these lands.

I learnt from local Aboriginal health workers that some 400 Aborigines died as a consequence of the British atomic bomb tests in the 1950s on unfenced tribal lands near Woomera  - these people know the danger of radioactivity far better than most of us.

Sadly a similar Aboriginal project is now threatened by RTZ's plans for yet another uranium mine, at Kintyre in Western Australia, near the world-renowned desert Rudall River National Park, with its beautiful permanent water holes and rare vegetation. Here other Aboriginal people, the Martu, use their land as a sanctuary.

Today politicians are arguing that we need nuclear power stations to counter global warming - and thus that we need the uranium on Aboriginal lands. This strengthens the hands of RTZ.   It seems it is hard luck to Aborigines if this spoils their cultural survival plans!

A recent Wilderness Society report recorded: ‘At a meeting in Alice Springs, the Martu people made public their feelings on the possibility of uranium mining on their land. "We don't want uranium from our country to hurt other peoples. The Aboriginal experience with uranium mining continues to result in the genocide of our community and the destruction of our homelands and country. Rock shelters in the region illustrate continuous human occupation from at least 5000 years ago. In the 1950s and '60s the Martu were rounded up and removed by the state so the area could be used for government Blue Streak Missile tests.'

I hope this new edition will serve them in their long struggle to protect their land, children and culture.  I feel most privileged to have been for some 15 years a very small part of their fight.


Jan Roberts        June 21st , 2008




 The Age, March 29, 2008



Last Updated on Friday, 18 July 2008 01:43


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