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Brown, Nina; Sowerwine, Sam --- "Irati Wanti: Senior Aboriginal Women Fight a Nuclear Waste Dump" [2004] IndigLawB 23; (2004) 6(1) Indigenous Law Bulletin 11

Irati Wanti: Senior Aboriginal Women Fight a Nuclear Waste Dump

by Nina Brown and Sam Sowerwine

“Get your ears out of your pockets!”

This was the key message of the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta – council of senior Aboriginal women – who travelled down from Coober Pedy to Adelaide in late February to take part in a two-day public forum. The forum, held by Australia’s nuclear regulator - the Australian Radiation Protection And Nuclear Safety Agency - was set up to assess the Federal government’s application for a licence to construct and operate Australia’s first nuclear waste dump. After six years of campaigning against the nuclear dump proposed for their country, the Kungka Tjuta were invited to put forward their case against the Department of Education, Science and Training – the proponents of the waste dump project. At this critical stage in developments, the Kungkas demanded to be heard.

The Kungka Tjuta are at the forefront of the battle against this nuclear waste dump. Irati Wanti - The Poison, Leave It - is the title the Kungkas have given to their relentless and inspiring campaign. As survivors of the British government’s atomic testing in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Kungkas understand the devastating effects of the nuclear industry on Indigenous peoples, their land and culture. The Kungka’s experience of the British atomic tests at Maralinga and Emu Fields is a nuclear legacy that continually informs their opposition to the waste dump:

All of us were living when the Government used the country for the Bomb. Some were living at Twelve Mile, just out of Coober Pedy. The smoke was funny and everything looked hazy. Everybody got sick...The Government thought they knew what they were doing then. Now, again they are coming along and telling us poor blackfellas “Oh, there’s nothing that’s going to happen, nothing is going to kill you.” And that will still happen like that bomb over there.

Since 1998, the Kungkas have been speaking strongly against the waste dump, taking their message around Australia and internationally. As traditional owners and women of culture, the Kungkas are concerned that Aboriginal sovereign rights are respected and their country and culture preserved. The Kungkas are not only fighting a radioactive waste dump on their country but are struggling to maintain culture within their community.

We are the women who are fighting to keep the culture going. We’ve been teaching the younger women and the women that were taken away, teaching the people that lost the culture. We’ve been travelling everywhere.

This commitment to culture draws from their Tjukur, translated as ‘Dreaming’ or ‘Law’. The Tjukur tells the story of the Seven Sisters who travelled across the land creating it. Similarly, the Kungkas have travelled tirelessly around Australia to convey their message. It was through travelling to Melbourne in 1998 for the Indigenous Solidarity Conference, hosted by Friends of the Earth, that the Kungkas initially asked for assistance from ‘Greenies’. Since then, with the assistance of a number of dedicated young women, they have been actively involved in promoting their campaign, reminding people that the South Australian desert is not a wasteland.

The Kungkas constantly reiterate the importance of the desert country –

Never mind our country is the desert, that’s where we belong... It’s from our grandmothers and our grandfathers that we’ve learned about the land. This learning isn’t written on paper as whitefellas’ knowledge is. We carry it instead in our heads and we’re talking from our hearts.

To the Kungka Tjuta, the desert is not a ‘remote’ wasteland suitable for dumping radioactive waste. It is their home, intimately known and life-sustaining. The poisoning of underground water from the great artesian basin is one of the Kungkas’ primary concerns:

Listen to us! The desert lands are not as dry as you think! Can’t the Government plainly see there is water here? Nothing can live without water. There’s a big underground river underneath. We know the poison from the radioactive dump will go down under the ground and leak into the water. We drink from this water.

The geographical isolation of the desert combined with general ignorance about the dangers of the nuclear industry has resulted in ongoing nuclear genocide. ‘Remote’ Indigenous communities have borne the brunt of nuclear devastation in Australia with uranium mines, waste dumps and nuclear testing.[1] It is the silence around these issues that has compelled the Kungkas to speak out. Yet being heard is a constant challenge. Whilst green groups, South Australian politicians and members of the public have been responsive to the Kungka Tjuta’s concerns, there remains huge difficulties in conveying the cultural depth of their message more broadly and in particular, to the Federal government.

In one of the Government’s only responses to the Kungka Tjuta, Federal Science Minister, Peter McGauran, wrote: ‘Let me assure you that the national repository is in no way similar to the atmospheric tests and trials that were conducted at Maralinga and Emu Fields in the 1950s.’[2] McGauran patronisingly reads the Kungkas concerns as a literal conflation of atomic testing with a nuclear repository. He fails to understand the Kungkas concern that the same process of silencing, deception and manipulation is occurring with the proposed waste dump as it did with the atomic testing. The Kungka Tjuta have a cultural responsibility to protect their country and culture for future generations – black and white. Yet the Federal government has not acknowledged the unique knowledge and experience that informs the Kungka Tjuta’s opposition to the waste dump.

In 2003, after five long years of campaigning, two members of the Kungka Tjuta – Mrs Eileen Kampakuta Brown and Mrs Eileen Wani Wingfield - were awarded the Goldman Prize, dubbed the Nobel Prize for the Environment. This prize gave the Irati Wanti campaign international recognition, catapulting the Kungka Tjuta into the international media and providing much needed acknowledgment of their enormous energy and dedication. Whilst being nationally and internationally applauded, there remained a deafening silence from the Federal government.

A few months later, the Federal government compulsorily acquired South Australian land for the proposed waste dump, known as site 40a. This occurred only hours before the South Australian parliament was due to table legislation declaring the dump site a ‘public park’ and thus incapable of compulsory acquisition under the Land Acquisitions Act 1989. The South Australian government, Kuyani native title claimants and the Pobke family (who hold the pastoral lease over site 40a) consequently went to the Federal Court to challenge the compulsory acquisition, but the case was dismissed. An appeal has been launched in the Full Federal Court and a hearing date has been set for 11 May 2004.

This compulsory land acquisition highlights the disregard of the Federal government. Whilst purporting to engage in community consultation in building the repository, the process simply paid lip-service to concerns in order to fast-track the waste dump project. In response to the compulsory acquisition of land, the Kungka Tjuta wrote an impassioned letter to Peter McGauran and Senator Nick Minchin.[3] It states

You don’t listen to us ladies. You’re still not listening. Do we have to talk over and over? It’s women’s place. Stop mucking around with women’s business. It’s our story to know for all Kungkas. Not a story for you white men. Not your land even if you say you own it. Even if you buy it. It’s women’s place.

The reply from McGauran reiterated the Government’s ‘extensive consultation’ with Aboriginal groups on ‘heritage’ concerns through site clearances. But for the Kungkas, their opposition is not simply a ‘heritage concern’; it is a deep cultural obligation to the tjitji tjabu – future generations.

It is February, 2004. On a brightly lit stage complete with podium, microphones and a panel of three white men in suits, five senior tribal women - Ivy Makinti Stewart, Eileen Kampakuta Brown, Eileen Unkari Crombie, Emily Munyungka Austin and Martha Uganbari Edwards - brave the formalities of a bureaucratic licensing hearing and begin their hour-long presentation with Inma — ceremonial song about the Irati (poison). In the end, their message is simple. They ask only one thing: ‘Get your ears out of your pockets and start using ‘em!’ - Irati Wanti – The Poison, Leave It.

For more information, please visit or contact the Irati Wanti Campaign Office – 08 8672 3413.

Nina Brown has been volunteer coordinator of the Irati Wanti Campaign Office in Coober Pedy for the past three years. Sam Sowerwine recently completed an Arts/Law degree and is a member of the Melbourne Kungkas, a group of Melbourne women working in support of the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta.

[1] For example: Jabiluka uranium mine, Ranger uranium mine, Rum Jungle uranium mine, Roxby Downs uranium mine – all situated in South Australia or Northern Territory.

[2] 14 August 2003.

[3] 14 July 2003.

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