Kakadu and Sickness Country

There has been a spill of contaminated material at the Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu. It’s still not clear how bad it is (or if it’s the only one) but Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) assures us that no one was injured and no uranium leaked from the site. Who knows? As always, there are many conflicting interests, but everyone will no doubt be on high alert, especially now, during the wet season.

wetlands kakadu

I visited Kakabu in the 1990s, so these photos are nearly 20 years old, but there is – or should be – something timeless about this beautiful place.  But of course the environment is vulnerable.   Nothing stands still, and this is an area already affected by various environmental catastrophes.

Until the 1960s, feral water buffalo had a major impact.  They were first imported from Timor in the 1830s when the British attempted to set up a settlement on the Cobourg Peninsula, at Port Essington.  I’ve talked about this before here. When they abandoned the settlement in 1849, they left behind the buffalo.  Without natural predators, they expanded their territory into Kakadu.

paperbark wetlands kakadu

During the wet season, the monsoons bring heavy rainfall – up to 1500mm in some parts, all falling over the 4 months of summer.  Water gathers on the Arnhem plateau and spills down into the wetlands. The dominant paper bark trees have adapted to having their feet in the water for months at a time.  Once the wet ends in March or April, the water begins to evaporate until only shallow pools of freshwater remain.  Buffalo wallowing in these billabongs trampled the indigenous plants. They were gradually eradicated in the 1970s, and Kakadu blossomed, literally.

ranger mine

The Ranger Mine, fortunately, is not in this part of Kakadu. In fact it is hard to imagine how a mine could operate in such a wet area, and that, of course, is part of the problem. The number of spillages is debated, but they are most likely to occur during the wet.

Uranium mining has always been contentious in Australia, but mining also brings wealth and work.  There are never easy solutions – and ironically, it was the loss of the buffalo, which had provided work for the indigenous people, that made mining a more appealing alternative.  But the issues in Kakadu are more complicated, because much of the uranium is located in an area known to the local Jawoyn people as ‘Sickness Country’, or Buladjang.

Our land was first created by Bula, who came from saltwater country to the north. With his two wives, the Ngallenjilenji, he hunted across the land and in doing so transformed the landscape through his actions. Bula finally went under the ground at a number of locations north of Katherine in an area known to us as ‘Sickness Country.’ It is called this because the area is very dangerous and should not be disturbed for fear that earthquakes and fire will destroy the world.

The traditional owners, in other words, have always been aware of the potential health effects of disturbing the land – and Bula. The Sickness Country contains high levels of arsenic, mercury and lead, but in particular there seems to be a correlation between the major Bula sites and uranium deposits.

The Ranger Mine has managed to survive despite its record of spillages, but other uranium mining in the area stopped in the 1990s because of the wishes of the traditional owners.

Karin Ljung, Annemarie de Vos, Angus Cook and Philip Weinstein, ‘An Overview of Medical Geology Issues in Australia and Oceania’, in Medical Geology: A Regional Synthesis (eds. Olle Selinus, Robert B. Finkelman, Jose A. Centeno), Springer Link, 2010 (Subscription only)

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