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Different perspectives on land and identity fuel disagreement over a radioactive waste dump to be built near Aboriginal sites
Australian Aboriginal legend has it that Hookina Creek was created by the tears of a husband grieving for his wife after she died in childbirth.
For as long as anyone can remember, women have used its crystal waters for birthing pools. Elders say it’s an important place for people near death, an oasis of peace among the reeds and waterfalls of the perpetual spring.
Now Hookina Creek in the foothills of the Flinders Ranges, the biggest mountain range in South Australia, has become a symbol of a dispute over a planned nuclear waste dump on land traditionally owned by the region’s indigenous Adnyamathanha people.
To the Aboriginal community who live at the Yappala Indigenous Protected Area, it’s “arngurla yarta”, or spiritual land, a living connection to “Dreamtime” creation lore.
To the leaseholders at Wallerberdina ranch, who are offering up land for the government to build a repository for waste produced from nuclear medicine and industry, it’s a source of water for cattle.
Running through both Yappala and Wallerberdina, the creek reflects radically different world views held by its rival custodians: a sacred sites versus a resource to be exploited; an ancient duty of care versus jobs and economic development; tradition versus technology; mythology versus money.
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You can hear the dissonance in language used on both sides of the debate.
“We read from the land,” Adnyamathanha elder Regina McKenzie said as she looked out over the floodplains of Wallerberdina. “Our stories are in the land. Our characters are in the land.”
Nigel McBride, CEO of the South Australian Employers' Chamber of Commerce and Industry, takes a blunter view.
“Frankly, we’ve got a car park here,” he said at his office in Adelaide, 400 km (250 miles) to the south. “If I was paid enough, I’d be happy to have low-level waste here.”
Such a clash of viewpoints could make agreement impossible between indigenous traditional landowners and the two-thirds of (mostly non-Aboriginal) residents in and around the outback town of Hawker who are in favour of hosting a dump in the vicinity.
Some speak nostalgically of the days when Hawker was a thriving hub for the region's croppers as they tried, often unsuccessfully, to coax wheat from the sun-scorched earth. A century ago, the town had two pubs, a nursing home and 28 businesses.
Today, the farmers are long gone, defeated by the unforgiving soil, though their memory lives on in the rusty remains of ploughs and the stone ruins of homesteads. Hawker has only a handful of businesses and a population of just over 200.
“I’m a little bit disappointed in one respect, as I see the Aboriginal community as being one of the biggest beneficiaries,” said John Hennessy, owner of the Hawker Caravan Park. “I’d well imagine there’d be quite a few Aboriginal people employed on the site.”
But the prospect of jobs doesn’t mollify anger at the possible desecration of land inhabited for more than 50,000 years.
“Because Aboriginal people have been associated with the land for hundreds and hundreds of generations, they have a very intimate connection to all parts of the environment,” said Jillian Marsh, an Adnyamathanha leader and anti-nuclear activist for the Greens party.
“So that includes the weather patterns that roll across from west to east, the wind that blows from north to south, the animals and the plants and the water, whether it be the rain that comes from the sky or the groundwater that comes up to the surface through spring water - all of these are intimately connected to indigenous cosmology.”
To understand that cosmology, it’s useful to discard the idea of history as linear.
“In many Aboriginal cultures, the past is not something far away and different,” said Alice Gorman, senior lecturer in archaeology at Flinders University and a heritage consultant. “It is actually entwined in the present, and it’s something that gives people their identity and their relationship to country.”
This helps explain the importance of “storylines”, paths navigated by physical landmarks learned through songs passed down through the generations. Wallerberdina is crisscrossed by several.
“There are stories that encode knowledge about how ancestral beings created a landscape and its particular features,” Gorman said. “So when people move about these features, they’re re-engaging with these stories and that knowledge, and that’s how they become fully engaged adult beings.”
Proponents of the dump argue that it’s simply a matter of identifying significant sites and making sure the facility isn’t built on top.
“I think it’s quite a wild claim to assert that the whole of the property has cultural significance,” said Grant Chapman, co-leaseholder of Wallerberdina. “If that was the case, where the homestead is built might be a desecration, where the woolshed’s built, where the shearer’s quarters are built - I mean this is just another structure that’s going to be put on the property.”
They say the proposed dump’s radioactive contents put it into a class of its own, evoking memories of 1950s British A-bomb tests and a long history of uranium mining on Aboriginal lands.
Such “poison stuff” is simply incompatible with ancestral land, they say, like mixing the wrong blood types.
“It might be totally safe,” said Gorman from Flinders University. “That’s in fact not what people are concerned about. It’s what it does to those relationships between country and belief and identity and their capacity to sustain their culture that’s really critical here.”
Timothy Large is an award-winning multimedia journalist and news editor. He is former editor-in-chief of the Thomson Reuters Foundation and director of the organisation’s philanthropic media development programmes. Watch the documentary to go with this blog: NUCLEAR WASTE LAND?
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