Black veto on buried Jabiluka
It seems that Rio Tinto has finally agreed to some longstanding demands by the Mirrar people, traditional owners of the huge Jabiluka uranium lease in northern Australia. In an announcement last week, ERA - a wholly-owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto - committed it self to a negotiated settlement, under which the company would grant a "right of veto" over the project and "rehabilitate" the existing site. Negotiations for a final agreement are now underway - though the devil may still be in the detail.
By Michael Bachelard
July 9 2003
Rio Tinto has decided to bury its controversial Jabiluka uranium mine and also plans to sign an agreement to give the traditional owners an unprecedented right to veto any future development at the site.
In a commitment to end hostilities at Australia's most controversial mining site, the giant company's subsidiary ERA will bulldoze tonnes of dirt and ore back into a hole it dug in 1998, and put the site in mothballs for the long-term.
The Australian understands Northern Territory resource Minister Paul Henderson is likely to give authorisation this week for that rehabilitation work to begin.
But another agreement is also on the drawing board which will give the 25 traditional owners the right of veto over any future development at the site.
The veto, which carries some conditions, would end the 21-year battle for influence between the company, the Northern Land Council and the Mirrar people represented by the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation.
Called the Jabiluka long-term care and maintenance agreement, it will formalise ERA's repeated verbal pledge that it would not go ahead and mine the uranium, which is inside the Kakadu national park, without the consent of traditional owners.
While the parties are all ready in principle to sign the veto agreement, The Australian understands that for technical reasons it has been delayed for some weeks, and lawyers are still working on the document. The agreement to fill in the mine and put it on care and maintenance will also save the company money. Since 1998 when the hole was dug, it has paid $7.3 million to the Northern Land Council, pursuant to an agreement signed with ERA predecessor Pan Continental in 1982. A source said the agreement "waives some of ERA's financial obligations". Backfilling the hole is also likely to save the company money in care and maintenance - as it stands, ERA must pump huge amounts of water out each year and try to deal with it in an ecologically acceptable way.
A company spokesman would not comment on the specific terms of the agreement, saying only: "We want an agreement that is socially, economically and environmentally sustainable. Obviously we want an outcome that is sustainable to us."
The agreement came after ERA approached the Mirrar people 18 months ago to improve their rocky relationship.
Jabiluka and its social and environmental issues have been a running sore for ERA parent Rio Tinto, which is trying to cement a reputation as friendly to traditional owners and environmentally responsible.
The company will hope the agreement achieves that, and makes it easier to press ahead with other projects.
Executive officer of the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation Andy Ralph said his organisation was in negotiations with the company.
ERA also runs the nearby Ranger uranium mine.