Land Rights News Central Australia: Land Rights News (September 2010)

Published: September, 2010

Koongarra country

Sat atop a hill and surveying the land stretching out before him, he is content.

Creeks cut through a vast tract of woodland bordered by a dramatic distant escarpment, the red rock face providing bold contrast to the lush green of tree tops and the sky’s deep blue. In the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park lies Koongarra, Mr Lee’s country.

To some people it is worth hundreds of millions of dollars but to him it is priceless.

“This is the country of the blue tongue dreaming and over there is the lightning dreaming,” he says, pointing to the farthest rock face. “This is where my ancestors walked, painted rock art and hunted. This is special country, beautiful country.”

For 40 years Koongarra has been subject to a protracted campaign from mining and energy companies seeking to exploit its estimated 15,000 tonne uranium deposit, preventing its inclusion in the National Park.

As the sole traditional owner of the Djok (Gundjeihmi) clan group Mr Lee was responsible for deciding the future of Koongarra. Had he consented to mining he stood to earn a small fortune in royalty payments.

Earlier this year the Northern Land Council wrote to the Federal Government, on behalf of Mr Lee, requesting that the land be vested into Kakadu.

At a press conference in Darwin on 10 August, Mr Lee and Environment Minister Peter Garrett announced the Government’s intention to agree with the request, preventing any future mining at Koongarra. The following day the federal Coalition’s environment spokesman, Greg Hunt, stated there was bipartisan support for the proposal.

The decision is a blow to Areva, the French energy giant with rights to the mining lease, but the cultural, archaeological and ecological importance of Koongarra has been recognised internationally.

Jeffrey Lee earns a modest wage working as a ranger within Kakadu, a job he has performed with relish for 23 years. The handover represents a priceless gift to the people of Australia and the world.

“Everybody these days is worried about money,” he laments. “There are some things you cannot put a price on. Hopefully this will get the message across that the environment is sacred.”

As a child, Mr Lee spent happy days at Koongarra with his grandmother.

“We always got good bush tucker there,” he said. “I used to go fishing there with my grandmother who told me the stories of the country. There are a lot of junga (sacred) places there where you can’t go.” Mr Lee said observing the impacts of mining in other areas was important when deciding to prevent the exploitation of Koongarra.

“If you start digging it up the land will slowly die,” he warns. “Once you dig it up it’s gone forever and you can’t bring it back. When the mine’s finished and your money’s run out you won’t even have your country to go back to.”

Given the amount of money at stake it is not surprising that some sections of politics and the media have sought to undermine the decision.

Mr Lee concedes the mine at Koongarra was a contentious issue.

“There were a lot of arguments about the mine,” he said. Little wonder that he feels “a lot of pressure been lifted” from his shoulders.

In making the decision to oppose the mining of Koongarra he sought solace from the land itself.

“If you want to learn you go to country,” he said. “When you sit there country talks to you, if you listen.”

Many visitors offered valuable support to Mr Lee by writing to him after holidays to Kakadu.

“They said: ‘Jeffrey you have beautiful country and it should be protected,’” he smiled. “This made me feel good.”

With Koongarra safe from mining Mr Lee is now focused on teaching younger generations about the country and its stories, preserving its rock art and protecting it for those who come after them. He regularly takes his nephews to Koongarra passing down the stories and knowledge of 40,000 years of culture.

“I’m a little bit worried about the future generations and who’ll be looking after this country when I pass away,” he admits.

Aside from fishing and enjoying the bush tucker, his plans for Koongarra include constructing an outstation, enabling him to spend more time on the land and monitor visitors.

Mr Lee did not rule out opening the country up for tourism but said it would be done in a way that allows tourists to be guided by local Aboriginal people, who can relate the stories of the land.

The experience of protecting his ancestral heritage has prompted Lee to speak with other Indigenous peoples facing similar challenges. He hopes spreading his environmental message will provide children with an understanding of conservation’s importance.

“I want to travel around the country to speak with Aboriginal people, especially children about why their country is important and why it needs to be protected,” he said.