Protecting Manguwanku: justice, in the eye of the beholder

The federal government and Northern Land Council nominated land in the Northern Territory for nuclear waste disposal. This proposal was made, despite widespread opposition from Warlmanpa traditional owners.

Despite being legally bound to consult with Indigenous landholders and pursue their best interests, the Commonwealth Government failed to do so repeatedly in relation to the Muckaty Aboriginal Land.

Invited to assist by the Warlmanpa community, a team of researchers at the Jumbunna Institute, UTS joined forces with other legal advocates and environment organisations to help increase public pressure on the government. The government withdrew the nomination and what’s more, the federal government is no longer targeting Aboriginal land held under the Northern Territory Land Rights Act for nuclear waste disposal sites.

Jumbunna Senior Researcher Paddy Gibson argues that this proposal raised an important set of questions on social justice.

“We need to ask – why is it that Aboriginal land has been so systematically targeted by the nuclear industry in Australia? Why is it that Aboriginal land is being seen as expendable for Australia’s nuclear waste dump? Why is it that it’s acceptable that a piece of legislation undermines the Aboriginal people’s power to determine what they want to do with their land?” says Gibson.

With a research team made up of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal members, Jumbunna’s philosophy to achieving impact is all about enabling community self-determination and allowing Aboriginal people to express justice in their own words. According to Jumbunna senior researcher and practising solicitor, Craig Longman, a secondary goal of the campaign was to encourage non-Aboriginal Australians to reflect on the meaning of justice.

“As a solicitor, I am trained to think about rights and law in a certain way. But when you meet people and hear their stories, you ask yourself – what are my worldviews and values based on? You learn to challenge your own views of law and justice and understand the prejudice behind it,” Longman says.

As such, the research team also turned to filmmaking to amplify the voices of the Aboriginal community and created the documentary ‘Protecting Manguwangku’.

“Non-Aboriginal Australians often fail to recognise the deep connection between Aboriginal people and the land. But there is something very special about this relationship and there is an urgent need to protect it. We tried to show not only what needs to be done, but why it is so important,” Gibson says.

Aside from the legal victory, Longman says the most rewarding and important impact is a less tangible one.

“Children in this community will now be able to grow up in an unpolluted environment, and their connection to their land, and to their culture, will not be disrupted. You can’t quantify that.”

Banner image: Warlmanpa Traditional Owners and supporters stage a rally in Tennant Creek protesting the imposition of a nuclear waste dump on their lands. Photo is courtesy of Beyond Nuclear Initiative.

Case study

The Problem

A parcel of Muckaty Aboriginal Land was nominated as a nuclear waste disposal site under the National Radioactive Waste Management Act, despite objections from traditional owners.

The Response

Traditional Owners from the Warlmanpa People approached UTS’s Jumbunna for legal help, lobbying and public advocacy through filmmaking, grassroots and media campaigns, and demonstrations.

What helped accomplish this?

Working with the Warlmanpa community and allied lawyers and advocates, the Jumbunna team created film and publications that would help their cause.

What has changed as a result?

The Commonwealth Government and Northern Land Council withdrew their proposal to dispose nuclear waste at Muckaty. There are currently no proposals to target any Aboriginal land held under the Northern Territory Land Rights Act for a nuclear waste dump.


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