Aborigines say uranium mine could make them extinct

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THE AUSTRALIAN government has been accused of being prepared to see the extinction of Aboriginal people in favour of mining at a site within the country's most important wilderness area.

A United Nations team is visiting Kakadu National Park, in the Northern Territory, one of only a handful of places on Earth listed for special protection for both natural and cultural heritage, to assess whether a planned uranium mine would jeopardise its unique status.

The contested site, which is at Jabiluka, belongs to 27 members of the Mirrar clan, who were awarded traditional ownership rights under the Territory's Native Title Act.

A clan spokeswoman, Jacqui Katona, told the visiting experts: "The Mirrar believe the Australian government supports mining at the expense of their very existence."

Ministers had carried out "a systematic and sustained attack on the living tradition" of the people, she said, as the team heard her evidence in a special session at Jabiru.

Kakadu is noted for Aboriginal art, with cave paintings and rock carvings that are known to be as much as 20,000 years old - one attraction for the estimated 300,000 visitors to the park a year.

But the culture of indigenous Australians is also inherent in the land itself, with landscape features that for them are the equivalent in traditional religious beliefs of the cathedrals of Christianity or the mosques of Islam.

Ms Katona said that the attack on her people and their culture took the form of "massive industrial development" associated with the region's existing uranium mine.

The Mirrar have been calling on the United Nations team to inspect the area from the air, where, they say, the scars of development are clearly visible.

The proposed new mine would extract 20 million tonnes of ore over its estimated 28-year lifespan.

Energy Resources of Australia, the developers, will brief the United Nations team later this week.

The government supports the mine and has said that the inspection is unnecessary, as there will be no damage to the park, which surrounds the proposed site.

Kakadu comprises almost 12,000 square miles of pristine floodplains and plateau on Australia's north coast, east of Darwin.

Its natural treasures include spectacular waterfalls, a towering 125- mile sandstone escarpment and hundreds of animal species, many rare or endangered - or potentially lethal, including salt and fresh-water crocodiles, and some of the most poisonous snakes and spiders in the world.

The experts must make their recommendation at the end of next month, when the UN World Heritage Bureau meets in Kyoto, Japan. If they place Kakadu on their list of sites in danger, it would join some select company, including the Old City of Jerusalem, the cities of Timbuktu in Mali and Dubrovnik in Croatia, and the Angkor temples in Cambodia.

The distinction carries no sanction save that of embarrassment. A spokesman for the Wilderness Society has said Australia's international reputation could fit "into a thimble" if the mine goes ahead.

In 1995 a UN team pronounced America's Yellowstone National Park, the world's first, at 127 years old, to be at risk from a proposed gold mine just outside its boundaries. President Bill Clinton responded by announcing a two-year freeze on any proposed development in the affected area.