Kakadu in crisis: Traditional owners threaten to close Australia’s biggest national park

Kakadu in crisis: Traditional owners threaten to close Australia’s biggest national park

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MAN: Kakadu is one of those extraordinary places on the earth, and it is globally unique. MAN 2: You look at the natural wonder, the cultural heritage, the art sites. I've got family not far from here buried in rocks and cliffs. We're on a journey to the heart of Australia's biggest national park - Kakadu. MAN: It's one of the most special places in Australia.

It's for so long been one of the reasons why people visit Australia, and for Australians, one of their must-do life experiences. WOMAN: Firstly, you know, it's our home. It's our place of connection and identity.

But beneath the majestic rock outcrops and across its vast flood plains, the park and its people are hurting. WOMAN: It's an absolute mess because the institutions responsible to fix those things up aren't doing their job. The natural environment is degrading, major tourist attractions are closed, and Kakadu's Indigenous people say the federal body that runs the park has let them down. What's the atmosphere in Kakadu? Well, it's one of anger, it's one of fear. MAN: I think the threats to the status of this as an icon global park, potentially affecting its World Heritage status, is the fact that if we continue to alter landscapes and not manage it, we may find ourselves with a weed-infested and pest-ridden park.

It's got so bad, some traditional owners are now threatening to close Kakadu. It's just about time we started making an impact by basically shutting down the park. Tonight on Four Corners, we investigate how mismanagement and neglect has led to a bitter fallout among those who live and work in Kakadu, leaving one of Australia's most important places in turmoil and disrepair. (BIRDS CAW) These are the restless final days of the build-up to Kakadu's wet season. The rainless months have condensed the Yellow Water wetlands into a narrow billabong.

Our guide to this teeming waterway is local Murrumburr woman Mandy Muir. Look at that one! Yeah, that's a big bugger. Get a closer look. Yeah, I tell you, the tail, mate, that's a juicy tail.

You know, they are protected but they've always been a food source. This is why people come to Kakadu. Yeah, some people sort of see it very similar to scenes in Africa.

You know, certain times of the year, the abundance of wildlife is just really overwhelming. Well, yeah, it's one of the major inland tourist destinations here in the Top End. And it's pretty quiet at the moment? Yeah. Quiet with visitors.

You know, numbers are down. Those days when we had six to eight buses in the car park are long gone. We're flat out trying to get one now in a week.

You know, after COVID sort of happened, you know, life has absolutely changed. But international visitors were abandoning Kakadu long before COVID. As tourist arrivals in Australia soared over the past 10 years, overseas visitor trips to Kakadu have dropped.

International tourists once made up more than half of those coming to Kakadu but in 2019 accounted for just 17% of visitors. International tourism, sadly, to Kakadu has been on the decline and not because Kakadu is any less of a destination, but part of it was the certainty and the irregularity that would happen for tour operators around access announcements and closure to certain parts of the park. Very hard for businesses, people to put their life savings into a business with such uncertainty. When we arrive in Kakadu, the wet season is still weeks away, but we find many of the park's most popular places are shut. Visitors haven't been able to get to the spectacular Twin Falls for more than two years because the road is impassable. GLEN: We had a number of fantastic boutique tour operators who already had forward bookings throughout 2020 and beyond that included these parts of the park that were - without any consultation, without any understanding - just announced as closed.

And that has such a devastating effect on the future of tourism if it doesn't have certainty, it doesn't have an understanding around access. It's just one of a number of tourist drawcards closed with little warning. Another is at the iconic Gunlom Falls.

This was one of the most popular places in Kakadu. Tourists came from all over the world to swim in natural infinity pools at the top of these cliffs. But there is nobody here, and you can't get up there. A new walking track to the top has been closed for over a year, incredibly because it was built too close to part of a sacred site.

The track upgrade was commissioned by Parks Australia - the federal government agency that jointly manages Kakadu with traditional owners. It appears that the correct checks weren't done and have infringed upon a sacred site. And from tourism, that's inexcusable perspective, that that kind of activity shouldn't have happened. That's not what tourism industry broadly, let alone traditional owners, expect of their joint management partner in Parks Australia. Bobby Nunggumajbarr is the influential head of the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority that safeguards sacred sites in the Northern Territory.

He spoke to us from Katherine. It's really, really, really painful to the traditional owners and the custodians. They were really, really upset and they hurt their bodies and all that. They really didn't want this work to be done. And when they seen it, they were really hurt inside.

The Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority is now prosecuting Parks Australia in court for illegal works on a sacred site. Parks Australia faces a fine of up to $314,000 if convicted of breaching the Territory's Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act. They knew. The custodian told them, the traditional owners told them. They knew. The Parks knew. They told the Parks that they're not allowed to touch that, to put any tracks in that area. And that's what they told them, but they went ahead and done it.

The fight over the walking track fuelled a growing rift between traditional owners and Parks Australia in Kakadu. This place here is called Mabil. It represents the whole area here, including the flood plain and stuff like that.

Yeah. Jonathan Nadji is a traditional owner, a member of the board that oversees Kakadu, a former Parks ranger, and the son of a local legend - 'Big' Bill Nadji, who was instrumental in the formation of the park. I always came down with my father and that. He used to tell me a lot of stories about this place and stuff like that, so mainly important sites where you can't go. Jonathan Nadji is deeply disillusioned by how Parks Australia is running Kakadu. It's the worst management that I've ever seen, ever happen.

There's no management in this place, it's gone downhill. No-one basically trusts anybody, no-one respects each other anymore. That's how bad it is here. It's just that bad. In late 2019, Jonathan almost died when a fire ripped through the bush near the East Alligator Ranger Station. It was a thing that I'll never forget. I still see it in my eyes when I can still see the flame now, and all that sort of thing.

Even when I close my eyes, I can still see it. Were you in the fire? I was actually in the fire. But the wind... It doesn't matter if you've got water, the wind's just the most powerful thing that can basically...

When you get the wind and then the fire together, they become so dangerous. It's just an explosion ready to basically explode, and that's what happened - it just exploded that day. He has called for a formal investigation into Parks Australia's actions. In a scathing July 2020 letter to the Kakadu Board of Management, a group of Aboriginal park rangers said that due to staff cuts, no rangers were available to fight the blaze. The rangers accused Parks Australia of covering up the fire that they say caused over $1 million in damage to houses and equipment, and attacked Parks over "the appalling history of uncontrolled fires in Kakadu".

We need more staff. We're understaffed here, and that's what we really need, we need more staffing. That's where the management is basically doing their own, making their own decisions without talking to traditional owners and basically sitting around the table like we're supposed to do as a joint managed park and talking about it, but it's not happening at all. This wasn't how Kakadu was meant to work.

WOMAN: Here in Kakadu, we've got a joint management arrangement with Parks Australia, and the land is supposed to be organised in a joint management fashion but it doesn't. And Parks Australia doesn't realise that they're running a bicultural organisation. It's a two-way system that should be operating, but they don't listen to the Aboriginal people.

They don't listen to our suggestions. Yeah. Well, I suppose things are a bit tense here because, I suppose, first, a lot of traditional owners and family groups have not been happy the way that things have been run here within the park, and it's kind of, you know, fallen on deaf ears. Even some experts are telling us that the park has been deteriorating for a number of years now. It seems like it's being run from far and beyond, you know, meaning Canberra. You know, we need people on the grounds, at the grassroots level, you know, dealing, talking with our people.

In their letter to the Kakadu Board, the rangers accused Parks Australia of ignoring the traditional owners. On the same day, board member Jonathan Nadji wrote to the Director of National Parks, describing: Kakadu Board chair Maria Lee says Parks Australia executives have stopped listening to Aboriginal people - called Bininj in northern Kakadu. Whatever we made a decision on, they would override that decision. And I'd be arguing with the director all the time and I'd be arguing with the assistant secretary and I would be arguing with the park manager. Like, you know, they thought that Bininj people were a bunch of stupid idiots, you know, don't know anything.

Well, it got to the point where they could not put up with what was going on. Things have got to change. Canberra's not listening.

The Kakadu board passed a vote of no confidence in the Director of National Parks, the Assistant Secretary of Parks, and the Park Manager. The following month, all three left Parks Australia. MARIA: Well, they all had the same brain. They all had the same idea and they wanted to be the boss of the park.

They forgot about the traditional owners, they forgot about the board. Like the board's meant to be helping. There's a very broad perception that Kakadu, as the sort of the premier national park, certainly in Northern Australia, well resourced, well managed, has a joint management arrangement. From the outside, it all looks like it's pretty hunky dory but beneath it all is a large dysfunction. Kakadu had a troubled beginning.

It was created in 1979 as part of a highly controversial deal to allow uranium mining in the region. I told them I don't want a mine. I don't know... Somebody pushed, you know, might have been government or anyone. MAN: So the question now isn't whether or not there is going to be mining, but how it's going to be carried out. Traditional owners were given land rights in return for their support for the Ranger mine, and Kakadu National Park was born.

JOHN: They was told, the negotiators, "You will have land rights. "But what will happen is Kakadu will become a national park, "World Heritage, jointly managed with the Commonwealth Government, "and you will have uranium mines." MAN: The park was part of the package. We know now that the Cabinet submissions show us, the Cabinet papers from 1978, that the park, the salve, so to speak, was withheld until they'd secured agreement for the mine.

The two go hand in hand. This was a major deal in Australian history. But the park was the thing that was part of the social contract that was to make it all better.

They signed the same agreements on the same day, on the 3rd of November 1978. Now, after 40 years, the mine is done. Processing of uranium ore at Ranger finished last month.

The mine site will be rehabilitated by Rio Tinto subsidiary ERA over five years, and then the land will finally be returned to the traditional owners. The question is, in what state? MAN: The biggest issue that the mine faces now is that it is sitting in Kakadu National Park. There is both a regulatory and a cultural perception from the Indigenous people that it will be restored to the same values, to the same quality, with the same diversity as Kakadu. And at this stage that represents some significant technological and scientific impediments and problems that we need to overcome. ERA has promised to leave the site in a state that is similar to its World Heritage-listed surrounds.

It's a massive job. Professor Kingsley Dixon is advising on the rehabilitation of the Ranger mine. If we're unable to put back those complete landscapes and the species diversity, including the culturally significant species that the Indigenous communities want to see in those sites, which have been on their landscape for tens of thousands of years, we could find the site an eroding heap of substandard scrub.

As part of cleaning up the mine site, contaminated buildings and equipment will be buried in one of the mine's enormous pits. We've been told that burying the equipment and the contaminated material in the mine site is out of step with global best practice in the mining industry. Is this true and why isn't ERA following global best practice? We have, with the support and input from our stakeholders, regulators, undertaken a very detailed assessment of how best to rehabilitate the site given that we're situated and surrounded by a national park, and have assessed that the most prudent way to manage that mine infrastructure is to store it within the mined-out pit at pit three.

That has the endorsement of the supervising scientist and other, uh, stakeholders and supported by our own scientific analysis. To bury your infrastructure onsite is out of step with what I think is global best practice in the mining industry. Mining industries around the world remove their infrastructure and reinstate the natural ecology over those sites.

Deep burial is on the cards, I would find that surprising and certainly something that the ERA should probably re-examine. ERA is in a dispute with the Commonwealth Government over whether it should continue to contribute $2.5 million a year for five years to the Supervising Scientist Branch, which conducts independent monitoring of the mine. It seems like a very small amount compared to the revenue that you've pulled out of Ranger.

Just in raw sales alone over the last five years, the mine's generated over a billion dollars. Why even have a dispute over such a small figure? The payment that we make under the deed has been provided to the Commonwealth Government to support the research activities of the supervising scientists since 1994. The agreement allows for a periodic review. Uh, that review is under way.

We're working very closely with the Commonwealth Government. I'm optimistic that we'll be able to conclude this review. It is, though, currently subject to a mediation process, so it's not appropriate for me to comment any further. The people who live downstream, like Djaykuk Djandjomerr and his family, are worried.

(SPEAKS INDIGENOUS LANGUAGE) (FAMILY SPEAKS INDIGENOUS LANGUAGE) For young Bob, crocs in this billabong are the immediate risk. They swim, but when they get hungry, they bite people! The greater fear, though, is the legacy of the mine on this pristine place and on the generations to come. Well, we're just a bit worried, because it's ending now. It's end.

The mine is end. And the family is bit worried now. What will happen? (SPEAKS INDIGENOUS LANGUAGE) You got some people there monitoring that area. I hope they do really best things for Bininj people. Because, you know, the mine is, we know it's close.

As we said, you know, we just want... ..really, really, really careful, for people downstream. But there's not a lot of faith in ERA's parent company, Rio Tinto, which blew up the 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage sites at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara in May last year. The world is watching Rio Tinto, particularly since the Pilbara.

That has lit up the need for contemporary mining companies to do the utmost they can, not just in terms of the cultural protection there, but there's the physical protection of country here. We're now embarking upon a project that is significant, but is about legacy. It's about demonstrating to the community and to the world that we can successfully rehabilitate a site that is surrounded by a World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, in a manner that not only meets what's required by us by law, but most importantly, to the expectations of our Mirarr traditional owners. (AIRHORN BLOWS) OK, second quarter, it's the Jabiru Bombers. 3 goals to 4, leading the University Rats.

Welcome to Brockman Oval for this historic match. MAN: One, two, three! ALL: Bombers! It's the first home game of the season for the Jabiru Bombers. (BARBECUE SIZZLES) This is how we sizzle the sausos in Jabiru. She is renowned for being the best sausage cooker in Jabiru. Many in the crowd owe their jobs to the mine. When it goes, they will too.

WOMAN: Yep, we're all leaving. Most of us have got the dates. So, few months and we'll pack up and head back to Darwin and make a new start there. And how are you feeling about that? Yeah, it's a bit sad. The town of Jabiru was built to service the mine, but 40 years on, it's worn out. Now the streets are emptying by the week. As the town contracts from more than 1,000 people as mine workers and their families leave, Jabiru must reinvent itself to survive.

MAN: Kakadu over, I think, the next five years will change dramatically because there's not a dependent on that royalty coming from the mine. It'll have to be creating jobs for Aboriginal people. The township of Jabiru has to become a normal town and not a mining town. The original plan was to bulldoze it but a local Indigenous corporation wants to transform the town into a tourism hub to help replace the $8.5 million in annual royalties from the mine.

The vision is for a $446 million makeover of Jabiru funded by the Commonwealth and NT governments, as well as private enterprise. The wildlife have this lake on the edge of town pretty much to themselves these days, but it's at the heart of the vision for the new Jabiru, designed to entice big spending tourists. The shoreline will be fringed with five-star accommodation, glamping, eco-lodges, and maybe even a sandy beach for swimming, if the locals can work out a way to keep out the crocodiles. Behind this grand plan is the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the Mirarr traditional owners.

Its CEO is Justin O'Brien. One of the most important things about the sustainable future we have in mind for Jabiru is to right a historical wrong, OK? Land rights was denied the Aboriginal people here on the basis of the Ranger uranium mine. So Jabiru was not made Aboriginal land.

That fact alone is a big deal. You know? So it will send a signal, strong message, to this whole region that Aboriginal control, Aboriginal access to the economy is alive and real today. But there's scepticism from some who live here about the grand vision for a tourist town. JOHN: Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation are looking at developing tourism in Jabiru. There are a whole range of different options that Jabiru could become used for, rather than tourism. I would not be putting all my eggs in the tourism basket, I can tell you that.

A lot more effort needs to be put into the health of our people, the education of our people, employment of our people. There is potential for economic growth in establishing enterprises for our people in the Park. But you have to see beyond the blinkers. You know? Look outside the box, mate. What might be a potential? Tourism is not the be all and end all.

There are now new questions about the proposed transformation of Jabiru. The driving force behind the plan, the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, is under investigation. In 2019, Gundjeihmi was raided by the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations - ORIC. Now, the ORIC raid, what happened? On the 11th of September 2019, a warrant was served.

We weren't here, we were in Canberra. Meeting of all people, the Chief Minister, the Prime Minister, albeit very briefly at a function in Canberra. A warrant was served. The basis of the warrant and any investigation flowing from the warrant remain unclear to us. Police together with ORIC investigators seized 11,000 pages of documents during a 14-hour search of the Gundjeihmi office in Jabiru. Four Corners understands that the raid followed a complaint made to ORIC alleging misuse of funds, conflict of interest and financial mismanagement.

MAN: ORIC, like ASIC, has a range of investigative powers and in particular they would normally use it where they thought something was perhaps unusual or amiss. What is a rulebook? So a rulebook defines the rules and responsibilities of the Aboriginal corporations. Steve Smith is a former ACCC assistant director who now runs the Aboriginal Investment Group which provides business support to Indigenous corporations. So, ORIC would only use that next level power, which is fairly intrusive because you're entering either a person's workplace or premises unannounced, and that's considered obviously a high level of intrusion, and for that reason it is rarely used. From my time in the Northern Territory, for the seven years, I'm only aware of ORIC using it three times. So it's an extraordinary use of power and one that they would not use, and the only reason that they would use such a power, if they reasonably suspected that the examination, there would be destruction of evidence if they provided an examination notice.

Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation's latest financial report states: Have any funds been misused from Gundjeihmi? On September 11, a warrant was served here, yeah? We have a view that that warrant is invalid and that the search was probably unlawful, and we're looking into that. Are you confident, though, that no money from Gundjeihmi has been misused? I am supremely confident that there has been no wrongdoing here, and we vigorously defend any allegation of wrongdoing. Do you believe that they're looking at you personally rather than only the Corporation? It's ironic that on that day of all days, when we'd been meeting with the Prime Minister, the very next day, a warrant is served here, that a period of 12 months goes by, no specific allegation is made. We've participated obviously with, actively assisted their investigation.

12 months on, nothing has happened. We were told by ORIC, the regulator, which did the investigation, to continue with business as usual. We've been told by senior government officials from both governments to continue business as usual, which is prudent, given that we are instrumental in providing for the new tenure arrangements at Jabiru and the decommissioning and rehabilitation of the Ranger Mine. The wet season finally arrives in Kakadu in fittingly spectacular style. The evening storms wash over Jabiru.

When the rains end, tourism operators are hoping visitors from around Australia will flood in. But the relationship between the traditional owners and Parks Australia is still in crisis. JONATHAN: Before, when we used to have a new Park manager or new staff, the first thing they used to do was they used to go and visit the traditional owners first. So they used to come and visit dad first, sit down and spend the day with him, and then go and spend the next day with another traditional owner. So they would know what the traditional owner... Lately, none of that, none of this ever happened.

I would say that the universal feeling is one of distress and anger and probably total disillusionment. You know, the lesson is stark. It is certainly time for people to revisit that whole concept of what joint management means and set out a better course. Four Corners has obtained a confidential briefing note from a senior bureaucrat sent by Environment Minister Sussan Ley to investigate the tensions in Kakadu. It says: Proper joint management is where the First Nations people are front and centre of decision-making about their estate.

Not rubber stamping somebody else's aspirations. Parks Australia refused an on-camera interview with Four Corners, but said in a statement it has permanently shifted a key Canberra position to the Northern Territory, and set up a six-month trial of a cultural engagement role for a local Aboriginal person in the Park. Jonathan Nadji says that so far, little has changed. JONATHAN: It's very, very frustrating because we had a big meeting with the Minister recently and sat down to try and sort out a lot of the issues that are basically occurring in Kakadu, and I thought at the time we made a commitment at the time and everything was going alright, but months later, down the track, the same thing is still happening.

Peter Christophersen is a land manager who has been living and working in Kakadu for 35 years. This is really the end of the south. It's actually basically a garden that needs constant attention. Well, yeah. Exactly. So our knowledge comes from our family, which is specific to this area. And you go to other families in the Park, they may not have that knowledge for here but they've certainly got knowledge for their area.

See the bigger paperbarks... He says one of his biggest frustrations is that Kakadu's next generation can't get work in the Park. Certainly there is a mistrust between, you know, countrymen that live here and the Park themselves.

And certainly over the years, a lot of our kids, ourselves, have tried to get jobs with Parks and have been unsuccessful for one reason or another. And so basically, I think that there has been a culture shift within the Park of not employing people that are really from here. You know, and I can't understand why, but that is happening. You certainly get the sense that there's a lot of unhappiness within Kakadu at the way the place is being run. Is that fair? Yeah. Because people are being left out.

People from here should be engaged to look after their own country, and they're not. Parks Australia said it's trying to increase local Aboriginal employment through a talent management program, hiring a Darwin-based training officer, and reviving its Junior Ranger program. (ENGINE STARTS) Independent ranger groups like this one have been set up outside of Parks Australia - partly to address the lack of work opportunities in Kakadu for local Indigenous people.

Today they're releasing weevils bred to attack aggressive weeds that are choking the Park's waterways. What I'm doing here, I'm just clearing the salvinia away and making a nice clear spot for us to release our weevils. It's critical work in a place that is suffering from the onslaught of invasive species. KINGSLEY: The tidal wave of cane toads, the time bomb weeds that have now peppered much of the park... ..the feral pigs, the water buffalo, the list goes on and on and they're all animals and plants that we've brought in.

The gravity of the threats facing Kakadu were highlighted in December by the international body that monitors World Heritage sites. It says Kakadu is deteriorating and under very high threat from feral animals and weeds and high threat from fires. I think the threats to the status of this as an icon global park, potentially affecting its World Heritage status, is the fact that if we continue to alter landscapes and not manage it, we may find ourselves with a weed infested and pest-ridden park. (MAGPIE GEESE SQUAWK) The Federal Government has committed to spend $181 million over ten years to help upgrade tourist attractions, infrastructure and roads in Kakadu. The cash injection is sorely needed to help repair some of the damage from years of underfunding.

We believe it can be fixed. We believe we have no choice but to fix it. Kakadu deserves more. Operationally, this is a place that needs to be funded for future generations, not just the folk whose land it is, and whose families and future families are on there. It's an iconic destination of Australia and surely it deserves better. It's the end of the day at Ubirr, one of Kakadu's most famous destinations, where tourists flock for sunset photos overlooking the East Alligator flood plain.

Traditional owners like Jonathan Nadji are talking about taking drastic action unless a solution is found to the crisis in Kakadu. It's about time we started making an impact by basically shutting down the park, and I will shut down Ubirr until we basically have a better agreement with what's going on here. By all means, I think we should start looking ahead, start sorting this place out, but, yeah, we will close it to make our point. Kakadu is World Heritage listed for both environmental and cultural reasons.

People have lived in the Park continuously for more than 40,000 years. The stakes are high for Kakadu's custodians. It's our home. It's our place of connection and identity.

I couldn't imagine living life anywhere else, without crocodiles, without snakes. I really truly believe that this has got to be the turning point. The unhappiness is come at a point that if we don't sit at the table very soon, that things will be taken into our own hands. Is it possible the Park could be closed? Well, there has been talks about that, but who would ever want to see that happening? It's not in my best interest.

It's not in anyone's best interests for that to happen. So, yeah, we're waiting. The table's set up already. Yeah. Captions by Red Bee Media Copyright Australian Broadcasting Corporation

2021-02-28 22:38

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