In 2005, in the wake of a defeated nuclear waste dump plan in South Australia, the Australian government named three Department of Defence areas in the Northern Territory (NT) of Australia as potential sites for the first purpose built national nuclear waste storage facility.
There was no consultation with the Traditional Owners of the land or the NT Government. Then Minister for Education, Science and Training Dr. Brendan Nelson remarked, “Why on earth can’t people in the middle of nowhere have low-level and intermediate-level waste?” while his successor Minister Julie Bishop later described proposed sites as “far from any form of civilization”.
In 2007, the Northern Land Council contentiously nominated Muckaty (Manuwangku), 120km north of Tennant Creek, as another site to be assessed for nuclear waste storage. The compensation funding received if this site were selected would likely be tied to essential services and infrastructure such as education, housing and roads.
With the change of federal government, the Department of Defence sites were taken off the list leaving Muckaty as the only site under assessment. Called Manuwangku by Warlmanpa and Warumungu Traditional Owners, this place is far from the ‘middle of nowhere’. They maintain a deep spiritual and cultural connection to the area. Supported by people across the NT and Australia, the community has engaged in protests and launched legal action in the Federal Court to defend their right to live in a clean and safe environment, free of hazardous waste.
At present, the majority of Australia’s long-lived intermediate radioactive waste (the highest level produced in Australia) is stored at the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor complex near Sydney. If the proposed storage plan goes ahead, 3,820 cubic metres of low-level radioactive waste growing at the rate of 35 cubic metres per annum and 435 cubic metres of long-lived intermediate level radioactive waste growing at the rate of 3,5 cubic metres per annum will be transported from Lucas Heights to the site nominated in Manuwangku.
The pursuit of Manuwangku as a potential nuclear waste storage site contravenes many articles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UN-DRIP), which requires “States shall take effective measures to ensure that no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent.” Aboriginal communities around Manuwangku have been opposed to the nomination of their country as a site for radioactive waste since its initial proposal.
Time and again, the traditional land, the way of life and culture of the Aboriginal communities have come under immense pressure. In this backdrop the activities of daily life of the Aboriginal owners of this land is a powerful reminder of their continuing coexistential relationship with the land. Bush trips for bush tucker gathering, kangaroo and wild turkey hunting, cooking in ovens dug into earth, the need to sleep outside under the stars. Their connection to land both physically and spiritually is undeniable.
Painting bush tucker, when the very land it grows on is to go under a nuclear waste dump, is for me, a poignant protest of ‘middle of nowhere’. Then there were the more overt expressions of protest. Aboriginal colours decorating homes or cars, stickers reading ‘no to nuclear waste dump’ or a young rapper singing ‘don’t waste the Territory, this land means a lot to me.’
It was a privilege to have the opportunity to live among the community and to be welcomed in to their public and private spaces and to be told of the more recent social history of the community.
The photographic narrative ‘Manuwangku, Under the Nuclear Cloud’ is a portrayal of this community’s resilience in the face of an overwhelming conflict, and an attempt to capture the determination of a people bound together through a common struggle, to keep their traditional land free and safe.
Photographer Jagath Dheerasekara received the Amnesty International Human Rights Innovation Fund grant in 2010 to begin the work. “Manuwangku, Under the Nuclear Cloud” is a collaborative effort of Jagath Dheerasekara, Manuwangku Aboriginal elders and community, Amnesty International and Beyond Nuclear Initiative.
Jagath Dheerasekara is an Amnesty International Human Rights Innovation Fund Grant recipient.
He is a human rights activist and his second spell of photography began in the mid 90s with his return to Sri Lanka with the regime change.
During university life, Jagath was a key member of Students for Human Rights which resulted in his detention and torture in 1989. He was also a key activist in Mothers’ Front. This activism finally led to his exile in France as a political refugee and he moved to Australia with his family in 2008.
He chiefly works on Aboriginal, gender, social and environment themes in the framework of vulnerability and conflict. Jagath has presented his work in a number of solo exhibitions, selected group exhibitions and photo festivals. They are also featured in the Indigenous Australians permanent exhibition/installation at the Australian Museum and in several private collections.
Jagath Dheerasekara was a student in the Sydney 2012 workshop.