Jagath Dheerasekara

Manuwangku, Under the Nuclear Cloud

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.


Related links

Jagath Dheerasekara

Jagath Dheerasekara was a student in the Sydney 2012 workshop. 


7 thoughts on “Jagath Dheerasekara – Manuwangku, Under the Nuclear Cloud”

  1. tonyhayesimages

    Thanks for this Jagath. I had no idea this issue existed. Doesn’t come as a surprise though, sadly.

  2. Roberta Tavares

    Jagath… that made my day to see this essay showcased at Burn.. Since I know this essay , Im impressed by the level of significance and intimacy with the subject, and Im also relying on the certainty that you are the right photographer and man to show and to conduct this project..that is totally you , your eyes, heart and soul…

  3. A very important and possibly tragic story from a people who have had more than their fair share of tragedy.
    photographically though I cannot get excited in any way by these, and this is, at the end of the day,
    a photographic essay.
    Perhaps the story would be better served by a different medium. perhaps by a less ambiguous approach to the subject matter, or a different treatment? Who knows? Either way I do not believe that these images even start to work on any level other than ‘information’.

    whatever my two cents worth on the pictures I do hope that this essay throws some light on this situation to the wider world and that maybe some change might begin to happen.


  4. Organisations such as Amnesty International Human Rights spend more time paying lip service to these situations than providing any solutions, it is all ifs and buts. They actually spend more time on the refugee situation here in oz than the indigenous cause.

    There is a real problem here in Australia with the whole indigenous situation, direct action is needed and that is something that the government, industry and the majority of the population are not willing to do. Me, I don’t do nearly as much as I should in comparison to former years.

    As for the photos well it all looks fly in fly out and fails to address any real understanding of the situation other than saying they live in squalid situations.

  5. I love the honesty of your work, Jagath. For me, the rawness of the images is an important part of the message. This is a “fly on the wall” insight into the very real, vulnerable, personal lives of real people. Far from “fly in, fly out”, such work requires time to connect, and to establish a genuine bond of trust.

    This essay does not varnish any aspect of the lives of these people, but allows the situation to speak for itself, in all its complexity; albeit with sympathy and a compassionate eye. Yes, there is “squalor” and neglect – as well as beauty, hope, and human spirit. However it is important to see that these are a neglected people – this documentary shows that the intent to dump nuclear waste on their land is not an isolated injustice, but a symptom of deeply systemic neglect. Thank you, Jagath, for your work.

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