UNESCO's World Heritage Committee in an Extraordinary meeting today welcomed efforts by the Australian government to help resolve the controversy surrounding uranium mining and milling in an enclave within the Kakadu National Park which, some claim, endangers this unique archaeological and ethnological site.
The Committee decided not to inscribe the site, which has been on the World Heritage List since 1982, on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Speakers at the Committee meeting stressed the complexity of the problem which concerns scientific, cultural and legal issues, including the relations between peoples and nature. Speakers insisted on the need to bolster trust between the Australian authorities and the Aborigines who live in the park and expressed gratitude to Australia for its co-operation with the Committee.
In a document adopted at the close of the Session, the Committee emphasised the fact that "whilst fully respecting the sovereignty of States on whose territory the cultural and natural heritage is situated [...] States Parties [...] recognise that such heritage constitutes a world heritage for whose protection it is the duty of the international community as a whole to co-operate."
It further expressed "deep regret" that the voluntary suspension of the construction of the mine decline at Jabiluka [...] has not taken place" and grave concern "about the possible serious impacts to the living cultural values of Kakadu National Park posed by the proposal to mine and mill uranium at Jabiluka."
The Committee also said it was "of the opinion that confidence and trust building through dialogue are crucial for there to be any resolution of issues relating to the proposal to mine and mill uranium at Jabiluka." In particular," it notes, "a more substantial and continuous dialogue needs to be established between the Australian government and the traditional owners of the Jabiluka Mineral Lease, the Mirrar Aboriginal people."
There is also concern about "the lack of progress with the preparation of a cultural heritage management plan for Jabiluka" and the Committee expressed "significant reservations concerning scientific uncertainties relating to mining and milling at Jabiluka."
The document furthermore "recognises with appreciation" the co- operation of the Australian authorities in proving reports requested by the Committee late last year, and "acknowledges indications that a new dialogue between the Mirrar Aboriginal people and the Australian government." It "considered this to be the first essential step in finding a constructive solution to the issues raised by the UNESCO mission to Kakadu National Park" in late 1998."
The Committee also considered that "it is the clear responsibility of the Australian government to regulate the activities" of private companies "in relation to the proposed mining and milling activities at Jabiluka to ensure the protection of the World Heritage values of Kakadu National Park."
It also requests the Australian government to submit a progress report by April 15, 2000 on the following: "progress made with cultural mapping of the Jabiluka Mineral Lease and the Boyweg- Almudj site and its boundaries and the completion of the cultural management plan with the necessary co-operation of the Mirrar, and appropriate involvement of other stakeholders"; on "the implementation, in response to the Kakadu Regional Social Impact Study of a comprehensive package of social and welfare benefits, together with the Northern Territory Government, for the benefit of the Aboriginal communities of Kakadu (including the Mirrar)"; and "more precise details of the meaning of the output and scale of any parallel activities at the Ranger and Jabiluka uranium mines."