From uranium mining to sustainable tourism: How Kakadu is changing post COVID-19

By Justin Meneguzzi 29 April 2022
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With vast swathes of Kakadu NP now returned to Traditional Owners and the Ranger uranium mine closing, it’s a brand new day for this wildlife- and wetland-infused country.

“Namarrkon has been and gone already,” says Victor Cooper as he observes the densely forested valley that sweeps up to the sheer red face of Nourlangie Rock. Namarrkon, the Lightning Man, is the ancient deity responsible for Kakadu National Park’s famous wet season. He cleaves the sky with his giant stone axe to create flooding rains, lightning and thunder. His work is violent but the results are beautiful.

The valley in front of us is alive with young bird calls, trees are starting to fruit and once dusty floodplains are now swollen and teeming with life. It’s early March and Victor says it will soon be bangkerreng, the ‘knock ‘em down’ season, when the water recedes in readiness for the dry season to come. The air is electric with change in Kakadu but not just for the wildlife and plants.

The World Heritage-listed national park was controversially established in 1979 when the Fraser government struck a raw bargain with Traditional Owners. The government promised to eventually return the land to them, but only on condition they agreed to a uranium mine in the park. Against a backdrop of tense mine protests and land rights disputes, clan elders begrudgingly agreed to the deal, trusting that the government would someday make good on its end of the bargain. The park was established, the mine dug and Jabiru township was constructed to service the mine’s needs, becoming the de facto centre of Kakadu National Park.

Fast forward decades later and the Ranger uranium mine (below) is now in the process of closing. The Australian government has returned vast swathes of land to Traditional Owners, with nearly half of the park back in Aboriginal hands so far. Mostly recently in March 10,000 square kilometres of the Alligator Rivers region, in the northern half of the park, were handed back to local clans.

The mine’s closure is cause for celebration but it also represents a significant economic challenge. For decades the Mirarr clan, whose land the mine was built on, shared mining royalties with the Federal Government estimated at around $6 million annually. The closure means this income will evaporate unless they come up with a plan.

“We’re going from a largely false economy of resources to establishing an economy in its own right,”

says Justin O’Brien, chief executive officer of the GunDjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, which acts on behalf of the Mirarr Traditional Owners.

Justin says the focus is on transitioning away from Jabiru as simply a mining town and instead becoming a leader for Aboriginal-led sustainable tourism in the region.

To achieve this, the Australian Government will invest $216 million over the next 10 years in realising a new vision for Jabiru and the national park. Alongside upgrades to current camping sites and roads, there are plans to build a world-class visitor centre in Jabiru that will combine traditional storytelling with cutting-edge technology. New luxury glamping villas are in development alongside Yellow Water Billabong (below) and there are proposals for new wildlife encounters, mountain bike trails and a multi-day hike that will run through the entire park.

Ben Tyler, a Bininj man who is raising the profile of native foods through Kakadu Kitchen, is planning to bring an alcohol-free distillery to Cooinda. Meanwhile, mother and daughter duo Mandy Muir and Jessie Alderson will expand their Kakadu Billabong Safari Camp, and plan to continue the popular Mayali Mulil Festival, which showcases Kakadu art, food and music. “We’re so excited to be opening up and sharing our knowledge,” says Mandy.

Peter Christopherson, owner of Kakadu Native Plants, is working to rehabilitate the Ranger uranium mine site using traditional knowledge of the park’s plants and wildlife to rebuild a healthy ecosystem. He says historically Aboriginal people were shut out of tourism in the park but have since proven they can use their expertise to improve visitors’ experiences. He tells me in one instance traditional burns were applied to sections of the Yellow Water Billabong, which is home to a third of Australia’s bird species and a popular spot for sunset cruises. Cleansing fires removed the neglected and overgrown foliage, attracting more birds to nest on the waterway.

“We didn’t damage the environment. We enhanced what was there and as a result we could show people what a Kakadu wetland should be,”

says Peter Christopherson, owner of Kakadu Native Plants.

The first step in realising the new vision for Kakadu is the Marrawuddi Arts and Culture Centre, housed inside a rejuvenated former bakery just outside Jabiru. The space is light and modern, equal parts cafe, gallery and art store. The centre is also a lively open plan co-working space for Bininj artists from Kakadu and the wider West Arnhem region. On any given day, different artists will take a seat and work on their latest creation, taking inspiration from animals and stories to create new works ranging from bark paintings to didgeridoos and screen prints.

On the day I visit, a cluster of carved mimih spirits (below, top right) watch on as I browse a collection of fashion tees and pandanus weavings (below, bottom right). I hover over resident artist, Graham Rostron, as he starts a new painting of a barramundi. He warmly welcomes the opportunity for a chat, telling me stories about the yawkyawk mermaids from his country while he works.

“I learned how to paint from my grandfather and then my father when I was seven years old,” Graham tells me. “My father taught me how to cut the bark from a tree and whittle paint brushes from plants. My art is important because I want to teach my sons and my little cousins. When I paint, I’m sharing my knowledge and passing it on.”

Graham’s son is 14 years old and keen to be a painter like his father. We joke that the next time I visit, I’ll find him and his son painting together. He says sometimes guests are nervous to come talk to him but they shouldn’t be. The artists are always happy to talk while they work and the Centre is a special opportunity for interaction and cultural exchange.

Back at Nourlangie Rock, Victor (above) is showing me an ochre handprint on the honey-hued rock that has faded considerably. He laments the changing seasons and erosion will eventually see these ancient works disappear completely. “This art is disappearing, but at least it’s now on canvas,” Victor says. Thankfully there are current and emerging elders that are helping to preserve their culture and traditions, in places like the Marrawuddi Arts & Culture Centre, while embracing a new era for Kakadu National Park.