This article was first published in the Land Rights News January 2015 edition.
THE words projected on a big screen at the final plenary session of the World Parks Congress in Sydney late last year said it all: “I could be a rich man today. Billions of dollars … You know, you can offer me anything, but my land is a cultural land,” read the script accompanying an image of Jeffrey Lee on his land at Koongarra which is now incorporated into the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park.
Jeffrey Lee, the senior Traditional Owner of the Djok clan, speaks for the 12,000 hectares of land which used to comprise the former Koongarra Project Area. It contains an estimated 12,000 tonnes of high grade uranium which the French nuclear and mining company, Areva, has long been trying to access and develop.
Mr Lee told thousands of delegates to the World Parks Congress of his decision to gift the land at Koongarra to the World Heritage estate, rather than reap a fortune in royalties if it had been mined for uranium. And he told them of his modest request to the Australian Government for help to build a house on his country.
Alas, it seems that the Government is not prepared to reciprocate his generosity.
“I have said no to uranium mining at Koongarra because I believe that the land and my cultural beliefs are more important than mining and money. Money comes and goes, but the land is always here, it always stays if we look after it and it will look after us,” Mr Lee told the World Parks Congress.
“While I’m down here at this Congress, I want to tell people about Koongarra and remind the Government that I did all that work to protect that country. All I’m asking is for a place to live on my country. I don’t want to wait until I’ve passed away. I want to live on my country now.
“I don’t want the Government to forget me. They came to visit me; they congratulated me on my hard work and said they will support me in this. The Government knows how hard I worked, they gave me an Order of Australia and I’m happy for that. Now I just want a commitment from them for a house so I can live on that country that I fought for.”
Jeffrey Lee was granted an Order of Australia award in January 2012.
The citation said: “For service to conservation and the environment in the Northern Territory, particularly through advocacy roles for the inclusion of the Djok Gundjeihmi country as a World Heritage area within Kakadu National Park.”
Land Rights News asked the Federal Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, whether he was considering assistance for Mr Lee to build an outstation on his country. The reply, from his Parliamentary Secretary, Simon Birmingham, was far from positive.
“We would love to see Jeff settle on his country,” Mr Birmingham’s office replied. “He is a remarkable person and his character and achievements have left a lasting impression. “Unfortunately, there is no Australian Government funding available to construct an outstation at Koongarra, but we are helping where we can.
“The Kakadu (Park) Board has given in-principle approval from a planning perspective. There are potential business opportunities on the table for Jeff and his family, for conservation work or smallscale tourism in the Koongarra area.”