Custodian â€¦ Jeffrey Lee at an outcrop sacred to his clan. “I
can go fishing and hunting. That’s all that matters to me.”
Photo: Glenn Campbell
As the only member of his clan, Jeffrey Lee controls the fate of Koongarra, writes Lindsay Murdoch.
JEFFREY LEE is not interested in the soaring price of uranium, which could make him one of the world’s richest men.
“This is my country. Look, it’s beautiful and I fear somebody will disturb it,” he says, waving his arm across a view of rocky land surrounded by Kakadu National Park, where the French energy giant Areva wants to extract 14,000 tonnes of uranium worth more than $5 billion.
Mr Lee, the shy 36-year-old sole member of the Djok clan and the senior custodian of the Koongarra uranium deposit, has decided never to allow the ecologically sensitive land to be mined.
“There are sacred sites, there are burial sites and there are other special places out there which are my responsibility to look after,” Mr Lee told the Herald.
“I’m not interested in white people offering me this or that â€¦ it doesn’t mean a thing.
“I’m not interested in money. I’ve got a job; I can buy tucker; I can go fishing and hunting. That’s all that matters to me.”
Mr Lee said he thought long and hard about speaking publicly for the first time about why he wants to see the land incorporated into the World Heritage-listed national park, where, he said, “it will be protected and safe forever”.
The Koongarra deposit is only three kilometres from Nourlangie Rock, one of the most visited attractions in Kakadu.
“There’s been a lot of pressure on me, and for a very long time I didn’t want to talk or think about Koongarra,” Mr Lee said.
“But now I want to talk about what I have decided to do because I fear for my country.
“I was taken all through here on the shoulder of my grandmother â€¦ I heard all the stories and learnt everything about this land, and I want to pass it all on to my kids.”
This week Mr Lee took the Herald to a rocky outcrop overlooking the Koongarra deposit, a sacred place where, according to his clan’s beliefs, a giant blue-tongue lizard still lurks and should not be disturbed.
Here it is, painted on a rock hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years ago, its jaw apparently bitten off in a mystical fight.
This is what Mr Lee calls a djang, or place of spiritual essence, which he has closed to the 230,000 tourists who visit Kakadu each year.
“My father and grandfather said they would agree to opening the land to mining, but I have learnt as I have grown up that there’s poison in the ground,” he said.
“My father and grandfather were offered cars, houses and many other things, but nobody told them about uranium and what it can do.
“It’s my belief that if you disturb that land bad things will happen â€¦ there will be a big flood, there will be an earthquake and people will have a big accident.”
Mr Lee said there were places on his land where the rainbow serpent had entered the ground that were so sacred, “I can’t even go to them or talk about them.
“I can’t allow people to go around disturbing everything.”
Areva wants to extract the uranium on its 12.5 square kilometre mineral lease at Koongarra, as the price of the ore has soared as world demand has grown.
Mr Lee’s declaration that he will never allow the mine to go ahead will put pressure on the Federal Government to formally incorporate the land into Kakadu National Park.
In August 2005 the Federal Government took control of uranium mining from the Northern Territory, declaring the territory open for new mines.
Ranger, a mine with a history of environmental leaks owned by Energy Resources of Australia, has been extracting uranium in Kakadu since 1981.
The Howard Government has always maintained that no new mine would be approved in the territory without the approval of the traditional owners.
The Government has told the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the body under which Kakadu is listed as a heritage site, that it would agree “in principle” for Koongarra to be incorporated into the park if the traditional
owners requested it.
Mr Lee, who works as a ranger in Kakadu, said incorporating Koongarra into the park would allow him to see that the land was protected.
“Being part of the park will ensure that the traditional laws, customs, sites, bush tucker, trees, plants and water stay the same as when they were passed on to me by my father and great-grandfather,” he said.
As the sole surviving member of the Djok clan Mr Lee does not have any children to pass the land on to.
“I’ll have to see what I can do about that,” he said.