Uranium mining in aboriginal territories has a long history in Australia. As early as 1906, South Australia’s Radium Hill was mined for radium. Amateur prospectors mined haphazardly, damaging Ngadjuri and Wilyakali lands. And an estimated 100,000 tonnes of toxic mine residue (tailings) remain at Radium Hill with the potential to leach radioactive material into the environment. Uranium mines across Australia have similar legacies, with decades of activism from the Mirarr people against the Ranger and Jabiluka mine sites in Kakadu National Park.
Tjiwarl Traditional Owners have been opposing an uranium mining in Yeelirrie, Westen Australia, proposed by Canada’s Cameco, which intentions to dig a nine-kilometre open mine pit and destroy 2,400 hectares of traditional lands. As the Tjiwarl Nation say, the uranium mine would threaten important natural and cultural sites --- part of the Seven Sisters Dreaming Songline .
The Star Dreaming story of the Seven Sisters is one of the most widely distributed ancient stories amongst Aboriginal Australia. The songline for this story covers more than half the width of the continent, from deep in the Central Desert out to the West Coast. The songline travels through many different language groups and different sections of the narrative are recognised in different parts of the country . "The sisters are running and forming [the country], they are making rock holes, clay pans, and bush tomatoes" .
In particular, Three Tjiwarl women, Shirley Wonyabong, Elizabeth Wonyabong and Vicki Abdullah, were awarded the 2019 Peter Rawlinson Award for their decades-long campaign along with other Tjiwarl people, to protect their lands and culture from the proposed uranium mine .
“Shirley, Elizabeth and Vicki, along with other Tjiwarl people, have spoken up for their country and culture around campfires, in politicians’ offices, on the streets of Perth and in Western Australia’s highest court, all the while looking after their grandchildren and each other” .
The uranium mine at Yeelirrie would use nine million litres of water a day and generate millions of tonnes of mine waste that would remain radioactive for thousands of years .
But, Shirley, Elizabeth and Vicki took the matter to court. First, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) rejected Cameco’s proposal because it was almost certain to wipe out several species, including rare stygofauna (tiny subterranean creatures that live in the groundwater) and the entire western population of a rare saltbush, and harm other wildlife like the Malleefowl, Princess parrot and Greater bilby However, state and federal authorities went against the EPA’s advice and approved the mine in 2019  .
The Yeelirrie site is the largest uranium deposit in the country. Roughly 36 million tonnes of radioactive waste will be produced during the lifetime of the mine, which now has approval until 2043.
The Cameco company stated: "At Yeelirrie, we are working to ensure local people benefit from development. Through our five-pillar corporate responsibility program, we will make a priority of training and hiring local Aboriginal people from nearby communities to work at the project and will contract local businesses for goods and services as much as we can " .
However, the Tjiwarl Nation opposed this colonial development notion and stated: "Federal Government’s approval had been ‘upsetting’ and the government should have spoken to Traditional Owners" ; "We will protect our lands and culture any way we can" .
And the Tjiwarl people are not alone. Aboriginal communities across Australia continue to engage with and mobilise against government decisions to ignore native title claimants. As set out in Australian law, native title is the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights to the land and waters, guided by traditional law and customs .