How a young woman in a country pub managed to pull the pin on a big mining project.
A young woman walked into a pub one warm afternoon in the mid-1990s. Clad only in a bikini and sandals, she was not there to order a beer or to watch the cricket then screening on the television. She was there to use the phone.
The call was to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the ABC. The radio station had contacted her on the mobile phone of her boyfriend with whom she was camping at nearby Lake Macquarie, a relatively unspoiled piece of nature about two hours’ drive north of Sydney. The ABC wanted her to take part in a live interview over the phone with the chief executive of one of the world’s biggest mining companies.
They wanted her in the interview because she had been engaged by the Australian Conservation Foundation, usually thought of as a “blue stocking” outfit associated with preserving historic buildings, to mount a campaign against a new uranium mining project in Australia. Her campaign was turning out to have the mining companies rattled.
That might have been because of the tactic she had used. Rather than the usual placard-waving protesters marching on government buildings in capital cities, with press coverage and so on, she went with her intuition. She thought the public was growing weary of such spectacles, which would in any case sway few minds without a concerted information campaign to alert people to the dangers of digging up uranium and shipping it to where it might be on-sold for use in bombs, and with no assurances of safe disposal afterwards. All that would demand a lot more than the budget she’d been allocated, with no guarantee of any real effect on public opinion, let alone of stopping the mine from going ahead.
In Australia, as in other resource-rich but under-populated places, uranium and other mineral deposits – at least the ones not already exploited – tend to sit underneath territory that is reserved for use by indigenous citizens. A number of Aboriginal groups had already authorised mines of one kind or another on their land and she thought that their experiences would be worth listening to and they would have plenty of tips and insights to share, given the chance.
It cost relatively little to book a conference centre near Alice Springs, in the centre of the continent, contact the elders of important Aboriginal groups and invite them to a conference with one simple aim: to talk frankly with each other. No visiting dignitaries or politicians or mining executives need be called. They would only confound the conversation and derail the whole conference.
Inevitably, some those groups included those who already had experience of mining on their land by mega corporations, while others were considering authorising similar projects. They could relate how well the mining corporations had kept to their promises of well-paying jobs, schools, clinics and other goodies in return for permission to mine; and how their assurances that it was nowhere near as destructive of the environment and sacred sites as they had heard had accorded with reality; and how well they had kept to their promises of a thorough clean up and restoration of sites to their previous pristine beauty as soon as the project had run its course.
Had all promises been honoured, there would be no problem. Leaders would be pleased to provide their people with quality services, jobs and opportunities for their children, and they would learn even of other benefits that might have flowed from working with modern mining technology. On the other hand, had those promises not been kept, then leaders might drive a much harder bargain, for example by demanding stronger legal guarantees and the resources to enforce them. Or simply to say No. After all, Aborigines see themselves not as the owners of the land they occupy, but stewards and guardians of it. Their duty is to use their land wisely and leave it in good order to their children and the other creatures they share it with, so that future generations, in turn, can take over as stewards.
Mining executives, who proclaim hand on heart that they have kept all their promises, would surely also welcome this simple initiative as vindication of their good faith. But they weren’t pleased, they were furious and complained that the young woman’s tactics were unfair and somehow under-hand. Voices were raised.
Speaking at the end of the bar, without notes, on live national radio, the young woman calmly drew on facts and figures she had memorised, while her interlocutor sat at a desk in his office where he could call on assistants for all the charts, graphs, facts and figures he was likely to need.
Listening to the interview, you could hear that, though calm, she was nervous. But as the interview proceeded, her interlocutor responded to her calm arguments with bluster and empty rhetoric. Meanwhile, in Alice Springs, other conversations were about to take place. The uranium was to stay where it was.
Featured image by WikiImages on Pixabay.