Political Dialogues about 'Preserving Sacred Sites'
-- Aboriginal Protests against Mine Projects in Australia --


Aboriginal people in theYirrkala community organised a campaign against a boxcite mine project at Gove Peninsula in the 1960s by claiming that the mine would destroy their sacred sites. The movement encouraged nation-wide Aboriginal land rights movements and led to the introduction of the Aboriginal Land Right (Northern Territory) Act 1976. The Aboriginal way of land ownership was translated into the European-based legal system, and the existence of sacred sites became important to claim land rights under the legislation. It was also the case for native title claims under the Native Title Act 1993. Furthermore various laws were introduced to legalise the protection of sacred sites.

Since the 1990s, Mirrar-Gundjehmi Aborigines have been cooperating with various environmental organisations against the uranium mine project in Jabilka. They also argued that the land was a source of their culture and living tradition, and urged the campaign as a fight for cultural survival. Campaigning for inscription of the Kakadu National Park on 'the List of World Heritage in Danger' became a crucial strategy in order to stop the project. The campaign at the World Heritage Committee brought out the concept of 'cultural landscape' as 'combined works of nature and of man', and Mirrar people were recoginised as legitimate 'actors' for intervening and maintaining the landscape. The committee requested the Australian government to promote dialogue with the Mirrar people.

The paper argues that discourse on protecting Aboriginal sacred sites against mine projects has has been the catalyst for political dialogues in Australian society. Every sacred site has a very local and specific nature in maintaining the tradition and culture of the Aboriginal groups responsible for the site. But the discourse could forge pan-Aboriginal movements by mobilising even 'non-traditional' Aborigines, because the concept of 'sacred site' is uniquely Aboriginal and symbolises genuineness of Aboriginality. Accommodating the concept of sacred sites and Aboriginal culture in Australian political and legal institutions has provided a basis for Aboriginal people to claim indigenous rights and political power. It also implies that land has not only economic but cultural values. Claims for protecting sacred sites should be understood, therefore, as the pursuance of Aboriginal rights for political, economic, social, and cultural self-determination.

The recognition of sacred sites in non-Aboriginal institutions has raised problems as well. The secretiveness of authentic sacred sites sometimes contradicts the recognition because it requires scientific evidence of the sites for the public. The feeling of unfairness has been growing among 'non-traditional' Aborigines who cannot claim land. Furthermore, due to the political power of Australian Aboriginal people, their claims for self-determination tend to be internalised and separated from the international movements for ensuring indigenous rights.