In June 2011, Jeffrey Lee travelled from remote Arnhemland to Paris to meet with UNESCO officials. As the last surviving member of the Djok Clan, he was attempting to get his precious country at Koongarra added to the World Heritage list. It’s been a 30 year labour of love by him “ much of it in opposition to the French miner Areva, which had hopes of removing 14,000 tonnes of uranium worth over five billion dollars from this land. Here’s what he told the 35th session of the WORLD HERITAGE COMMITTEE “ speaking in Gundjeihmi:
Ngaye ngadjare manjbun ngudberre nawu ngurriworhnan World Heritage Committee bu
ngurringeinameng gunred ngarduk gure World Heritage List. Manjbun bu ngurriwokdi
anekkegen dja gamak gandibekkang gunwok ngarduk. Ngadjalmadbom gunguyeng dja
nganjilngmak bu ngabekkan wanjh gandibidyigarrme ba garridjarrkbolknahnan.
Barrigukbulerri nawu gunmogurrgurrbuiga gure Kakadu yiman gayime barriMirarr
ngandibidyigarrme rouk, dja Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation warridj, nawu bolkkime
Ngaye ngadjare nawu angarre ngadberre, gunred, anme, gundulk, gukku gure Gun.garra
gadjaldi munguihmunguih yiman gayime gerrngehgen bu bolkyibolkyimi gungare bu nagorngumo dja mawahmawa ngarduk ngandiyibolkbawong. Bu garribolkngeiname gure
World Heritage wanjh gamak garribolknahnan munguiyhmunguiyh.
And in English:
I would like to thank the World Heritage Committee for inscribing Koongarra, my country,
on the World Heritage List. Thank you for talking about this and for listening to my words. I
have waited a very long time for this to happen and it comes as a very happy feeling for me
to see all of us looking after this place.
I am supported by all the Bininj clans of Kakadu and most particularly by neighbouring clans
such as the Mirarr People, through their representative body the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal
Corporation, representatives of which are here with me at this meeting.
I want to ensure that the traditional laws, customs, sites, bush tucker, trees, plants and water at Koongarra stay the same as when they were passed on to me by my father and greatgrandfather. Inscribing the land at Koongarra as World Heritage is an important step in making this protection lasting and real.
For Koongarra was finally added to the World Heritage List.
And much of Jeffrey’s Lee’s efforts were documented by theweathergroup_U “ activists and film-makers who are now showing the latest results of their filming at 24HR Art in Darwin.
An early version of the Koongarra struggle was seen at the MCA in Sydney in 2010 during its In the Balance ecological art show. This exhibition has also showed film made by weathergroup members of the on-going mining disaster at Sidoarjo in Java where an unstoppable mud flow has wiped out villages and fields.
And the last Sydney Biennale saw their important film about the work of Indigenous Rangers in fire and weed control in remotest Arnhemland. This resulted from the April 2008 meeting of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples in Darwin, discussing ˜Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change’. theweathergroup_U attended and heard stories of pressure on forest livelihoods, of rising oceans and biopiracy, of ice melting so rapidly that it stretched the ability of traditional knowledge to read the once icebound coastal environment. They also encountered Dean Yibarbuk, a traditional owner of Arnhemland escarpment country and began exploring the Western Arnhem Land Fire Abatement project (WALFA).
Dean is part of Wardekken Land Management Ltd., one of 6 organizations of traditional owners employed as rangers on their own country from Bulman to Maningrida. Funded for 17 years in a deal with US energy giant Conoco Philips to ˜offset’ CO2 from their huge new gas-fired power plant in Darwin, the project is re-igniting the traditional practices of Yolgnu controlled burning, although adding in helicopters, landrovers and state-of-the-art satellite mapping systems. In abeyance in remote Arnhem land as people have been confined to, first the missions and now the towns, cultural burning practices are being revived. As they reduce the intensity and spread of the dry season bushfires, they also reduce the amount of CO2 released to the atmosphere.
A side-effect has been the enabling of autonomy and the reconstitution of culture ˜on country’, supporting the aims of the ˜outstation movement’ among those Arnhem land people who wish to leave the malfunctioning towns and return to live on country.
But back to Koongarra, and Jeffrey Lee’s pilgrimage is not yet complete. There are ongoing meetings with the Federal Government, the Northern Land Council and the French mining company as Lee pushes to get the boundaries of Kakadu National Park changed to include this area. Until this decision is made, Jeffrey Lee’s fight to protect Koongarra for future generations continues.
Artist: David Mackenzie, Susan Norrie