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Uranium Minefield: Middle Men Are Bleeding Aboriginal Land Dry

The Australian Government has approved a new uranium mine on Indigenous land, despite ongoing investigations of corruption. While millions are being made in mining profits, some Indigenous landowners still live in poverty.

Image by Jagath Dheerasekara

Buried in Australia's soil is a third of Earth's uranium, the largest reserve in the world. This means there's big money in mining it. But standing on it are Indigenous Australians with native title rights to that land. The Martu people, only numbering only around 1,000, own around 136,000 square kilometers in Western Australia.

On the other side of the dispute is the world's largest uranium company Cameco, which in collaboration with Mitsubishi, want to extend the Kintyre mine that was previously owned by Rio Tinto. It bears the name of an area cut out of the Karlamilyi National Park for mining in 1994.

Darren Farmer, a burly middle-aged Martu man, told VICE that "the Martu people do not want this uranium mine. Everybody has said no." But that hasn't stopped Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who last month gave Kintyre the green light.

This decision was made possible by the intricate mechanics of the Native Title Act. Indigenous Australians are forced to nominate a corporate body that represents them legally. In the case of the Martu people, theirs is the Western Deserts Land Aboriginal Corporation ( WDLAC). In 2012 WDLAC gave up Martu land for mining, and are now working with Newcrest Mining, Fortescue Metals Group, Reward Minerals—and Cameco.

WDLAC is currently under investigation for what VICE understands is the corrupt management of millions in mining profits. The body probing them is the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations ( ORIC). ORIC recently asked WDLAC to provide reasons as to why they shouldn't be overtaken by special management. When VICE asked ORIC spokeswoman Lisa Hugg about details, she was only able to confirm that they'd received "a lot of interest and complaints".

Darren Farmer is one such Martu man who is complaining. He's says he's been thrown out of WDLAC because he kept demanding access to their multimillion-dollar mining deals. But two "bullying" Martu men called Teddy Biljabu and Brian Samson control WDLAC, Mr Farmer says. Teddy and Brian told him the deals were "none of his business". Upon pressing further, he claims he was was assaulted.

"Sure I've been attacked at the meetings. I've been punched in front of everyone," Mr Farmer told VICE. "And if anyone says anything about it, they get the same beating." While Mr Farmer is only one Martu man, he said that talks over Kintyre involved "lots of people at those meetings declaring that they don't want this."

But siding with WDLAC for money is sometimes "the only way out" of the poverty the Martu people still live in. "They'll ask Teddy for $50 and he'll give it to them, so they think he's this great guy," Mr Farmer said. "But our houses have no windows, no doors, no power, no good hot water. Our housing, health, education—it's still the same as it's ever been." This is despite the report that around $50 million has been collected by the WDLAC in mining profits, and $20.24 million in trust fund for the Martu people.

This is raising concerns that mining companies are selectively buying off Indigenous people for use of land. There are even reports that Toro Energy, which owns the Wiluna mine, has sweetened traditional land deals with new Toyotas. "The older people don't want mines, but some young people do because of the money," said one Wiluna man Glen Cook to VICE. "But the mining companies give money to a few people, but not to all of us."

Mr Farmer described similar instances of specific members of WDLAC suddenly owning new cars. "They are all supporters of Teddy and Brian," he said. "They say at meetings if you don't side with them, then you aren't going to get your Toyota, and you aren't going to get your money for Christmas."

Bruce Hill is former CEO of a defunct company called WDPAC, which Teddy directed as "lore [law] man" and Brian was a co-member. He claims to have "ample examples" of corruption. The extent of their mismanagement involves 64 missing cars, hundreds of thousands in cash, and two properties valued over $1,045,000, according to Mr Hill, "including several cheques drawn for tens of thousands to Teddy without any justification."

Mr Hill exposed this back in 2010, but he's still chasing ORIC to charge both Teddy and Brian. This worries Mr Hill that the current investigation into WDLAC may not lead anywhere. "I'm still trying to first correct the injustice suffered by innocent members, and then to prosecute the directors," he said.

These ongoing allegations of corruption and a government investigation have made Mr Farmer wonder why federal approval for Kintyre wasn't put on hold. "We don't know what the government's agenda is," he said. "We don't know if there's a connection here."

Gerry Georgatos, author or many Indigenous-focused articles for The Stringer, pointed out that government interests are heavily invested in mining. He even claims that WA's closure of 150 Indigenous communities was a way of "clearing" the land. "The government wants to shut them down for miners," he said. "They need as many people off the country for when they set up uranium mines."

While the price for uranium is currently low, demand is predicted to jump. One forecast even estimates global nuclear electricity capacity to rise 200 per cent by 2050. India alone has estimated an increase in their nuclear power usage from 3 to 25 per cent by 2025.

With federal approval of the Kintyre mine, WA will now have four uranium mine projects— Mulga Rock,Yeelirrie, and Wiluna—in advanced stages of establishment.

The Martu people are hopeful that WDLAC will be overtaken by ORIC. They had until May 8th to explain their actions, but they were recently granted a month's extension. "This will give them time to get rid of the rest of the money," an anonymous source told VICE.

VICE approached Environmental Minister Greg Hunt and WDLAC over a week ago, but both failed to respond.

Follow Jack on Twitter: @jack_callil