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Threats to a Sacred Lake Stir an Aborigine Woman to Action

Mining project near Lake Jasper reminds Beryl McGlade of discrimination she endured in her youth

By Caryn CoatneySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 27, 1997



LAKE JASPER, AUSTRALIA

As a child, Beryl McGlade often walked the shores of Lake Jasper. But she could never dangle her feet in the water because it was so sacred.

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Archaeologists have since found stone tools and ancient tree stumps deep under the waters of the lake, showing the presence of a thriving indigenous culture long before floods turned the area into a lake 4,000 years ago.

But now this lake is the site of an emotional tug of war. On one side are the state government and a Japanese-owned mining company that want to extract mineral sands here; on the other are archaeologists, environmentalists, and Aborigines like Ms. McGlade, who say the proposed mine threatens the lake's history and its delicate ecological balance.

"What about our people there?" McGlade asks pointedly. "Would you like someone to walk over your mother's grave and dig it up around you?" Then she adds darkly, "No one can get that land because we'll call in our relatives and protest."

The area around Lake Jasper, which is part of the D'Entrecasteaux National Park in the southwestern corner of Australia, is rich with eucalyptus forests, swampy plains, and pristine sandy beaches set against a majestic stretch of coast. In a complex land swap, the mining company, Cable Sands, has offered to give the state government of Western Australia 2,640 acres of its own land outside the national park in exchange for 910 acres within it. The conservative state government has given its initial approval, pending an environmental impact study by its Environmental Protection Authority. When outlining his reasons for supporting the land swap last year, former Environment Minister Peter Foss said the size of the park would increase and the proposal would add to the public purse and create jobs.

Cable Sands estimates that the ore body is worth A$330 million ($246 million) and says it will pay A$11 million in royalties to the state and create 140 jobs. Extensive studies commissioned by the company, including research on the native animals and vegetation of Lake Jasper, show that the environmental and archaeological values of the lake will not be affected, says Ken Mills, the company's exploration manager.

"We know that they [Aboriginal groups] have an interest in the area and we wish to respect that interest," he says. "We recognize that we have to deal with that." In fact, Cable Sands is currently in negotiations with Aboriginal groups to gain their approval for mining a small piece of land 328 yards west of the lake, and Mr. Mills says he hopes the negotiations will continue.

Historic site

But to judge from the reaction of the state's Green Party and other critics, Cable Sands has a fight on its hands. Even if the EPA gives its approval, Aboriginal groups could likely take legal action, a strategy that has stalled other projects around the country. Australia's indigenous people, now about 180,000, often feel like second-class citizens. They face racism, high unemployment, poor health, and alcoholism.

Lake Jasper is the only underwater historic site known in Australia. Archaeologists say this discovery has particular value since many artifacts here have been better preserved than those on land.

Some critics of the plan say the land swap might have been less contentious if Cable Sands had done a better job of recognizing the spiritual importance of the area to the indigenous people.