Stop digging Down Under?

A zinc mine in Australia meets resistance among Aborigines concerned about the environment and a 'rainbow serpent.'

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

A professional fisherman for 40 years, Stephen Johnston likes nothing better than heading out to sea in a boat to hunt dugong, the slow-moving marine mammals related to the manatee or sea cow of the Americas.

The docile creatures may live in salt-water and graze on sea grass, but they taste nothing like fish, the Aborigine says. "If I served you some, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference from beef. It's good red meat, mate, very tasty."

But Mr. Johnston, an elder of the Yanyuwa tribe who spoke on the phone from an island in the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia, worries his dugong hunting days could be numbered. Like many Aborigines in the region, he is concerned that a Swiss company's plan to establish a massive open-cut lead and zinc mine near the coast will kill off not just the dugongs and the sea grass but turtles, fish, and prawns, too.

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While Australia's economy is booming, thanks largely to Chinese demand for coal, iron ore, and other resources, the increased prospecting and the establishment of new mines is causing friction with indigenous communities in many remote parts of the country.

After months of controversy, the firm Xstrata was granted permission Friday by the Northern Territory regional government to go ahead with the lead and zinc mine.

"This has been a difficult issue, there is no doubt about it, [but] we have rigorously followed due process to ensure that economic gains are coupled with environmental integrity and community benefit," said the head of the Northern Territory government, Chief Minister Clare Martin.

The lead, zinc, and silver deposits lie beneath the McArthur River, so Xstrata will have to divert it by three miles and alter the course of two connecting creeks.

The Yanyuwa and their neighbors, the Gudanji tribe, say the McArthur River development is fraught with risk, including the danger of the mine's dams being inundated by floodwaters, releasing toxic materials into the environment.

During the annual wet season the McArthur becomes swollen with monsoon rains and discharges into the sea a volume of water equal to seven times the capacity of Sydney Harbor.

Another concern among the indigenous populations is a spiritual one. Aborigines worry that the diversion of the river will stir the ancient spirits said to inhabit this timeless landscape of savannah grassland, crocodile-infested swamps and billabongs (ponds).

The Gudanji believe the McArthur River is home to a giant "rainbow serpent" from the ancient Dreamtime era, when mythical beings roamed the continent. Upsetting the river serpent will bring storms, cyclones, and other disasters, they claim.

"People believe that they'll slowly die if that rainbow serpent is disturbed," says Fraser Baker, a Gudanji elder, also reached by phone. "If you start messing with it, something bad is going to happen. People think sickness will come down the river. Xstrata has done nothing for our communities, and we don't want the mine to go ahead."

While Aboriginal beliefs have stood in the way of development projects in the past, the Xstrata project appears to be set for final approval. The company said that had it been denied permission to convert its existing decade-old underground mine into an open-cut operation, it would have had to withdraw from the site, abandoning an estimated 3 percent of the world's zinc reserves. And, it said, nearly 300 local employees would have lost their jobs.

China's voracious appetite for raw materials has sent the price of zinc soaring to $3,300 per ton from $700 per ton three years ago, and mining companies like Xstrata are scrambling to exploit new reserves.

The firm said that the mine, 550 miles southeast of the Northern Territory capital Darwin, will be surrounded by a 40-foot-high wall. It insists the $63-million river diversion will safely channel floodwaters away from the site.

"There would have to be a flood many times greater than in the past to go over the top of the wall," says general manager Brian Hearne. "We're confident there'll be no issues with flooding."

But environmentalists worry the project is fraught with risk.

"A river like this has never been diverted before in Australia," says Stuart Blanch, of environmental group WWF-Australia. "It's a gamble, an experiment without precedent. These tropical rivers are very complex – it's not like building a cement canal to drain storm water in a city."

Xstrata's first application to establish the mine was refused by the Northern Territory government in February when an independent report found there was a danger that the stretch of diverted river could overflow its banks during monsoon season.

"The mine is right in the middle of the flood plain," says Felicity Chapman, the head of the Mabunji Aboriginal Resource Association in the nearby town of Borroloola, where 85 percent of the population of 2,000 is Aboriginal. "Floods can be 20 meters high; they go right over the tree-tops. There's no way you could protect a mine from the river when it's flooding and four kilometers wide."

Contamination of the river would jeopardize the area's lucrative game-fishing scene, which each year draws 30,000 enthusiasts from as far afield as Sydney and Melbourne in search of the elusive barramundi. "We're not antimining in principle," says Ms. Chapman, "but with this one, the price to pay is too high. When Australia is facing a water crisis, we shouldn't be damaging our great rivers."

Final approval for the mine has to be granted by the federal government in Canberra. Prime Minister John Howard recently threw his support behind the mine and said that it would create jobs. "It's in the national interest that this country continues to be welcoming to mining operations," he said. "It would be a great shame if it did not take place."

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