Karlamalyi Walk in Western Australia

Martu Traditional Owners recently led a 140 km, week-long walk to protest against Cameco's proposed uranium mine at Kintyre in Western Australia. Cameco has received conditional government approval to proceed with the mine, but the project has stalled because of the low uranium price.

Kintyre was excised from Karlamalyi National Park ‒ WA's biggest National Park ‒ in 1994. The area still has National Park values ‒ an intricate desert water network and a number of endangered and vulnerable species including the rock wallaby, mulgara, marsupial mole, bilby and quoll. The area includes permanent water holes, ephemeral rivers and salt lakes.

Over 50 artists, activists and Traditional Owners participated in the Karlamalyi Walk. Along the way, stories were told about the land: where water is sourced, where the animals and the plants are, where traditional burial and hunting grounds are located, and why mining on this land must not go ahead.

Aboriginal Traditional Owners are concerned the project will affect their water supplies as well as 28 threatened species in the Karlamilyi National Park. Nola Taylor said the mine represented a threat to the health of people in her community. "It's too close to where we live, it's going to contaminate our waterways, we've got our biggest river that runs right past our community," she said.

"They (Cameco) told me it would be safe, they said all that but we had a cyclone go through here a couple of years back, and for me I have seen what has happened to the river and the water that is in there. I'm going to walk with the rest of the community to fight and stop the uranium mine that's going to go ahead," Taylor said.

Curtis Taylor, a Martu man and filmmaker, is not convinced the waste can be stored safely. "We had assurances given to us by the company but everyone still has that worry, if there was a flooding event that maybe tailings would go into the river," he said.

Joining the walk was Anohni, the Academy Award-nominated musician from Antony and the Johnsons. She said: "It's a huge landscape – it's a really majestic place. It's really hard to put a finger on it but there's a sense of presence and integrity and patience, dignity and perseverance and intense intuitive wisdom that this particular community of people have. There is almost an unbroken connection to the land – they haven't been radically disrupted. They are very impressive people – it's humbling to be around these women. In many regards, I think the guys who run Cameco are desolate souls, desolate souls with no home, with no connection to land, with no connection to country."

Dave Sweeney, nuclear free campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation, reflected on the Karlamalyi Walk:

"Sometimes an event braids together the personal and the political in a way that is particularly unique and powerful. For me the Karlamalyi Walk was such an event. An opportunity to literally walk the talk and spend deep time on remote country; walking, talking and listening alongside old friends, new faces and Traditional Owners concerned about the prospect of uranium mining on their community and country. The big day horizons and night skies helped the mind move from outcomes to outback and the red dirt was a daily reminder of the long geological and cultural time that has shaped, and been shaped by this place.

"One particular day stands out. A long days walking without any tracks or footprints, but never with any sense of discomfort or unease. Answering a later question an old man matter of factly states, 'no – you're the first white ones'. The first white ones to have walked here: no missionaries or miners, no passers-by or pastoralists. Just Martu, and now us. The sense of place was vast. The importance of and urgent need for respect and protection was clear. And the shared commitment to end the threat of uranium mining and map a path to a nuclear free future was real and continuing."

K-A shared her experience:

"For me, the walk was about taking my family out to Karlamalyi National Park in the East Pilbara to support the Martu people that had invited us to come and walk with them to keep uranium in the ground. However the walk has given me way more than just coming and supporting the Martu people on this week-long journey. The walk has given me a renewed strength and vigor to continue supporting not only the Martu people on their land to stop uranium mining but all Aboriginal communities that are fighting against this industry to save their homelands. And it is this experience through feeling the land by walking each day and learning by listening to the elders that I can slowly begin to understand their country as home.

"Sharing in many ancient traditions of walking, fire burning, hunting and gathering the elders took us through their beautiful country along the Karlamalyi River that is surrounded by spectacular red hills, spinifex grasslands, quartz rock plateaus, ancient sandstone and open savannah country shrouded with white trunked gum trees. A special privilege that I wasn't aware of until later when an elder shared "I haven't walked this land since I was a young person". I sat allowing the words to fall into me, remembering as a white person the history of this country.

"Walking alongside a five year old was a fabulous reminder of the smaller world beneath our feet and to discover what we were walking over and past as we continually looked down! The intimate scenes of caterpillars, spiders and their webs, burrowing frogs, dusty red animal prints, a kaleidoscope of stones, rocks and shells reminding us of the once ocean bed, decaying animal bones and charred remnants of traditional burning of country.

"We walked with the Martu people who know their country, who know where they belong. Martu know how to look after their water, they know how to burn their country and how to hunt their land. They also know what they want! They want the uranium to stay in the ground. They want to leave this country as beautiful as it is. They want to make sure this poison is kept in the ground. They want to keep fighting and they want us to come and support them to leave it in the ground. uranium: jurra ulu parnangka – leave it in the ground forever!"

From August 7 until September 7, the Walkatjurra Walkabout will be held in Western Australia to protest against the proposed Yeelirrie uranium mine, also owned by Cameco. Traditional Owner Kado Muir said: "Walkatjurra Walkabout is a pilgrimage across Wangkatja country in the spirit of our ancestors so together, we as present custodians, can protect our land and our culture for future generations. My people have resisted destructive mining on our land and our sacred sites for generations. For over forty years we have fought to stop uranium mining at Yeelirrie, we stopped the removal of sacred stones from Weebo and for the last twenty years we have stopped destruction of 200 sites at Yakabindie. We are not opposed to responsible development, but cannot stand wanton destruction of our land, our culture, and our environment. We invite all people, from all places, to come together to walk with us, to send a clear message that we want the environment here, and our sacred places left alone."

More information:

Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, August 2016