This interview with Uncle Kevin Buzzacott is an excerpt from the book How to Make Trouble and Influence People by Iain McIntyre.
Since the 1970s a significant number of Australians have opposed uranium mining in seeking to break their country’s involvement in a nuclear industry that is prone to accidents, facilitates the creation of weapons of mass destruction and ultimately results in carcinogenic waste.
Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory and South Australia have largely borne the brunt of the nuclear cycle from exposure to weapons testing at Maralinga in the 1950s through to attempts to force waste dumps and new mines upon their lands today. Although some aboriginal people have supported involvement in the nuclear industry, largely on the basis of desperately-needed royalties, others have been at the forefront of the anti-nuclear movement, leading successful campaigns against mining at Jabiluka and against the construction of a waste dump at Coober Pedy during the 1990s and 2000s.
One prominent anti-uranium and land rights activist is Arabunna man Uncle Kevin Buzzacott. A key figure in the opposition to the South Australian Olympic Dam mine and the nuclear industry in general, Uncle Kevin has engaged in a series of campaigns taking the issues of dispossession and aboriginal sovereignty directly to State and Federal governments and the corporations they serve. In the following interview he outlines a number of the creative actions he has taken part in, from serving eviction notices on Western Mining Corporation through to engaging in Peace Walks thousands of kilometres long.
How did you and the Keepers Of Lake Eyre group come to set up the Arabunna Going Home Camp in 1999 in opposition to Western Mining Corporation’s plans to expand the Olympic Dam uranium mine?
I’ve been at this game of calling for justice and peace for 30, maybe 40 years, but what really got me going was when Western Mining Corporation (WMC) set up the Olympic Dam mine. They started doing deals with the government on pastoral leases. So they did deals with S. Kidman & Co. and took up one of their cattle stations, Stuart’s Creek Station, which is on Arabunna land. Because of our native title and ongoing land rights campaigning, we’ve been fighting for these places for a long time. Stuart’s Creek is a very special, sacred place for us, and we’ve been trying to get it back for a long time.
I thought that just before they bought that place I’d go and protest and camp on it. Also, it is on that station, on the shores of the Lake Eyre, where WMC started taking the sacred water out of the Lake Eyre Basin [millions of litres per day since 1982]. That was where they started sucking the life blood out of us. That is where they put their big bore down, right on the shores of the lake.
That was a real kick in the guts for me and really got me going. I weighed it all up and I said to the mob, “I need some help out here. We’ll set up camp and contest WMC.” There were a lot of levels involved with fighting the mine, but making the camp was like reclaiming the land or making a statement.
We had a lot of tourists that came to visit, and were interested in finding out what was going on. Thousands of people came through the camp. We had flyers at an information tent, and free tea and coffee; we set up a lot of things. People who came across us on a trip to the desert and Lake Eyre learnt about the issues and were concerned about what was going on. When they talked with us they were upset about what was going on. Nobody knew about it, and that was one of the reasons in my mind why that was happening out in the desert.
We blocked off the whole highway there – Oodnadatta Track – and stopped all sorts of people from coming and going. We still had intruders, but we stopped them for a little while and had a yarn with them about what we were doing and why. We did actions on the pipeline and also at Roxby Downs Station, right near Olympic Dam.
We tried to negotiate with the mining people, to sit down and talk with them. They came and talked with us, but on their terms, not on ours.
During one of the camps, this one or a later one, I served them with an eviction notice demanding they shut down the operations and start compensating and resourcing us to maintain and heal the damage that they had caused. It was a big thing, and it really put a lot of pressure on them.
How did they respond to the eviction notice?
They just kept sticking to their guns about the government’s mining policies, that they did the right thing and that I was the one trespassing on their land. They claimed that the campsite on Stuart’s Creek on the shores of Lake Eyre was their country. According to them I was the one at fault, the one doing the wrong thing. That went on and on.
Tell us about the court case you brought against WMC’s owner Hugh Morgan and the cases you brought against Alexander Downer (Federal Foreign Affairs Minister), Robert Hill (Federal Environment Minister) and the Commonwealth Government?
I realised I had to go down to the cities and tell people what was going on. There’s nothing wrong with sitting out in the desert and talking with the old dingoes and crows and they’re the best, but the population is in the city. I’ve met lots of good people, but there are a lot who keep harbouring these criminals, like BHP and WMC, who are killing the land.
I did a court action against Hugh Morgan, who was the head of WMC. I charged Hugh Morgan with genocide, trying to flush him out and some of the shareholders. Hugh Morgan is based in Victoria. People in Melbourne deserve to live in a good place, they don’t need to live with these criminals and warmongers.
Another court action I did was one I brought against Alexander Downer and Senator Robert Hill for stopping Lake Eyre from becoming a World Heritage site. The case was thrown out of court, and I think one of the main things there was that I wasn’t fully equipped and resourced to take this mob on.
After the Going Home camp was destroyed by WMC in December 1999 you travelled to Adelaide. Why did you decide to set up camp at Genocide Corner?
I had to go to Adelaide for the court case against Hugh Morgan, and when I was there the charges against Hugh Morgan were dismissed.
The judge was a pastor in the Lutheran Church, and I asked him to stand down because I believed he had a conflict of interest as his church was a shareholder in the WMC. When he refused to do so I told him to get stuffed, walked out and went straight down to Government House to start a protest. I took banners, and whatever things I had.
While I was talking to the media I was confronted by the cops. I looked over the road and saw a patch of grass and thought, “Bugger it, I’ll make camp and a fire here.” I ended up calling it genocide Corner, and renamed Adelaide the City of Genocide. It was on the intersection of King William Street and North Terrace [one of the main intersections in the city] so loads of people were passing by. Four ceremonial fires for peace were lit, and after 21 days the Adelaide City Council and 50 police came down and arrested me for failing to cease to loiter. It was one of those laws they hadn’t used in a long time, but they used it to clear away all my stuff and my supporters. One of the court conditions was that I was not able to walk within the vicinity of Genocide Corner. I was of a mind just to walk straight back there, but I had the Peace Walk from Lake Eyre to Sydney coming up so I had to let that one go.
Since then there have been vigils and meetings held at Genocide Corner. It was a real wake-up for Adelaide, and this is the sort of thing you have to do get your message across.
In June 2000 you started a peace walk from Lake Eyre to Sydney which lasted 87 days and involved carrying a sacred fire as an alternative to the Olympic torch. What sort of response did you receive along the way?
We walked for months, for 3,000 kilometres, and all sorts of people from all walks of life joined us. We were carrying the fire for peace and justice. I made sure that we went through lots of different Aboriginal communities. I got a lot of support, but the government also pressured a lot of people not to support me by threatening their jobs and funding. Each place we went to, people took us through their land and we respected each mob.
There were all types of pressure put on people along the way. The cops were nasty and threatened some of the walkers with guns and everything. I visited all the jails along the way from Broken Hill to Dubbo and Bathurst. It was sad to see so many young brothers confined and locked up.
We went to Canberra and met up with the Tent Embassy mob. A couple of politicians came to meet us and then we all went to Government House to present the Governor-General with a document of peace and justice. When we arrived in Sydney for the Olympic Games the Tent Embassy mob had already set up a camp [in Victoria Park], so we joined up with them. We did all sorts of things. We did a re-enactment at the beach where Captain Cook came in. We re-enacted the bad way in which he came with guns and all that and then the next day we did how they should have come.
All the media was there for the Olympics and they all came down and talked with us. We couldn’t get to any of the places where the games were happening because of the police and security, but we held ceremonies and met up with lots of people.
When did you first get involved in the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra?
I first visited them in the 1980s. I knew about it in the 1970s, but we didn’t have phones and computers and all that back then and we were stuck out in the desert so we couldn’t really make contact. Over the years I’ve visited for rallies and lit the Fire for Justice in 1998.
The embassy is important to defend because it’s a sacred place. It was set up as a platform for aboriginal people to come to put their issues up. There are gatherings and meetings there and no matter what the issues are — mining, deaths in custody, whatever — the embassy is there as a platform. It’s not supported by the government and it’s pretty rough living there without a toilet and showers and all that. There aren’t many people holding the place right now, but it will stay. The government doesn’t like it as it’s sitting right under their nose, but when it comes to the crunch people will turn up in their hundreds to defend it, as they’ve done before, so the government can’t do much about it.
In 2002 you reclaimed the Arabunna Emu and Kangaroo totems from the Australian Coat of Arms hanging outside Parliament House, Canberra. Why did you take this action and what was the result of the court case that came out of it years later?
I had watched the Federal Police arresting our people at the Tent Embassy and other places. They all wore these caps with the Emu and Kangaroo emblem on them. I knew how sacred these animals were to us and I had talked with old people about how the government was misusing them while they locked us up and treated us like dirt. On the 30th anniversary of the embassy I told everyone that I had a plan and that they should join me with their cameras. We went up to Parliament and I climbed up one of the pillars and grabbed the Coat Of Arms and walked off with it. It was in broad daylight and I said: “I’m not stealing this, I’m reclaiming it and taking back the use of our sacred animals.”
Years later [in 2005] when I was visiting Canberra the cops came down to the Tent Embassy with a summons for theft and defacing government property and so on. During the court case I questioned their authority and jurisdiction over me and over this land. I talked to the jury about the imposition of foreign laws upon our people and the theft of our lands and got a 12-month suspended sentence with good behaviour.
How did the 2004 Peace Pilgrimage from the Olympic Dam Uranium Mine to Hiroshima, Japan come about?
During the first walk and then in Sydney we met people from all over and that got everything going. Aboriginal nations from Queensland were saying there should be a walk up the coast to show the world the things they were suffering. Then some people made contact with people in Hiroshima to have a walk from the uranium mine in Roxby to where the bomb was dropped in order to show how all these things are linked. Aboriginal people, Japanese monks, all sorts of people were involved. It started at Roxby and then went to Canberra and then an aeroplane took us to Japan where we walked all over the country. We visited Nagasaki and Hiroshima and met a lot of people who were kids when the bombs were falling. We did talks and took part in a huge ceremony on the anniversary of the bomb being dropped. There were people everywhere and lanterns lit and people crying, it was full on.
In 2006 you came to Melbourne for the Stolenwealth Games. Tell us about what happened during those protests and your involvement in them?
After the court case I came down to Melbourne where Robbie Thorpe and others were setting up a camp in Kings Domain during the Commonwealth, or Stolenwealth, Games. We had hundreds of people camping and visiting. We also had all sorts of hassles from the cops and council and everyone else, but we stayed put and proved our point.
When the games came we had rallies and big marches and ceremonies and I talked about the need for justice and the need for white Australia to respect our cultural values and to stop the destruction of our sacred sites and our country.
In 2008 you visited Melbourne again and got to speak at the BHP Shareholders Annual General Meeting. What happened there?
BHP have taken over WMC. They now own Olympic Dam and want to make it bigger. Myself and others who want to stop the mine got to be proxies for shareholders, they gave us tickets and we got to go inside on their behalf. I got to speak and I told the people there about the damage they are doing and that they need to stop it immediately.
Aboriginal people have lived here for more than 40,000 years and cared for this country, but now its being turned into a sick and evil place. Myself, and others around this country, were born to be peacemakers. We mustn’t be frightened to educate others and fight, but not in a warlike way, to protect the earth and let everything run free. I don’t want to shoot or bomb the people from BHP and the others who are destroying this country because two wrongs don’t make a right. I think if I can help them to wake up to what they are doing then that will be punishment enough.
How to Make Trouble and Influence People is available for sale from PM Press.
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