In a time when the pressure for Traditional Owners to agree with mining is massive, three incredible Tjiwarl women have been tireless in a 40-year campaign to keep mining giants off their land. 

Over four decades Shirley Wonyabong, Elizabeth Wonyabong and Vicki Abdullah have stood against relentless pressure from mining companies, including BHP and now Cameco. Their life’s work has been to protect country and nature, and to inspire their community and others to stand strong too. 

Their country is Yeeliree — a remote part of Western Australia, about 500kms from Kalgoorlie. This place is home to the Tjiwarl people who love and care for this country. It lies on the culturally significant Seven Sisters Songlines which forms many of the stories important to Tjiwarl Traditional Owners. 

Three women on country

Out here you’ll find Malleefowl, Princess Parrot and Greater Bilby, and a rare variety of saltbush. And, less obvious to most, rare stygofauna — tiny subterranean fauna that includes 11 stygofauna and five troglofauna species living in the groundwater channels under the desert floor. 

Yeeliree also rests on the largest deposit of uranium in Western Australia, attracting mining companies willing to destroy this beautiful environment and its culture for profit. 

The proposed mine and the damage it will do

Canadian mining company Cameco wants to dig a nine-kilometre open mine pit and destroy 2,400 hectares of native vegetation at Yeeliree. The mine would use nine million litres of water each day and generate 36 million tonnes of waste that remains radioactive for thousands of years.

The WA Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) rejected Cameco’s proposal because it is almost certain to wipe out several species, including the rare stygofauna and the entire western population of a rare saltbush. The mine would also harm other wildlife like the Malleefowl, Princess Parrot and Greater Bilby.

But state and federal authorities went against the EPA’s advice and approved the mine.

Yeeliree mine site

Shirley, Elizabeth and Vicki took the matter to the Supreme Court of Appeals — which dismissed their case, confirming conservationists’ fears that an Environment Minister can legally approve a mine knowing it will lead to the extinction of multiple species.

Cameco is not the first mining company to try and dig up Yeeliree. Over the years, Vicki, Elizabeth and Shirley have seen off at least three mining companies, including BHP. In the process they have shown their community and many others they can have a voice in court rooms and government offices.

“We won’t give up, our country is too important. We will continue to fight for Yeeliree and to change the laws,” they said after their case was dismissed.  

Shirley, Elizabeth and Vicki at Supreme Court

Finding strength and courage

Protecting country and culture from a toxic uranium mine is something Shirley, Elizabeth and Vicki will never shy away from. 

“Mining on our land makes a big mess to our mother earth,” says Vicki. “Here, I feel my ancestors around me. Coming back on country is so beautiful. You can sit and listen to the birds, look at the trees and beautiful plants, and all the small animals to the big animals.” 

The three women have just been announced as the 2019 winners of ACF’s conservation award — the Rawlinson Award — in recognition of their tireless work. For speaking up for their country and culture around campfires, in politician’s offices, on the streets of Perth and in Western Australia’s highest court. 

They find strength in bringing others on the journey with them and the deep relationships they  have formed through this campaign. 

Every year for the last eight years, they have taken people from all over the world through their country on week- and month-long walking tours. Hundreds have seen their land and are helping to send a strong message to the companies who threaten it.

Walk on country

What’s next?

“We've been fighting this for 40 years and we're gonna still fight for it," says Vicki.  

The Tjiwarl women will continue to call on the government to strengthen our environment laws. In the coming year, the women will lead more people out on country to educate, inspire and deepen relationships to help protect this area.  

They look forward to a time when they can walk the land in peace, preserving their country in its natural state for future generations. A time when they can practise women’s business, men’s business and ceremony, and collect bush tucker which is in decline because of mining. 

They want to see a permanent ban on uranium mining. They want to see law reform that protects all nature from extinction. And they want to work with their own community and self determine what happens on country. 

Walk on country group

In the meantime, the global price for uranium has fallen and Cameco recently said it could not see any case for the construction of new uranium mines. We hold out hope Yeeliree will never be mined, and will continue to stand with Shirley, Elizabeth and Vicki and all Tjiwarl Traditional Owners who oppose the mine. 

Photos courtesy Conservation Council of Western Australia.

Established in 1992, the Rawlinson Award is given annually in memory of ACF Councillor Peter Rawlinson — a zoologist, lecturer in biological science and environmental campaigner. The Award celebrates individuals and groups who have made an outstanding voluntary contribution to protecting the environment in Australia.

 

Marian Reid

Content Producer at Australian Conservation Foundation