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Maralinga Tjarutja handback

Category: Event
Binomial Name: State of South Australia
Date: 18 December 2009


State/Country:South Australia, Australia
Subject Matter:Land Management | Law - Policy and Justice | Recognition of Traditional Rights and Interests | Reconciliation
Summary Information:

Between 1953 and 1963, the Maralinga Tjarutja land in north-west South Australia was used by the British government for nuclear testing (SBS, 2015). As a result, most people in the community unwillingly relocated to Yalata, a coastal town nearly 200km further south.

The first atomic bomb was detonated on the Maralinga Tjarutja land in 1956 and additional testing meant parts of the land became contaminated with radiation and chemicals (Haxton, 2009).

The majority of the Maralinga Tjarutja land was handed back to the Traditional Owners in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2009, the South Australian Parliament authorised the hand back of the remaining 3,100 square kilometers of land, known as 'Section 400' (SBS, 2015).

Detailed Information:

The 2009 hand back

'Section 400' was the last parcel of land to be handed back because it was heavily contaminated by radiation and dangerous chemicals (Haxton, 2009). The contamination required the federal government to conduct extensive remediation works to make the land safe (Haxton, 2009).

Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency CEO, Peter Burns, assured the community that today 'the level of radiation at Maralinga is quite low' (Haxton, 2009). However, Maralinga Tjarutja Council member, Mimma Smart, expressed concern that 'this land is not real clean, it's not safe' and subsequently concluded that the 2009 hand back was 'a happy and a sad day' (Haxton, 2009).

Former Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, attended the 2009 hand back ceremony. In her speech, Ms Macklin recognised the significance of the hand back, particularly for children who are now able to 'grow up understanding and holding close connection to their land, the songs and stories of their elders, their culture and their traditions (Australian Government, 2009).

Reconciliation and future opportunities

The Maralinga Tjarutja People had been determined to reclaim their land for decades, making the final hand back an important step towards reconciliation. Maralinga Tjarutja Chairperson, Keith Peters, stated: 'out people fought, they fought so bad to get the land back, back in the past in the 80s, and they've finally made it to get the land back' (Haxton, 2009). Ms Smart also acknowledged the significance of the hand back, noting that the ancestors' 'spirits are here with us' (Haxton, 2009).

Former South Australian Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Jay Weatherill, highlighted the economic opportunity created by the handback. He stated that 'the story of the Maralinga clean-up, the story of the fight for justice, the artefacts and relics of the 1950s era are of great interest' for tourists and create a significant opportunity for the community (Haxton, 2009).

Additional developments

In 2009, a non-ficton children's picture book titled 'Maralinga: The Anangu Story' was released. The book was authored by the Oak Valley and Yalata communities with Christobel Mattingley. The story tells the history of the Anangu people and their land, including how it was used for nuclear testing (Trove).

In May 2020, the ABC released a documentary, 'Maralinga Tjarutja', which explores the history of the land and how the traditional communities have rebuilt over time. Chair of the Maralinga Trust, Jeremy LeBois praised the documentary. He stated that 'it gives us a voice to tell the real story of what happened to the people who walked, lived and hunted on this land for thousands of years' (ABC, 2020). The documentary is accessible via ABC iView (see reference list for hyperlink).

Related Entries

  • Maralinga Tjarutja Council
  • Event
  • Maralinga Tjarutja Land Transfer
  • Legislation
  • Maralinga Tjarutja Land Rights Act 1984 (SA)
  • People
  • Southern Pitjantjatjara People
  • Yanangu Aboriginal Community

  • References

    General Reference
    Australian Government (18 December 2009) Handback of the Former Maralinga Nuclear Test Site to the Maralinga Tjarutja
    ABC iView (2020) Maralinga Tjarutja
    Walter Marsh (22 May 2020) The story of Maralinga is much more than a period drama
    Trove Maralinga : the Anangu story / Yalata and Oak Valley Communities ; with Christobel Mattingley
    News Item
    Special Broadcasting Service (24 February 2015) Maralinga lands returned to traditional owners
    Nance Haxton (18 December 2009) Maralinga returned to traditional owners

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