Half a century ago, members of Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta survived atomic testing in the South Australian desert. In 1998, the Australian government proposed a national nuclear waste dump for their homelands. The Kungkas – Aboriginal Women Elders looking after country and culture – spearheaded an inspiring and unique campaign called Irati Wanti (The Poison – Leave it!). Overcoming significant barriers, they joined forces with diverse groups across the country to eventually stop the multi-million dollar project in 2004.
Coober Pedy is an isolated opal mining town in outback South Australia. Since 1998, it hosted an extraordinary frontline campaign to protect precious underground water reserves from a proposed national radioactive waste dump. The federal government pushed an image of the desert as an empty place devoid of life, with no use to the economy except as a dumping ground for poisonous waste. But the government and the nuclear industry did not expect the groundswell of resistance, especially from the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta – a group of Aboriginal culture women in their late sixties and seventies. With the help of a nun and a fax machine, their sustained battle against the dump was launched immediately after they heard of the proposal. Their statement of opposition slowly circulated around Australia: “We are Aboriginal women. We know the country. The poison the government is talking about will poison the land.” The Kungkas recounted their nightmarish experiences as survivors of atomic testing in the 1950s as proof of their first hand knowledge of the Irati (poison). Their message struck a chord with urban communities and the Irati Wanti (The poison – Leave it!) campaign was born. Enlisting and mentoring young non-indigenous environmentalists, the Kungkas bravely traversed the continent, spoke to numerous media, held big meetings, attended hearings, and built a website – all to educate and inspire the wider community of the vital need to protect their beautiful desert country. All of this took place while the Kungkas fulfilled important duties as Elders in their community. The tactics worked: they spearheaded a successful national campaign. With a federal election looming, the government abandoned its multi-million dollar proposal in July 2004.
Irati Wanti Senior Aboriginal Women’s Council of Coober Pedy