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Aboriginal Women Honored as Environmental Heroes - 2003-06-03

The Goldman Environmental Prize is the world's largest award for grassroots activism and environmental achievement. The recipients there have been a total of 94 of them since the prize was launched in 1989 - hail from every region of the globe Africa, Asia, Europe, the Pacific Island Nations, North America, South and Central America.

In this fifth in her series of profiles of the 2003 Goldman Prize laureates, VOA's Rosanne Skirble tells us how two aboriginal Australian women have led a campaign to block the construction of a nuclear waste dump on their native land.

Sitting among a group of elder women in a desert region in South Australia, Eileen Wingfield and Eileen Brown chant: "Irati Wanti. Irati Wanti." … "The poison, leave it."

The women, all in their seventies, are challenging the proposed construction of a national radioactive waste dump on tribal land. The site - about as big as a soccer field - would store nuclear waste for up to 300 years.

The women fear that the waste could leak into the ground and contaminate their drinking water.

Rebecca Wingfield is Eileen Wingfield's daughter and spokeswoman for the Coober Pedy Women's Council, the group of elderly women opposing the construction of the nuclear waste dump. She says the dump is a threat to public health, the environment and to the culture of the aboriginal people.

Wingfield: My mother really traveled with the last of the old people. They lived close to the environment. They didn't have western clothing. They were living the way they had for many, many centuries. In fact they can not even quantify the antiquity of indigenous Australians.

Skirble: It is a very dry area.

Wingfield: Where we are from is one of the driest areas in the driest continent in the world, exactly.

Skirble: So how did they get their water?

Wingfield: They knew intimately all the water holes. And, it was a harsh life walking many hundreds of kilometers. I have been taught a lot of the water holes. But it is not as extensive as their knowledge. But that is how they would survive, with the intimate relationship and intimate understanding of where the resources were, and respecting them and making sure they were clean and safe. And I guess that is a practice that has come into the 20th century and now into the 21st century.

The women know first-hand the impact of radioactive pollution. Fifty years ago the British military conducted 12 full-scale nuclear weapons tests in the South Australian desert at Maralinga. The community where Eileen Wingfield lived was exposed to radioactive fallout from the blasts.

Wingfield: She was a house girl, and she was working on a farm and they saw this big ominous black cloud come over from the west. They were only about 180 kilometers east of where they were exploding the bombs. They saw this rain cloud and, and that was the beginning of this journey.

Skirble: What did she know [about the testing]?

Wingfield: They didn't know anything. The [British authorities] didn't inform people, and they certainly didn't inform anyone in the community.

Rebecca Wingfield believes many of the health problems the family has suffered have been caused by exposure to radioactive fallout.

"I myself have three ovaries and have not been able to have children," she said. "My nephew has got brain cancer. My cousin was three months old when she had a total hysterectomy when she had ovarian cancer. We are now seeing extremely high levels of cancer."

Despite their age and failing health, the elderly women of the Coober Pedy Women's Council say they will block the new nuclear waste facility at any cost.

Eileen Wingfield has taken the group's anti-dump campaign far from home. She has written government officials and visited Parliament, not afraid to speak her mind. Rebecca Wingfield says that while the elder women are struggling to protect their aboriginal communities and the environment in South Australia, their message is universal.

"And one of the things that we carry with us and that mother has instilled in all of her children is that we have a collective ownership in the culpability of the devastation that any form or uranium or the nuclear industry has on the globe," she said. "We want the mine closed. We are going to block the bridge and we are going to highlight the dangers of transporting the waste across from Sydney, which is thousands of kilometers east and we are going to also get the region declared a World Heritage area [by the United Nations]."

Goldman Environmental Prize 2003 winners Eileen Wingfield and Eileen Brown say, "they are worrying for their country, and they are worrying for their children." They say they are strong old ladies and will keep fighting.

The Goldman Environmental Prize comes with a cash award of $125,000.