What if the greatest legacy of uranium mining is not its localized radioactive toxicity, but the seemingly mundane set of bureaucratic practices it catalysed? In this post, I reflect on the late 1970s origins of Ranger Uranium Mine located on Mirarr country in remote northern Australia, as revealed in a secret institutional archive. In particular, I focus on the hidden practices that clotted during this timeframe, and how they have structured Indigenous-state extractive relations in Australia ever since. This apparently benign spatiotemporal assemblage of textual, material, and social practices, which I have suggested is a chronotope, is in some ways as insidious as the contamination typically associated with this uranium mine.
I came to Ranger Uranium Mine accidentally through my ethnographic fieldwork with the Northern Land Council (NLC) in Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia. The NLC is an Indigenous organization responsible for negotiating agreements for others to access Indigenous-owned land across its vast region. The work of the team I was embedded in, though enormous in volume, does not attract much attention. It involves “processing” a never-ending backlog of applications for routine land uses: things like cattle grazing, operating a community store, or a gravel pit for road maintenance. The endpoint is a legal agreement or contract, usually a lease for a specified period governing that person’s future operations on Indigenous land.
One day, as I exited the lift of the NLC building ready to start my fieldwork, I encountered eighty-three boxes stacked nearby brimming with documents. Together, these boxes comprised a collection known inside the NLC as the “Ranger library.” I asked to review them and was granted permission. They detailed the most important, and the most controversial, set of negotiations ever completed by the NLC, forty years earlier in 1978. The subterranean rock at stake in these negotiations was known as the Ranger deposit, consisting of uranium ore to be dug up, ground to a fine powder on-site, and then treated with acid to separate the uranium from the surrounding rock and create a powder called “yellowcake.”
Yellowcake from the Ranger uranium mine would prop up Australia’s faltering economy through its export to countries such as Japan for the nuclear power industry. Yet, yellowcake was also an intermediate product in the development of nuclear weaponry. It was perhaps the most controversial of rocks and it happened to be located underneath other visually stunning geological formations, coveted by humans for conservation in Australia’s first-ever national park, Kakadu. The land where both the mine and the national park were to be located was also to be handed back to Aboriginal people under Australia’s first land rights legislation. The NLC had the job of sorting out these irreconcilable things.
As I read the Ranger negotiation documents, I was gripped by its textual revelation of an institution forged in a crucible of intense disputation. There were 122 media stories written about the Ranger negotiations in a small window of time, which was extraordinary scrutiny of something happening in the most remote reaches of the country in the pre-digital age. Breathless accounts were published by those close to or involved in the action. Galarrwuy Yunupingu, the Chairman of the NLC, was anointed Australian of the Year in early 1979 for his efforts in securing the Ranger agreement, giving some hint of the importance of these events in the national psyche. In terms of their importance, controversy, and scale, there could not be a greater gulf between the spectacular Ranger mining agreement and the mundane agreements I was observing being produced in my ethnographic fieldwork in the NLC.
Yet, as I reviewed the Ranger documents in parallel with ethnographic observations of the mechanics of gravel agreements in the Section 19 branch, I was struck by the sameness of the institutional actions that coalesced around both phenomena, components of a configuration that has remained startlingly consistent over time. This configuration starts with an application to the NLC by a third party to access a land-based resource on Aboriginal land, and ends with the execution of a contract by which a property interest is granted to that third party. Several steps occur in between. Although its constitutive elements are vulnerable to epistemic rupture, negotiation, and contest within the institution, this configuration is more or less stable for all agreements at the NLC. The configuration is applied across materially dissimilar subject matter—substitute gravel for shale gas, iron ore, or uranium ore. It has been reproduced with increasing frequency, and over forty years much of the work at the NLC has crystallized around it. Thus, at the NLC, a gravel pit is a uranium mine, these disparate material resources and the social, political and ontological conflicts embedded within them apparently capable of resolution by the abstract universalism of property and contract law. It has overwhelmed the NLC, and bracketed the Indigenous people it represents within its narrow parameters. More broadly, these contracts have become one of the dominant legal frames by which to understand Indigenous-settler relations in Australia, “constraining the space for opposition” including by Indigenous people themselves. For example, opposition by some Indigenous groups to onshore hydraulic fracturing in the Northern Territory, or “fracking,” is routinely countered by an assertion that Traditional Owners have consented via native title or land rights agreements, often negotiated many years prior when the wide-ranging environmental impacts of such developments were not known.
There are many angles from which to analyze this configuration and its hegemonic force, but I want to draw attention to its spatiotemporal dimensions. After all, agreements happen in particular institutional places, at very specific times. Mariana Valverde suggests that socio-legal scholars turn to literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s typology of the chronotope (literally, timespace) to understand “how the temporal and the spatial dimensions of life and governance affect each other” (Valverde 2015, 9). Bakhtin used the concept to describe the interconnectedness of representations of time and space in literature, which show how “time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history” (Bahktin in Valverde 2015, 10). Chronotopes are mobile and reappear across genres to advance specific narratives, doing particular indexical work to shape meaning. Extending this beyond literary studies, chronotopic analysis is a way of revealing how taken-for-granted timespace arrangements are embedded within particular socio-cultural practices. Valverde invokes the concept as a tool for sociolegal scholarship, arguing that chronotopes provide a way of understanding how legal practices and formations are constituted within and by particular spacetimes.
We can see the NLC’s agreement-configuration as a chronotope that first clotted during the Ranger negotiations. It has since been reproduced to authorize development projects on Indigenous-owned land, assuming hegemonic force that has spilled outside the NLC to shape the way in which Indigenous agreement-making is enacted in other institutional contexts in Australia.
I want to briefly foreground two dominant temporal characteristics of this chronotope.
The first is the urgent temporality of development authorization that conditions how, when, and where agreements are produced. The agreement-making process has specific spatio-temporal dimensions: it’s bookended by an application to use Indigenous land and the execution of an agreement authorizing such use, with particular tasks completed on the way in particular institutional places. For example, my fieldwork showed that there was simply no time to think about what happens after a gravel agreement was executed, to ensure that rehabilitation happened, that the road was resurfaced, that the gravel itself was fit for purpose. There is always a backlog to contend with, always accusations of delay by governments and developers. And this is certainly corroborated by other research that shows that native title agreement implementation, monitoring, and enforcement is often wanting—per David Ritter (2009), native title agreements often become “ghost contracts” upon execution.
This temporal aperture of agreement-making is of course recognizable to those familiar with capitalist modes of development and the laws that facilitate them. It is the temporality of project authorization. It is before a project commences that “tenure” is required and that the NLC’s componentry springs into action. Other legal processes also attach to this moment: environmental impact assessments and approvals, finance approvals, loan documentation, and government sectoral approvals. This is the hegemony of agreement-making and indeed capitalist development, that it directs all resources to a mere scintilla of time while other timescales are black-boxed. It puts the NLC in a double-bind: while making its work indispensable to the state-backed machinery of development in northern Australia, it also myopically focuses the organization’s attention and resources.
In addition to the immediate temporality of project authorization, the chronotope is also temporally prospective. The practices that knotted together to produce the Ranger agreement had a future orientation. The Ranger agreement of course structured future operations on the Ranger site, embroiling the parties in unceasing “paperfare” as the Mirarr Traditional Owners attempt to hold both the state and company to account for its 1978 commitments and the response to over 200 environmental incidents in the mine’s life. But its prospective temporality also ricocheted to other agreements. The Ranger project had afterlives beyond its own localized radioactive toxicities. Once worked out, these practices gained precedential weight and have been recursively deployed over four decades so that a gravel pit indeed resembles a uranium mine. While not identical, native title agreements are modified iterations of the Ranger chronotope, involving a time-constrained set of practices comprising an application by an outsider to access land subject to Indigenous interests, agreement negotiation, consultations with and authorization by native title holders, and approval and execution of the agreement by the relevant native title representative body or prescribed body corporate. Together, the various social, textual, and material practices that produced the Ranger agreement would establish a venerable lineage that would constrain future institutional action and reproduce the spatial application of the Ranger chronotope across multiple locations in the NT and beyond.
To summarize, the spatiotemporal practices of agreement-making undoubtedly give Indigenous organizations like the NLC an indispensable role in the legal machinery of project authorization, thus ensuring its institutional resilience. However, while the chronotope elevates certain practices and the power dynamics embedded in them, it also marginalises alternative configurations of the relationship between Indigenous people, the extractive industry, and the state. Certain values with respect to the world are sustained, which prioritise a reductive conception of extractive development, with differences resolved by contract. Once such agreements are executed, the time for dissent passes and the parties are locked in time to whatever was negotiated then. Other complex and immanent relationships between human and more-than-human interests are obscured, as are alternative futures and imaginaries. The opportunities for Indigenous groups to express credible views outside or contrary to the muzzling institutional spacetimes of agreement-making are hampered. A chronotopic analysis of the NLC agreement breaks open and makes visible the practices that produce these hegemonic power relations.
Ritter, David. 2009. The Native Title Market. Perth: University of Western Australia Publishing.
Valverde, Mariana. 2015. Chronotopes of Law: Jurisdiction, Scale and Governance. New York: Routledge.