Kakadu is Australia’s largest national park. It is located in the tropical north, covering over 20,000 square kilometers of land from the northern coast and estuaries, across floodplains and lowlands, to the rocky ridges on the south. The East, West, and South Alligator rivers weave across Kakadu for over 400 kilometers.
As these rivers rush through stunning canyons, spill over spectacular cliffs, and meander within vast mangrove swamps, they nourish one of the richest sites of biodiversity in the world. Kakadu’s extraordinary array of plant, insect, and animal life contains over one-third of Australia’s bird species and one-quarter of the country’s freshwater and estuarine fish species.
For thousands of years, the living things in this rich environment have coevolved, each plant and animal species occupying distinct yet interdependent ecological niches. Diverse biomes like these provide necessary services for life on Earth, such as carbon sequestration, oxygen production, waste decomposition, and water and air purification. Added values for human beings include nutritious food, precious minerals, recreational opportunities, and spiritual enrichment.
Kakadu is one of just 25 World Heritage Sites named by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Sites with this designation are recognized as providing indispensable biological and cultural resources to the world community.
The Indigenous People of Mirrar have lived in Kakadu for over 50,000 years. This land of rocks and water, trees and plants, insects and animals is their physical and spiritual home. It is here that ‘Dreamtime’ began, the time that the Mirrar believe Kakadu was created. For the Mirrar, at the beginning of Dreamtime the ancestral spirits came to Earth and created all landforms and life.
The ancient Mirrar celebrated Dreamtime in ritual and art. Over 190 ancient cave paintings and rock carving sites survive to this day. Contemporary Mirrar people believe they are still living in the “Dreaming” and that everything they do communicates with the ancestors and their sacred land.
Like the Mirrar, Indigenous People around the world have long considered their ancestral lands sacred. Environmentalists acknowledge today that such sacred areas are the oldest form of biodiversity protection on the planet. In 2005, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Alliance of Religions of Religions and Conservation published the book Beyond Belief: Linking Faith and Protected Areas to Support Biodiversity Conservation. In it, over a hundred protected sacred sites around the world are described from among the hundreds that remain unprotected.
Read Parts 1-3 of Beyond Belief: Linking Faith and Protected Areas to Support Biodiversity Conservation, a document about the fascinating relationship between sacred sites and biodiversity protection.
In 1969, uranium was discovered in Kakadu. The Australian government contracted with the British mining company Rio Tinto to extract the uranium for international sale. This was a controversial decision. Building the mine would require road construction through pristine regions of Kakadu, thereby fragmenting habitats. It was feared that the waste from uranium mining would contaminate and kill rare plant, fish, and animal species, not to mention the Mirrar people themselves.
Species extinction is a very serious issue in Australia. The majority of the land’s mammal, reptile, and frog species evolved in Australia and only exist in that country. Yet, Australia is experiencing the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world. Twenty five native mammals have become extinct since European settlement in 1788.
Despite protests from the Mirrar people, the Ranger Uranium mine began operation in Kakadu in 1980. Uranium production continued until the open pit mine was exhausted in 1995. A second mine in Kakadu, the ‘Jabiluka’, was opened in 1997. Again, the Mirrar people protested the habitat destruction and the potential contamination of the 400 km Alligator river system. This time, people throughout Australia and the world joined the Mirrar protest. After six years of operation, the Jabiluka mine was closed.
The world’s largest mining companies are anxious to return to the Kakadu, where it is estimated that remaining uranium deposits are greater than the oil reserves in Saudi Arabia. With the growth of uranium-based technologies in the nuclear energy industry, in military weapon development, and in medical technology, it will be increasingly difficult for the Mirrar people to protect their biologically diverse and spiritually rich land.
This brief case study raises critical questions that you will investigate in this chapter.
- Why is biodiversity important and how did it come about? What are the major forms of biodiversity on Earth and why are they declining?
- What ethical challenges do we face in protecting and improving Earth’s biodiversity? What moral foundations, principles, goals, and virtues should guide our decisions as we seek biodiversity protection and improvement?
- How have humans approached the nature and meaning of biodiversity from a spiritual perspective?
- What actions are being taken in the world today that are hopeful signs for an improved biodiversity? Are there indications of declining biodiversity in your community? Is there an action you can take in your community to begin healing the Earth’s declining biodiversity?