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Why were missiles being tested 50 metres from trees sacred to Aboriginal people?
After SBS News and NITV revealed a missile casing was found inside an Aboriginal heritage area in South Australia, fresh concerns are now being raised about weapons testing at another sacred site.
Published Wednesday 22 June 2022
By Steven Trask
Source: SBS News
A missile was fired into a large concrete target just 50 metres from a cluster of sacred Aboriginal trees, SBS News can reveal after gaining unprecedented access to an off-limits military testing zone.
Heavy-duty barriers protect the black oak trees from shrapnel but the surrounding sand dunes, also culturally significant to the Kokatha people of South Australia, are littered with carbon fibre, missile fragments, and the debris of other weapons trials.
"This is a story that needs to get out there," says senior Kokatha lore man Andrew Starkey as strong winds whip the red-dirt dunes.
"If we don't say it, no one is going to say it.
"Then it goes too far and the land is contaminated forever."
The sacred site lies within the Woomera Prohibited Area, a massive weapons testing facility run by the Defence Department about 450 kilometres northwest of Adelaide.
The missile was fired into the concrete target at some point in the mid-2000s. Since then, other weapons and explosives have been tested at the site.
It is not just the Australian military that tests at Woomera. Other companies and military organisations - such as the United States Air Force - have also used the range.
Activity has been ramping up at Woomera in recent years. In 2016, then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a $297 million investment to make Woomera the "most advanced military test range in the world".
Large segments of the Woomera Prohibited Area overlap with the Kokatha Native Title determination.
The surrounding sand dunes, part of the same sacred site, are littered with bomb fragments and shrapnel. Source: SBS News / Peta Doherty/SBS News.
SBS News recently accompanied a group of Kokatha Traditional Owners as they inspected heritage sites within the "red zone" of the prohibited area, an off-limits segment reserved for the most intensive weapons testing.
“No access permits are granted for the red zone,” the Department of Defence states online.
The sacred trees and surrounding dune system are linked to the Tjukurpa, or storylines, of the Kokatha people. They play a role in the Seven Sisters dreaming, a creation story with shared elements that are important to many Aboriginal groups across Australia.
Specifically, the black oak trees are linked with male Kokatha connections to the Seven Sisters storyline.
"All the things in the landscape make up our Tjukurpa, or our story," Mr Starkey says.
Kokatha lore man Andrew Starkey is a former Indigenous liaison officer with the Defence Department. Source: SBS News / Peta Doherty/SBS News.
"These trees are representative of a Dreamtime entity, as are the dune systems."
All the things in the landscape make up our Tjukurpa, or our story.Andrew Starkey, Kokatha lore man
More than 200 culturally-significant sites have been identified within the Woomera Prohibited Area.
SBS News was granted access to the Woomera red zone on the condition the Department of Defence could redact any images "likely to prejudice national security, or to prejudice the security of Defence activities".
A Defence Force map showing the various testing areas in the Woomera Prohibited Area. Source: Supplied / Department of Defence.
The department redacted a small number of images showing where the missile had impacted the concrete target.
"It's very upsetting for us," says Shane Wright, a Kokatha artist who visited the site with SBS News.
Carbon fibre is strewn through the dune system surrounding the sacred trees. Source: SBS News / Peta Doherty/SBS News.
"This is meant to be a cleared site, we have missile fragments here, we have carbon fibre here. These places should be left the way they were."
Both Mr Wright and Mr Starkey have worked with the Department of Defence as Indigenous liaison officers.
A broader view of the sacred trees, sitting in the middle of a weapons testing area. Source: SBS News / Stefan Armbruster/SBS News.
"There's been instances here where there were trials in the past. A missile hits and all the frag goes everywhere,” Mr Starkey says.
"Areas like this are permanently fouled. We are being deprived of a bit of Country that we can't go back to. Who wants to bring their family back to walk around in a bunch of carbon fibre."
The Defence Department conducts an assessment of the site every time it is used for a trial.
An aerial view of the testing site - the trees sit in the middle, surrounded by heavy-duty barriers. Source: SBS News / Location SA Viewer.
Shipping containers and other barriers are then brought in, to ensure the blast area or resulting shrapnel doesn't damage the trees.
The Defence Department then conducts a post-trial inspection, before the sites are cleaned.
A spokesperson for the Department of Defence said: "Defence takes all reasonable steps to remediate sites utilised within the Woomera Prohibited Area in accordance with the clean range policy".
'Clean range policy'
In a 2018 review of the Woomera Prohibited Area, the Defence Department references its "clean range policy".
"Defence now has in place a 'clean range' policy to minimise any hazards to users of, or visitors to, the WPA, and to keep the WPA as free as possible from testing debris," the department wrote.
SBS News has seen an internal copy of a clean range policy circulated by the Defence Department in the late 1990s. It is unclear if this policy has since been updated.
“All locatable hazardous and non-hazardous debris is to be made safe by destruction … or removed,” that policy reads.
Mr Wright says it is clear the department was not following the policy.
Shane Wright inside the Woomera Prohibited Area. Mr Wright is a former Indigenous liaison officer. Source: SBS News / SBS News.
"There's so much in here, you can't say these sites are clean. It really upsets me - it's contaminated to a point where there's no return".
Last year, SBS News and NITV revealed how the body of an anti-aircraft missile had been discovered at a registered heritage site called Lake Hart West, about 50 kilometres southeast of the trees, and wasn't retrieved for 12 months.
The entrance to the Woomera Prohibited Area. The Department of Defence does not typically grant access to the red zone. Source: SBS News / SBS News.
'Clean up your mess'
The Department of Defence policy is to re-use trial sites that have been disturbed in the past. This limits the risk that undisturbed cultural areas will be impacted by new activities.
The department’s policy allows for “high value” sites to be used for testing – as long as heritage assessments are conducted prior to the trials.
Although it was disappointing to see cultural areas littered with debris, Mr Starkey says there is not much point in stopping testing at the impacted sites. But it is crucial that impacted sites were remediated, he says.
"It's very disconcerting - having the responsibility of passing on knowledge to the next generation.
"The last thing we want to do is pass on a site that's contaminated. What we are saying to Defence is 'clean up your mess'.
"They say that they clean up their sites, but what you say today will never be clean."
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