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World Heritage Committee chairperson says inspection of Kakadu National Park is normal procedure and that any manipulation of decisions for political purposes is wrong.

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PETER THOMPSON: The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, is sending its highest World Heritage Committee to Australia to inspect the World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park.  The decision has been prompted by concerns about the opening of the new ERA Jabiluka Uranium Mine on a lease covering Aboriginal land inside Kakadu.  The mine, set to become the second-largest uranium operation in the world, is estimated by ERA to be worth $6.2 billion to the Australian economy over 25 years, and it’s already received conditional approvals from the Federal and Northern Territory governments.  But the UNESCO visit is being welcomed by environmental and indigenous groups which have lobbied the World Heritage organisation to look into the adverse effects of mining in Kakadu.  They claim this visit is nothing short of an embarrassment for the Government here.  The mission is set to arrive in Australia by the end of August;  it will be headed by the World Heritage chairman, Professor Francesco Francioni.  A short time ago, he spoke to Michel Panajotov(?).


MICHEL PANAJOTOV:  Professor Francioni, Environment Minister, Robert Hill, says the Jabiluka mine has been excised from the Kakadu World Heritage area, allowing mining to go ahead. Why then come to Australia if the mine is not in a World Heritage listed area?


FRANCESCO FRANCIONI:  Well, as you know, the World Heritage sites are protected in a broad sense with regard to an area that surrounds it, that is an area of protection, and it’s also with regard to possibly adverse impacts that might occur within the area of the World Heritage from outside activities.  This is not a novelty.  There are precedents concerning other parks in the world, like North America, where project and mining activities outside the perimeter were a source of great concern and have led to accommodation and investigations.  So it’s nothing new, especially if you’re talking about mining activities that often have an environmental impact beyond the precise site where they are carried out.


MICHEL PANAJOTOV: What kind of environmental impact do you think this mine will have?


FRANCESCO FRANCIONI: Well, you have a lot of  … don’t ask me about that.  There is a lot of concern in Australia, there is a tremendous amount of representation and letters that have come to me and to the centre, so we have simply just to look at this and not to give the impression that we don’t try to have a full picture of it.


MICHEL PANAJOTOV: What are some of the concerns that really struck you?


FRANCESCO FRANCIONI: The concerns that struck me are not relevant.  I can tell you what are the concerns that have come up within the meeting.  The concerns, of course, you know better than I know because it’s a matter of Australian debate, so the concerns are very much linked to the infrastructure, they’re linked to the possible radioactivity, et cetera.  This … and also linked to the sacred sites and territory that the Aboriginal people want to maintain in its integrity.  So these are the concerns.  We know what the concerns are, don’t we, and those are very clear.  However, what is not clear is whether the mining projects would adversely affect and would cause damage in a significant way to the World Heritage site that is surrounding this area.


MICHEL PANAJOTOV: So what will you actually be doing when you actually come to Australia?


FRANCESCO FRANCIONI: It’s premature - that will be agreed with the Australian Government on the basis of the mandate, the terms of reference.  We will organise a mission and the people would be involved.


MICHEL PANAJOTOV: So you don’t believe that such a visit is embarrassing to Australia as some opposition and conservation groups are claiming?


FRANCESCO FRANCIONI: I think that, you know, any kind of decision that we take can be manipulated or can be used for internal politics if you wish, but that would be completely wrong.  We are actually trying to move in the direction of full cooperation, trying to help the State party to make the best decision.  We don’t want to … these visits have been accepted by the United States, the largest power in the world, and by Ecuador, a small Latin American country, so I don’t see why, in Australia, this visit should be interpreted in such extreme way as to embarrass anyone, since we have … the embarrassment would be to have some ecological disaster or some damage to the World Heritage without having done our job, as we are required by the Convention to do.


MICHEL PANAJOTOV: So placing Kakadu on the World Heritage endangered list, is that completely out of the question?


FRANCESCO FRANCIONI: Not at all.  I mean, we have not yet jumped to any conclusion.  We have not discussed this before this on-site visit.  After that, we will see.  The position that has been made clear by the Australian Government is that they have made great progress in the care of the old Heritage values involved.  Of course, you have other views, other voices, that, in an open and democratic manner, we have heard, and we have accumulated an enormous amount of information from non-government organisations.  All I can tell you is that when we will come, the terms of reference of our visit will involve that we will meet the officials of the Government, Aboriginal groups, non-government organisations, mining interests, and then, on the basis of what we can gather from all these different sources, we will report to the bureau and the committee, which will be next November, and make informed decisions on the basis of that.


PETER THOMPSON: Francesco Francioni, who is the chair of the World Heritage Committee, talking with Michel Panajotov.