‘Country and culture are more important’

Jeffrey Lee (left) with Deborah Katona and Stewart Gangali

Jeffrey Lee (left) with Deborah Katona and Stewart Gangali

Koongarra lies in the shadow of Nourlangie in the north west of the park

Koongarra lies in the shadow of Nourlangie, in Kakadu National Park

Canberra can be an interesting place to live and work, but this week was something very special.

For years, Jeffrey Lee has been pursuing his wish to have the Koongarra area protected from mining and added to Kakadu National Park. Jeffrey is the key traditional owner for Koongarra, a 1228 hectare stretch of woodland surrounded by the park.

Yesterday was an important day for Jeffrey. He joined former Prime Minister Bob Hawke on the floor of the Parliament, watching as the government clearly stated there is no future for mining at Koongarra.

Protecting Koongarra is a complicated process. An old law still exists from 1981, which would have potentially allowed mining at Koongarra. Yesterday, Environment Minister Tony Burke introduced a bill to repeal that law.

You could feel the admiration for Jeff in Parliament House yesterday. He had travelled down to Canberra from Kakadu with countryman Stewart Gangali, at the invitation of Tony Burke. They bumped into a close family member who is living in Canberra, Deborah Katona. The three of them spent the morning with Bob Hawke, before paying a courtesy call to the current Prime Minister.

Jeffrey had first met Bob Hawke when he was a teenager, in the company of his father and grandfather.  Bob was full of life and recounted some of the major decisions and challenges of his government, including his commitment to save another part of Kakadu from mining back in the early 1990s – Coronation Hill.

At a packed media conference, Jeffrey reflected on how important his country was to his ancestors, and how keenly he felt his responsibility to make sure it was properly looked after. He said that country and culture are more important than mining and money.

It was a truly inspiring day, reflecting an unwavering campaign over two decades by one amazing individual – Jeffrey Lee.

The next step is for Koongarra to be formally declared part of Kakadu – a process that’s underway and will be complete very soon.

Peter Cochrane, Director of National Parks

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