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Australia’s indigenous peoples were not the only ones to be subjected to the scientific depredations of the United Kingdom and Australian governments between 1956 and 1957. That particularly noxious venture yielded seven atomic tests in the desert sands of Maralinga, South Australia. The British record on the subject, along with Australian complicity, is a fetid one. Officials have taken cover behind a wall of inaccessible documents and unwavering secrecy.
A year before the area around Maralinga was euphemistically ‘rehabilitated’ under the UK Ministry of Defence’s Operation Brumby (1967), chemical tests using Agent Orange were supposedly being conducted on rainforest at Gregory Falls, near the North Queensland town of Innisfail. The area in question was a local water catchment area. Researcher Jean Williams, who has made a name for herself in matters of veterans’ affairs, stumbled across documents while ferreting around in the Australian War Memorial’s archives. Her discovery has precipitated outraged queries from the residents in the area.
The evidence is scattered, but hard to dismiss out of hand. Williams claims to have found a report recommending the use of 2,4-D in the context of those trials in the 1960s. One file notes the following: ‘Considered sensitive because report recommends use of 2,4-D with other agents in spraying trials in Innisfail.’ That same file suggests that chemicals 2,4-D, Diquat, Tordon and dimethyl sulphoxide (DMSO) were used in June 1966 in the area. Another file detailing a supposedly more extensive project called Operation Desert went missing containing the ominous words, ‘too disturbing to ever be released’.
Additionally to Williams’ labours are a handful of eyewitness accounts from residents in the region. Former soldier Ted Bosworth, for instance, claims he drove military scientists to a rainforest near Gregory Falls to test an ‘unknown’ herbicide.
Other bits of anecdotal evidence can also be added. 76 people died from cancer in the town of some 12,000 residents in 2005. President of the local Return Servicemen’s League, president Reg Hamann, has commented on the number of young residents in the area who perish to leukemia and other cancers. Officials in Queensland Health have only shrugged, denying that such rates were 10 times above the national average. According to one official, ‘This is the same as the cancer incidence rate for Queensland.’
The Gregory Falls test site has remained barren ever since, effaced of foliage and previously rich vegetation. A local farmer, Alan Wakeham, whose land shares a border with the site, is puzzled. ‘It’s strange how the jungle comes right up to this site and then just stops. It won’t grow any further.’
The Federal government, in a state of stringent denial, has argued that a small-scale trial of readily available herbicides was tried at Gregory Falls. But Agent Orange was not part of the mix. In the words of a recent Defence Department statement on the subject: ‘The herbicide 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, was not tested.’ The local mayor Bill Shannon is livid and wishes to conduct his own investigation.
The use of chemicals and the overall conduct of scientific ‘experiments’ on beguiled citizens, whether purposely or through sheer recklessness, is stacked with precedents. Governments of all political shades and persuasions have found it tempting to apply scientific know-how to their own citizens. It is well known that scientific experiments were conducted on subjects without their consent in the United States. This took the form of radiation testing during the Cold War, to the Tuskegee experiments which denied African-American subjects medical treatment for a study into the pervasive effects of syphilis.
Whether it’s the unsuspecting water drinkers of a North Queensland town, scientific prototypes for a counter-insurgency operation, or the victims of the Tuskegee syphilis study, a secretive government staffed with such morally decrepit characters as Dr. Cornelius Rhoads, founder of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, will always play a nefarious role. Whether Mayor Shannon finds anything in the soil samples of his sleep town remains to be seen. But he is by the no means the first, nor the last, to have suspected his government of habitual deception in the name of ‘science’.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He can be reached at email@example.com