'Aboriginals crucial to NT horticulture'

Young men from Ali Curung plant seedless watermelon seedlings at Desert Springs Farm in 2015.
Young men from Ali Curung plant seedless watermelon seedlings at Desert Springs Farm in 2015. CREDIT: Courtesy of Centrefarm

ONE-THIRD of the Territory's population is Aboriginal, and-in the main-they are the people living permanently on the land.

Their intimate involvement in sustainable development of the Territory would, therefore, seem to make good sense.

As discussed last week, however, critics point to a lack of engagement of Aboriginal people in the touted NT growth area of horticulture, and the failure to date of some projects to improve such engagement.

For example, at Desert Springs Farm near Ali Curung-a project whose base infrastructure was funded using Aboriginal mining royalties and federal subsidies-the melon harvest relies on backpackers rather than local Aboriginal people.

Like many of their counterparts in other Australian horticultural zones, local Aboriginal people are known to say no to the back-breaking work, leaving international backpackers to fill the void.

Success or failure in this Aboriginal employment space is often misunderstood or goes unreported, while those in the industry speak of "integrated approaches" and inter-generational change.

To an extent, such narratives ignore a long history of Aboriginal engagement in the field.

As historian Rupert Gerritsen notes in Evidence for Indigenous Australian Agriculture, "Historical accounts, oral traditions and ethnographic observations reveal that at the time of British colonisation of Australia at least 19 different species of plant were being cultivated by at least 21 different identifiable Indigenous groups."

These include yam, sweet potato (and its relative the bush potato), native millet, ngardu, bush tomatoes and bush onions.

To help dispel some myths clouding debate on this complex subject I spoke to Centrefarm, who were involved in the early development of Desert Springs, and our written exchange is recorded below.

The subject is an important one, because Aboriginal Territorians own more than 50% of the NT through the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976, and have rights over much of the rest via the Native Title Act.

As a result, Aboriginal people will be crucial to the success or otherwise of the NT's future economic productivity, and northern development as a whole.

Yet, according to NLC CEO Joe Morrison Aboriginal people have, to date, been left out of planning for northern development.

"The long history of shutting Aboriginal people out of the economy means that we do not operate from a level playing field," says Mr Morrison.

"But we come to this engagement process as people who want to make northern development work for the many who live here."

Calls for economic independence from Traditional Owners across the NT have prompted the Northern and Central Land Councils to produce the Joint Land Council Aboriginal Economic Development Strategy (to be launched 2018-9).

The strategy brings together Aboriginal landowners, industry and government, using a public-private investment model to support the development of infrastructure.

HEARTBEAT: Is there a history of Aboriginal horticulture, as far as you understand it?

CENTREFARM: Bruce Pascoe notes in his book Dark Emu: Black Seeds - Agriculture or Accident? that the journals and records of early European explorers of Australia document large-scale horticultural activity across the continent, including the production and trading of grain in the arid zone.

These activities ceased when people were removed from their lands.

HEARTBEAT: Can this history be of help to Aboriginal people now?

CENTERFARM: The Central Land Council has been investigating commercial horticulture as a means to economic independence for Aboriginal landowners since the mid-1990s.

The first attempt to develop Aboriginal land for stand-alone commercial activity was at Utopia.

That venture fell through in 2000 because none of the parties involved felt sufficiently sure of the risks to put the first dollar down.

It was apparent that a clear process, and some evidence, was required to provide confidence in remote area development.

HEARTBEAT: How does Centrefarm fit into this?

CENTREFARM: CLC adopted a framework comprising four elements of developer (land), capital (capital), operators (capital/labour), and employment and training (labour).

There were people to operate farms, and plenty of policies and programs to support employment and training, but the key gap was the role of developer; Aboriginal landowners needed an entity to kick-start the process.

So the CLC set up Centrefarm (a not-for-profit entity), to be this developer and work with Traditional Owners to establish a commercial enterprise on Aboriginal land.

It was never intended that Centrefarm would operate the resulting enterprise, only develop it.

In doing so, we would prove up a process that could be applied elsewhere, creating a series of regional economic foundations on Aboriginal lands across the Centre.

HEARTBEAT: So, for example, operators like Paul McLaughlin, an experienced grower, steps in at Desert Springs ... but where did the capital come from?

CENTREFARM: The capital for infrastructure was anticipated to come from the Aboriginals Benefit Account.

The ABA receives royalty money from mining in the NT, which is then matched by the Federal Government.

Roughly a third pays for the four NT Land Councils, a third is paid in royalties to Aboriginal persons affected by the mining activity, and a third is set aside for "the benefit of Aboriginals living in the Northern Territory".

HEARTBEAT: So other growers are attracted to the opportunities, and the enterprise generates jobs ... but it hasn't quite worked as smoothly as that?

CENTREFARM: Two things became apparent: First, the ABA wasn't set up to deal with commercial timeframes or capital infrastructure.

The borefield at Ali Curung remains the only infrastructure money secured from ABA for this type of economic development.

Second, the poorly designed and constantly changing employment and training policies and programs, along with the various entities charged with administering them, were hampering activities and outcomes on the ground.

The only entity with any consistent presence was Centrefarm.

Increasingly, we took on these additional roles without funding, while at the same time trying to engage those already chartered to do this work.

As well, the period was characterised by disruption from changes to the CDEP program, and the advent of the Super Shires.

CDEP was suspended, then transformed into RJCP, then suspended again and re-born as CDP, before the arrival of Job Services Australia policies.

The Super Shires removed the local governance systems previously vested in community governance councils, and saw a revolving door of service personnel - including no less than nine shire services managers in Ali Curung in 18 months.

By this time, the Northern Land Council had asked Centrefarm to start working in its jurisdiction as well.

HEARTBEAT: So has anything clear come out of what might best be described as a pretty confusing situation?

CENTREFARM: Yes, as a result we've got a very clear understanding of the challenges and issues involved in remote economic development on Aboriginal land.

Using this knowledge we were able to draft a plan for remote area economic development, the Joint Land Council Aboriginal Economic Development Strategy, which has strong policy and funding support from the NT Government.

NEXT WEEK: What role for the NT Government?


Stay Connected

Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.