Aboriginal Enterprise could hold Key to Fitzroy River Future

Posted on May 8, 2019

A new report released today has found that Aboriginal enterprises that are bringing the cultural and environmental heritage of the Kimberley to a diverse range of markets could hold the future for economic development in the Fitzroy River (Martuwarra) catchment.

The report, by the University of South Australia in collaboration with Pew Charitable Trusts, comes as the WA Government is developing protection and development plans for the Fitzroy River to implement their election commitment to ensure the health of the river, and to support sustainable development.

UniSA undertook a benefit-cost analysis of proposed irrigation scenarios for the Fitzroy River taking into account the performance of past developments in Northern Australia, and a review of available information on Aboriginal enterprises in the region.

The benefit-cost analysis showed that allocating water to support irrigated agriculture was unlikely to be a successful development option.  The exception was some smaller scale mosaic irrigation from groundwater if high value markets were targeted. Most scenarios were not profitable and unlikely to create many jobs.  

The report also found that there were significant economic costs to irrigation, including potential impacts on the wild harvest of plants and animals for food.  Harvest from the river alone is estimated at a quarter of the food consumed in Indigenous households in the Fitzroy catchment; 72% of adults engage in hunting and fishing; and wild harvest accounts for up to 80% of protein consumed by Aboriginal people across Northern Australia including the Fitzroy River.

Aboriginal enterprises such as bushfoods, tourism, traditional medicine, land management, arts and carbon farming, whilst currently small, were found to be targeting domestic markets worth $234-344m and international markets worth $245 billion.  Gubinge (or Kakadu plum) and Aboriginal tourism were found to be constrained by supply, rather than demand.  Aboriginal enterprises also tended to be labour intensive and locally led, leading to more local jobs and expenditure.

Investment in governance, workforce capacity, product development and marketing could all lead to Aboriginal enterprises increasing supply chain value capture; with benefits of local jobs and growth.

However, Government investment in Aboriginal enterprise lags behind irrigation; with some $35m spent in recent years on research and development in irrigation and beef, compared with less than one million on Aboriginal enterprise.

Aboriginal enterprises are building on the natural and cultural capital of the region to target the modern economy where value growth is in knowledge and experiences.  We found that there is significant potential for these enterprises to grow the economy and create jobs in the Martuwarra Fitzroy River area,” said report author Professor Jeff Connor from the University of South Australia.

The Western Australian Government has the opportunity to base economic growth plans on the outstanding nature and culture of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River.  There is greater value created by leaving water in the river than by taking it for irrigation, so we don’t have to risk the health of the river to achieve economic development,” said Tim Nicol, Kimberley Manager of Pew Charitable Trusts.

Read the full report here

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