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Historical Yamatji Native Title agreement opens door to unique economic opportunities

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In early February Yamatji Traditional Owners had cause for great celebration after the Federal High Court approved the Yamatji Nation's Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) and Native Title determination.

This Native Title recognition and economic package is the first of its kind, and is the largest in Australian History.

Chair of Yamitji Nation (YN), Fred Taylor, has been part of the negotiations since the beginning of the application and said both he and the community are very excited about the agreement.

"The community [is] happy, everyone is over the moon, Traditional Owners, the government and the wider community. It was a good day," Taylor said.

"It's very positive. We kept it quiet because it was in the Federal Court. We have been negotiating for two years."

The mammoth agreement was the labour of members of the claimant groups and required an ongoing effort by individuals to gain approval from the Federal High Court.

Taylor said the process involved forming a Traditional Owner Negotiation Committee (TONC) from the claim groups to ensure that everyone affected by the claim had a voice.

"The TONC was formed, with certain members of the claim groups, I chaired it for two years and from that point, we kept on going," Taylor said.

"We kept chipping away, we kept going, we tried to push the bar, and push it as far as we could go to until we could no more."

"For us, it's for our future generations and then wider community because, in 100 years' time we want to have an organisation in the Mid-West ... where we have shown government, both state and federal that through this package we are economically well off."

Taylor said there was a plethora of research done to find out what the best model looked like for the YN claim.

"We took our model on the [First Nations] Canadians, we looked at all [Indigenous] models around the world in economic development and business.

"We looked at the [Canadian Indigenous model] and how they started off. We got a bigger package from what they [initially] had, and they are worth a couple billion dollars today."

The determination will allow Yamatji Traditional Owners to have capital for investment in housing for lease and sale, as well as tourism development to create employment opportunities.

Taylor is excited for the agreement to create benefits in community, and internally has allowed YN to develop good business practice.

"It gives us the hand up to get into business, to create wealth in our community," he said.

"We have been able to set up our good governance."

Taylor noted that the administration behind the agreement has allowed YN greater freedom and removed the need for them to be governed by the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC), allowing for commercial growth.

"We aren't an Aboriginal corporation under ORIC, we are a [proprietary limited company] under ASIC," Taylor said.

"It allows us to be more commercialised, just like every other business in Australia."

Included in the agreement was rights to a new office, in the old Greenough Shire office, just outside of Geraldton.

"We have a cash component, we have land, we have water rights, we have partnerships in land management," Taylor said.

These package components will allow YN to develop economically sustainable projects for the broader community.

"It puts Yamitji up there, it has set the bar ... I hope that other Native Title claims around the country have a look at our model and say, 'This is something we should look at.'"

Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, and WA Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt, were in attendance as the determination was signed off. Taylor was grateful they backed the agreement.

"Both State and [Federal support] is behind this all the way. They are in it for the long haul, it's about partnerships and the wider community here in Geraldton," Taylor said.

Moving forward, Taylor said the first step from determination was the board meeting for Southern Yamitji, which was held just after the determination.

"The organisation needs to put a business plan together, everything that falls [into] what we have negotiated," Taylor said.

"In our alternative settlement, if you have a look at our land tenure, most of it was extinguished ... most of it was farming land, so for us we got recognition on small parcels of land. For me, I think we got two bites of the cherry.

"We got an economic package that will last forever ... it will create an opportunity for my great grandchildren."

Taylor reflected on the time it took to get the agreement, explaining that while many people are excited about the agreement, there is a sadness that some Elders passed before seeing the benefit of the work.

"It was sad, because we missed a lot of Elders over 24 years," Taylor said.

"Some of these claims are 20 years old ... I think we have blown people away by the way we have done this."

The agreement opens up opportunities in industries that had previously been out of reach. Fishing and tourism are two of the industries Taylor said are the most exciting, through the access to water rights, another first of its kind in the state.

"I don't know any other group in the state that has water rights.

"When we were doing our deal, we knew where the water was, and we thought, okay we need the land around near the water so we can grow a food bowl industry as well."

The Pink Lake near Port Gregory outside Kalbarri and the Abrolhos Islands are also on Taylor's radar.

"[Tourists] are coming to the Pink Lake in WA, we have land there ... [we can] build a great place to have coffee, toilets and other tourism potential."

Taylor is happy to boast that the determination is as good as they had hoped for.

"Paul Keates ... our economic development manager told us, 'What you have pulled off is probably the greatest Native Title [determination] in Australia at this stage.'"

By Caris Duncan


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