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Return of Country lays base for Indigenous prosperity

David Prestipino -

Economic empowerment is being felt across more First Nations communities through a strategic focus on return to Country.

The Indigenous Land and Sea Council said on Thursday it would hone its focus over the next five years on returning and managing Country and providing First Nations businesses development opportunities through new acquisitions.

ILSC group chief executive officer, Joe Morrison, said 2023 was a significant year for the organisation, with the release of its five-year National Indigenous Land and Sea Strategy geared towards returning and managing Country.

"Everything the ILSC does is about Country and the continent's first peoples," he said.

Mr Morrison said ILSC's wanted to open more financial pathways and sustainable futures for Indigenous communities across Australia, and he was excited for their future.

"The ILSC looks forward to seeing what is possible for Indigenous communities in 2024 and, importantly, how we can continue to support their aspirations and goals," he said.

The ILSC said 14 properties were granted to First Nations corporations and 13 new acquisition projects were approved in this calendar year alone.

Funding for projects - such as new headquarters for Indigenous businesses and services, community programs, and building heritage bases - ranged from $15,000 to more than $3 million.

Mr Morrison said the return of Country championed the provision of social, economic, environmental and cultural benefits and opportunities for Indigenous communities.

"We honour the long and deep connection First Nations peoples have with Country," he said.

Mr Morrison cited this year's divestment of the Saltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance (SWFW), on Gumbaynggirr land in Coffs Harbour, as a particular highlight.

The SWFW - one of the nation's leading contemporary Aboriginal art and cultural organisations - established permanent headquarters after a $2m-plus funding boost from the ILSC.

"I am particularly proud of our Indigenous partners' accomplishments over this past year," Mr Morrison said.

"It is their determination and resilience which has allowed them to prosper and continue to realise their vision for self-determination."

SWFW arts alliance general manager, Rick Gonsalves, said the ILSC divestment would secure the organisation's future for years to come.

The new headquarters meant SWFW could boost staff numbers to further support more than 300 Indigenous artists, cultural practitioners and contractors per year, while providing licensing and commission services through NADA.

SWFW could now host more cultural and arts programs and events and celebrate First Nations culture with Coffs Harbour's 92,000 inhabitants, with artists likely to benefit from more exhibitions and gallery sales.

"With spacious light-filled and comfortable office space to nurture the creativity of our growing team and the most amazing gallery, workshop, and retail space, this acquisition is truly a game changer," Mr Gonsalves said.

"Our artists from the Worimi, Biripi, Dunghutti and Gumbaynggirr nations in our region will benefit from our new base."

The ILSC's new focus in 2023 saw a significant jump in acquisitions and property restorations, after eight properties were acquired for new projects and 13 properties returned in 2021-2022.

That financial year, the ILSC helped Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation - the traditional custodians of Murujuga (the Burrup Peninsula) land and sea Country, including the 42 islands of the Dampier Archipelago and the Murujuga National Park - also secure new headquarters.

Property in the sacred Bunya Mountains was also returned to traditional owners in Queensland, while the ILSC helped the Land and Sea Aboriginal Corporation of Tasmania's entry into the state's lucrative abalone commercial fishery, its first formally recognised Aboriginal fishery worth $8 million to local communities and a huge advance for Indigenous commercial fishing rights in Tasmania.

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