Australia has a long-standing love affair with the notion that the north of the country is a vast underdeveloped wilderness just waiting for the right combination of foreign investment and government-sponsored infrastructure.
Bunuba Country, my people’s Country, is north of Fitzroy Crossing, in the heart of the Kimberley. The Fitzroy River that flows through our Country is now at the heart of the debate about the future of the north.
Bunuba Country includes the magnificent Danggu, or what non-Indigenous people call Geikie Gorge. It includes the national parks of Tunnel Creek and Windjana Gorge — where the Jandamarra story played out. Soon it will include new national parks.
For many Australians I have spoken with, my Country, and the Kimberley, is a barely imaginable wilderness. A bucket-list place. The Australian Government decision in 2011 to place the Kimberley on the National Heritage Register clearly reflects this widely held view.
Bunuba people have a vision for our Country that sits at odds with the dreams of an agricultural development boom. We see that the vast river systems of the Murray-Darling in southeastern Australia are in trouble, and we also see that a lot of Australians are very worried about their future.
We do not want to see our river Country transformed by the clearing of native bush and drawing of water from the river.
We are not anti-development. On the contrary, we have plans to improve the standards of living, health care and education of our people. A recently published economic analysis, led by Professor of Water Economics Jeff Connor from the University of South Australia, supports our view.
It shows that when environmental, cultural and greenhouse gas liabilities are considered; the costs of broadscale agriculture outweigh the benefits. We have seen this at the Ord River where the financial costs alone have outweighed economic returns.
Professor Connor’s analysis also supports our vision of a development path based on the strengths of our people and the health of our lands. One opportunity is tourism. Some 1.4 million tourists visit WA’s northwest each year and spend $1.5 billion.
Tourists consistently seek an authentic Indigenous tourism experience, but these remain few and far between. Bunuba people are also expanding our successful Yiramalay High School in partnerships with Wesley College Melbourne.
Since 2011, we have had teams of rangers — men and women — working to eradicate weeds and feral animals as well as monitor species. We conduct this work in partnership with the WA Government as well as entities like Bush Heritage Australia and Environs Kimberley.
We have our own pastoral leases, Fairfield and Leopold Downs, that we strive to keep profitable while ensuring minimal environmental impact. We are partnering with industry entrepreneurs and working with organisations like the Kimberley Pilbara Cattlemen’s Association to produce sustainable beef for burgeoning Asian markets.
The challenge for Bunuba people, is also the major challenge we all face as a global community. We are striving to facilitate economic development that does not contribute to climate change, habitat loss, or to loss of cultural knowledge and social coherence.
We seek 21st century developments that don’t threaten these foundations of a good life. The solution? We are forging partnerships with organisations who want to work with us. These include sustainable pastoralism, Indigenous tourism, small scale agriculture/bush tucker enterprises, sophisticated and empowering education alternatives for our kids, and capacity to manage our Country so that it remains a national asset.
By Joe Ross
Joe Ross is a Bunuba leader from Fitzroy Crossing and Director of the Bunuba Dawangirri Aboriginal Corporation.