By ERWIN CHLANDA
More than 40 years after the landrights act and a quarter century after the native title determination, Aborigines “can speak for more than 90% of Northern Territory land and sea”.
They make up 30% of the population which is expected to rise “to 50% over the next 20 to 30 years,” mostly living outside the major urban centres.
But the systematic commercial use of their assets to lift themselves out of entrenched poverty is still years off.
Meanwhile 350 km north of Alice Springs, a watermelon plantation at Ali Curung, once touted as a landmark Indigenous project, was a dismal failure as an Aboriginal venture, but now produces 10,000 tonnes of watermelons a year for an interstate lessee, relying mostly on labour from backpackers.
Paul McLaughlin (at right), from PMG Agriculture based in Condobolin, NSW, says he gets local labor “occasionally”.
What percentage? “Not much,” he replies.
At the Developing Northern Australia conference in Alice Springs this month Vin Lange, the CEO of Centrefarm, which is attached to the Central Land Council (CLC), mapped out a strategy being developed in collaboration with the Northern Land Council (NLC) for commercialising Aboriginal land.
This will begin with three pilot projects each over four years starting in 2019/20, identifying opportunities and providing “a roadmap for development” and “seeking expressions of interest from investors and professional operators of commercial scale developments across a range of industry sectors”.
So far 85% of the consultations with “countrymen” about this project have been completed and mostly found approval, but it will take “a few more years to finalise,” says Mr Lange.
This Joint Economic Development Strategy (JEDS) will include “internationally agreed guiding principles” and has as its fundamental policy that the land must always remain Aboriginal: “It can never be broken up or sold off.”
This means Aboriginal land holders “cannot borrow through current channels the amount of money required to develop these lands,” says Mr Lange. Partners are required who can.
As a bridging measure a fund will be set up through the Aboriginal Land and Sea Economic Development Agency (ALSEDA).
That fund will be controlled by Aboriginal people but it will not own country, says Mr Lange. There will be rules about relationships “so everyone knows what to do and what to expect”.
On the one hand ALSEDA will seek capital for infrastructure development, relying on royalties and government grants, such as the Building Better Regions Fund, National Water Initiative Infrastructure Fund, the NT Aboriginal Benefits Account and the North Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF), plus commercial and concessional loans and private investment for commercial return.
On the other hand, fungibility of leases and subleases on Aboriginal land has also been acknowledged by leading banks and law firms.
This allows for commercial leases taken out “at the behest of traditional land owners to excise or subdivide a lease out of their land trust,” says Mr Lange.
“These leases would be registered by the Land Title Office like any other lease. The Native Title Act doesn’t provide for that but it has provisions for Indigenous Land Use Agreements.”
This is how these “Section 19” leases – named after a clause in the Northern Territory Land Rights Act 1976 – will work:-
A land trust owning Aboriginal freehold land would grant a head lease to the people who are members of that trust.
These in turn would sub-let the land to ALSEDA which would then commercialise the project, granting leases to, for example, farmers, fishermen, miners or tourism operators.
Over a generation it is intended for Aboriginal people to be involved in every facet of that process, Mr Lange told the conference.
He says efforts over “many years” to raise capital for a “project of merit” had only yielded one success, getting some money from the Aboriginal Benefits Account.
However, the financial sector has now confirmed to Centrefarm in writing that if a business model stacks up, “they would lend up to 40% of any capital assets we put on that country” under Section 19.
Mr Lange said 40% may be “too risky but 20% is not a bad number”.
The “lead agency” ALSEDA will provide advice and assistance for all stakeholders and “competent coordination in a complex space”.
It is the first time that such a strategy has been put forward by the Aboriginal landowners themselves.
It is expected that by 2024 the fund “will open its doors to institutional investors”.
Meanwhile PMG Agriculture is 10 years into a 90 year lease over 1200 hectares near Ali Curung.
So far 400 hectares are developed for irrigation.
The land is eminently suitable for growing seedless watermelons, says Mr McLauglin, because the arid climate is free of fungal and bacterial diseases.
The farm plants in August and September and harvests in November and December, and plants again in January and February to harvest in April and May.
According to an essay by Alyson Wright in Serious Whitefella Stuff, in 2008 Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin pledged $3.3m for horticulture in Ali Curung: “More than 60 jobs will be created through the life of this program … this is a real achievement for the community.”
But nothing came of it in the mayhem of the Intervention, hare-brained Federal welfare and job-readiness schemes and NT Government flip-flopping on Local Government.
IMAGES from the PMG Agriculture website and the Alice Springs News Online archive. ABOVE RIGHT: PMG Agriculture also experiments with pomegranate fruit and mangoes.
By ERWIN CHLANDA