Barry Judd, Charles Darwin University; Amanda Kearney, Flinders University; Chris Hallinan; Christine Schlesinger, Charles Darwin University; Joseph M. Cheer, Wakayama University, and Keir James Reeves, Federation University Australia
Last weekend marked 34 years since the land title to Uluru was handed back to the local Yankunytjatjara-Pitjantjatjara peoples. It was also when joint management of the Uluru-Katja-Tjuta National Park began between the traditional owners (Anangu people) and Parks Australia.
The arrangement recognised Anangu title to the land and ensured the direct involvement of Anangu in the development of tourism in the area.
The agreement also coincided with the relocation of tourism facilities from the southeast base of Uluru to the purpose-built resort town of Yulara. The old hotels and other tourist sites were discarded and became the base for the Anangu community of Mutitjulu.
However, if joint management aimed to deliver improved economic and social outcomes for Anangu residents, it has proven to be a spectacular failure.
Today, Yulara and Mutitjulu stand in stark contrast. Yulara is filled with cashed-up, bucket-list travellers from all over the world, while Mutitjulu is an outpost of lingering disadvantage where overcrowding, underemployment, poverty, high rates of suicide and preventable diseases remain pervasive problems.
Mutitjulu was also the epicentre of the controversial Northern Territory National Emergency Response in 2007, commonly referred to as the intervention, when the federal government took control over more than 70 Indigenous communities in response to allegations of child sexual abuse.
Mutitjulu is emblematic of what academic Jon Altman refers to as the persistent need to reestablish trust between Indigenous Australians and the institutions that for so long failed to ensure their basic human rights were protected.
The end of climbing at Uluru provides an opportunity to reset the relationship between the traditional owners and the tourism sector, and look for new ways for Anangu to be integrated into the industry.
Central to this is how the Anangu can meaningfully develop their cultural assets within the park to ensure the long-term benefit of their people, particularly through direct employment.
There would appear to be ample opportunities for the people in Mutitjulu to take advantage of the 1,000-plus tourism jobs in Yulara, which are currently staffed largely by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people from outside the community.
The closure of Uluru to climbing also necessitates the development of alternate visitor experiences, particularly more educational and immersive experiences that would entail learning from and interacting respectfully with traditional owners.
Yet, structural impediments prevent this from becoming a reality at Uluru, as well as other remote parts of Australia.
These obstacles include a lack of education and training options specific to Indigenous needs to help them set up and run their own businesses. Another issue is that land rights and native title claims have tended to benefit a few legally recognised landowners and haven’t been conducive to whole-of-community development.
Both the Anangu and key tourism stakeholders in central Australia, including Voyages Indigenous Tourism and Tourism NT, are keenly aware of the need to reform the local tourism industry.
Enabling greater access to commercial bank loans is critical to Indigenous business development, as is collaborative planning between Indigenous groups and the government. Likewise, scientific and traditional Indigenous knowledge could be combined in new ways to drive tourism growth in areas like land and wildlife management.
The Anangu must also be empowered to start micro-enterprises grounded in Knowledge of Country that would strengthen their community, culture and language. One example of this is the Indigenous Ranger and Protected Area program, which involves Indigenous rangers managing their own lands based on traditional cultural practice.
Another approach that has shown promise is embracing Indigenous knowledge systems as part of the tourist educational experience. This is gaining currency in the NT as remote community arts centres seek to become visitor destinations in their own right.
These approaches to bottom-up initiatives have the greatest potential for growth and long-term empowerment in Uluru.
A major tourism rethink also requires addressing the structural impediments that prevent Indigenous peoples from starting businesses.
For example, new incentives could be built into the Australian tax code for those who invest in businesses on Aboriginal-owned land. However, such measures will only succeed if they are supported by bespoke educational and training programs for Anangu wanting to work in tourism.
The closure of Uluru to climbing should not simply focus on the limits the Anangu have imposed on visitors, but rather on the new possibilities this presents to leverage tourism for a more sustainable and resilient future.
This could also provide a model for traditional owners elsewhere who want to reclaim decision-making authority over tourism and other cultural activities on their lands.
And it signals to the broader Australian public that a greater respect for the rights of Indigenous people might just be the catalyst that helps drive a brighter Indigenous future.
Barry Judd, Professor, Indigenous Social Research, Charles Darwin University; Amanda Kearney, Matthew Flinders Fellow, Professor of Australian and Indigenous Studies, Flinders University; Chris Hallinan, Research Associate; Christine Schlesinger, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science and Ecology, Charles Darwin University; Joseph M. Cheer, Professor in Sustainable Tourism, Wakayama University, and Keir James Reeves, Professor of History, Federation University Australia
Sign up to the Beating Around the Bush newsletter here, and suggest a plant we should cover at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Kakadu Plum fruiting season in the Top End is just finishing. Over one weekend, I was able to find a few fruits on the ground beneath some trees in the Eucalypt woodland near Darwin.
This is the best way to eat Kakadu plums – fresh, fully ripe, and fallen from the tree. The fruit is smooth, fleshy and ovoid in shape with a short beak, and yellow–green or slightly reddish when ripe.
Initially, the taste seems somewhat bland, but with a definite sour and astringent finish. While that’s probably not a very inspiring description to encourage a tasting, a professional flavour profile describes the taste as “a stewed apple and pear aroma with cooked citrus and a floral-musk note” – so it’s perfect for jam, sauces and relishes.
With small, creamy white flowers in long spikes clustered towards the tips of the branches, the Kakadu plum, Terminalia ferdiandiana, is just one of about 29 species of Terminalia found in Australia.
But the extraordinary properties of the Kakadu plum makes it attractive for a diversity of food, beverage and even cosmetic products. And this demand is creating supply problems as competition to cash in on the fruit increases.
Kakadu plums are abundant in the Eucalypt woodlands of the northern savannas. There are a plethora of Aboriginal names that reflect the distribution of the species and the broadly held knowledge across numerous language groups, such as “Gubinge”, a name from the Bardi people north of Broome.
Common names such as “billygoat plum” or “green plum” are also sometimes used. But thanks to marketing success, the common name “Kakadu plum” is the most well known, although it’s misleading.
While the species is found in Kakadu National Park, its distribution extends to the savanna vegetation, from the Kimberley to Cape York.
The rise of the Kakadu plum to international fame as a “superfood” may appear to have come about almost overnight. But this story has been a long time in the making.
Aboriginal people have valued this plant for thousands of years for its food and medicinal properties. The health benefits of the fruit were certainly recognised, but more specifically, the red inner bark was used to treat skin conditions and sores.
The findings of western scientists also go back a little way. Pioneering analysis of the composition of bush foods in the early 1980s found phenomenally high vitamin C content in Kakadu plums.
Citrus fruits are known for being good natural sources of vitamin C, which makes up around 0.5% of their weight.
But the Kakadu plum tops the scale, with vitamin C levels of 3.5-5.9% of its weight. This is about 50 times more vitamin C than in oranges.
Chemicals in the plum also have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, and recent research has shown extracts have excellent preservative qualities. This means the plum is now used in the seafood industry to extend the shelf life of, for instance, cooked prawns.
Now, increased demand for the fruit has produced opportunities for Indigenous communities to create enterprise on country.
Many communities in the Top End and the Kimberley are now engaged in fruit harvesting, which, for the most part, takes place from the wild on Indigenous-owned land.
A successful example is in Wadeye, about 250km southwest of Darwin.
I spoke to the Community Development Officer at Thamarrurr Development Corporation there, Melissa Bentivoglio, who said:
Thamarrurr Plums [Kakadu plums], based at Wadeye, has been evolving over the past 10 years as a locally owned and operated Indigenous enterprise. This year’s plum season saw over 250 local women harvest over 10 tonnes of plums from their clan estates in the Thamarrurr Region.
The community continue to carefully discern their way forward in this local enterprise to ensure community ownership and long-term sustainability.
But Indigenous representation over the entire supply chain and processing is poor. The participation rate in the bush food industry is reported to be less than 1%.
Indigenous groups are actively seeking mechanisms to see greater recognition and returns from their traditional knowledge.
In 2007, for instance, the American-based cosmetic company Mary Kay Inc. was granted a patent for Kakadu plum extracts in a skin cosmetic product.
These patents were opposed following concerns around the recognition of the Indigenous knowledge and the lack of any benefit-sharing arrangements with relevant Indigenous communities. They were rejected by IP Australia on the grounds of lack of novelty – there were serious claims of biopiracy – commericially exploiting natural material – a cloud of uncertainty around the legal acquisition of the plant material.
The increasing demand for the fruit and sustainability concerns of the harvest has led the Northern Territory government to draft a management plan for Kakadu plum. It was released for public comment last year.
Ecologists also know the fruits of Kakadu plum form an important part of the diet of a suite of small native mammals, such as possums, rock rats, tree rats, and bandicoots. The recently observed decline in these populations can, in part, be attributed to overly frequent fires which are detrimental to small trees in the wild like the Kakadu plum.
The NT government’s management plan will need to ensure commercial harvest doesn’t add to the pressure on these native mammals.
What’s more, the traditional medicinal uses are being tested in a current research project through a Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia (CRCNA) funded collaboration to assess potential for establishing a medicinal plant agribusiness on Indigenous land.
It’s not easy being a super plant.
Can a uranium mine be rehabilitated to the environmental standards of a national park and World Heritage site?
That’s the challenge faced by the controversial Ranger uranium mine inside Kakadu National Park.
Kakadu has been a national park since the 1970s, but the Ranger mine, while surrounded by Kakadu, has never formally been part of the park. This classification is in the interests of resource extraction, and has failed to recognise or protect the area’s cultural and environmental values.
Kakadu National Park encompasses a precious natural heritage. It protects valuable ecosystems of outstanding value, diversity and beauty, and contains the world’s richest breeding grounds for migratory tropical water birds.
Recent diggings and studies have documented at least 65,000 years of continuous human habitation at a site on the land of the Mirarr people – this is currently the oldest occupation site in Australia.
The boundaries of Kakadu National Park were conveniently drawn around the Ranger mine site through a series of political and administrative negotiations following the Fox Inquiry, which gave a cautious green light for the Ranger operation.
Now, as the mining stops and the repair begins, mining companies and government regulators are being tested on their environmental commitment, and capacity to make meaningful change.
But rehabilitating what is essentially a toxic waste dump is no easy task.
And the inadequacy of the Energy Resources of Australia’s Mine Closure Plan – the key document guiding the rehabilitation – shows they are failing this test so far.
Our new research report – jointly conducted by Sydney Environment Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation – examines the Mine Closure Plan and finds it is seriously wanting in key areas.
These include significant data deficiencies regarding management of mine tailings (mine residue), land stability, and modelling of toxic contaminants likely to flow off site into Kakadu National Park.
The Mine Closure Plan is almost completely silent on crucial governance questions, such as the Ranger mine’s opaque regulatory processes and rehabilitation, and current and future financing – especially in relation to future site monitoring and mitigation works.
After the price collapse following the Fukushima nuclear crisis, times in the uranium trade have been tough. Coupled with a mandated end to commercial operations by early 2021, Rio Tinto has accepted the era of mining has now been replaced by the need for rehabilitation.
But the challenge for Energy Resources of Australia and Rio Tinto, who own and operate the mine, is not simply to scrape rocks into holes and plant trees. It is to ensure radioactive and contaminated mine tailings are:
physically isolated from the environment for at least 10,000 years [and that] any contaminants arising from the tailings will not result in any detrimental environmental impacts for at least 10,000 years.
These are time-scales of epic proportions, yet the Mine Closure Plan says little to assure the public this can be achieved.
In fact, Energy Resources of Australia concedes it won’t actually be possible to monitor and measure this over the next 10,000 years, so a model will be required instead. But this model has not been publicly released.
And this speaks to a broader problem with the whole process: the success of the rehabilitation will be judged by criteria created by the mining company.
It is naive to assume a mining company is best placed to propose their own rehabilitation criteria, given their corporate imperative to reduce rehabilitation costs and future liabilities.
And the stakes here are very high. The rehabilitation of Ranger will be a closely-watched and long-judged test of the credibility, competence and commitment of the regulators and the mining companies.
The Supervising Scientist Branch – a federal agency charged with tracking and advising, but not regulating, the Ranger operation – also made an assessment that should be ringing alarm bells:
[The company’s current plan] does not yet provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the current plan for rehabilitation of the Ranger mine site will achieve the required ERs [Environmental Requirements].
The Supervising Scientist Branch’s disturbing initial analysis is a red flag demanding an effective response.
The Conversation reached out to Energy Resources of Australia for a response to this story. A spokesperson told The Conversation the company is committed to the “full rehabilitation” of the Ranger Project Area:
Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) has committed to update the Closure Plan and submit for approval on an annual basis. Updates to the Closure Plan will be made publicly available.
As noted by ERA at the time of release of the Ranger Mine Closure Plan, there are some aspects of closure planning that will be further developed and refined as a result of ongoing studies and consultation. These will be reflected in future updates to the Closure Plan.
ERA is committed to rehabilitate the Ranger Project Area in accordance with the Environmental Requirements as set out in relevant regulations. The final close out of rehabilitation can only occur when the Commonwealth Minister, on advice of the Supervising Scientist and Traditional Owner representatives, is satisfied that the Environmental Requirements have been met.
Australia has a long history of substandard mine closure and rehabilitation in both the uranium and wider mining sector.
There is a real need to see a better approach at Ranger, and the first step in that journey is by increasing the scrutiny, accountability and transparency surrounding this essential clean up work.
This article was updated at 12.25pm, May 7, to include a response from Energy Resources of Australia.