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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.
A plum by any other name
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.
Getting ‘superfood’ status
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.
Opportunities for Indigenous-owned business
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.
Competing interests: food, cosmetics, bandicoots
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.
How was the mine developed?
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.
Problems with the Mine Closure Plan
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.
Rehabilitation success is determined by the mining company
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.
An outbreak of coral bleaching has been reported over the summer in Gang Gurak Barlu National Park on the Cobourg Peninsula, 60km northeast of Darwin, homeland of several clans of the Iwaidja-speaking Aboriginal people of Western Arnhem Land.
As no formal monitoring or assessment program is in place for these reefs, it’s impossible to gauge the full severity and extent of the bleaching. However, this video from Black Point on the Cobourg Peninsula contrasts the healthy reef in 2015 and the bleached reef in 2018.
The Northern Territory has unique marine ecosystems which are largely untouched and sit in waters receiving flow from untamed rivers. There are extensive coral reefs with abundant breeding turtle populations, saltwater crocodiles and sharks.
In January this year, the water temperature between the Northern Territory and Papua New Guinea reached what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) calls Alert Level 2 – its highest alert for the risk of bleaching and subsequent coral death.
This is an indication of the duration and intensity of a warming event, measured in “degree heating weeks” – the number of degrees above the average summer maximum temperature, multiplied by the number of weeks. Alert Level 2 indicates at least eight degree heating weeks.
Increases in sea surface temperature cause mass bleaching events. The bleached corals have lost most of the single-celled algae, called zooxanthellae, that live and photosynthesise inside the coral cells and provide the corals with most of their energy.
Bleaching patterns tell a story
The bleaching patterns of these three events were tightly correlated with degree heating weeks within geographic areas, with the 1998 and 2002 events having prominent effects in the southern areas.
In 2016 the highest degree heating weeks were recorded on the northern stretches of the Great Barrier Reef, where the most severe bleaching occurred. Southern areas experienced temperatures close to average, partly due to cooler water from Cyclone Winston.
In 2017 the Great Barrier Reef experienced another bleaching event that affected northern and central areas. This event was particularly disturbing, as it followed 2016 and, unlike 1998, 2002 and 2016, it was not an El Niño year.
It is vital that reefs have time to recover between bleaching events if they are to avoid becoming degraded. For corals that survive being bleached, full recovery takes time. Reproductive output can be reduced for extended periods, resulting in less successful recruitment.
This, often combined with the increased competition from algae and soft corals, means that replacement of corals that do not survive bleaching events can be slow. Even fast-growing corals require 10-15 years to return to their prebleaching size.
Recent analysis has shown that the intervals between bleaching events across the globe have decreased substantially since the 1980s. The median period between bleaching events is now six years. One reason for this is that temperatures in La Niña conditions (when we expect lower temperatures) are now higher than those of El Niño conditions in the 1980s.
This is further evidence that if we continue on our current path of rapidly increasing emissions, it is increasingly likely that bleaching events will occur annually later this century, as predicted by coral scientists last century.
Resilience of reefs
The 2016 bleaching event demonstrated that areas with good water quality and controlled fishing were not protected from bleaching during this temperature anomaly. However, local conditions can be vitally important for recovery in previously bleached areas and to maintain healthy populations prior to bleaching events.
Unfortunately, climate change is not only causing higher temperatures but also increased intensity of storm and cyclone damage, sea level rise and ocean acidification. So we need resilient reefs to cope with these additional challenges.
We can increase the resilience of reefs by improving water quality. We can do this by reducing sediment and nitrogen and phosphorus input and other toxins such as coal dust, herbicides and pesticides, alongside regulating fishing pressure and protecting as many areas as possible.
New management approaches urgently needed
The beautiful reefs of the Northern Territory and the Great Barrier Reef need to be protected. If we wish to enjoy Australia’s reefs in future decades, it is vital that we change our management priorities.
State and federal governments need to give these areas the priority they deserve through marine parks and ranger programs, and regulation of potentially harmful activities. Water quality needs to be funded in a serious manner. Industrial developments, such as port expansions, need to be evaluated with protection of reefs as a primary concern.
Reducing emissions dramatically is crucial to slowing all the climate change effects on reefs. Australia can lead by example by rapidly moving away from fossil fuels and opening no new coal mines.
Closing Uluru to climbers empowers Indigenous people to teach visitors about their culture on their own terms, which is more sustainable for tourism in the long run.
Uluru is a drawcard for international and domestic tourists, and is visited by over 250,000 people per year. A substantial number of these choose to climb the rock. On busy days, the number can be in the hundreds. This is despite being asked by the traditional owners, the Anangu people, to respect their wishes, culture and law and not climb Uluru.
The Anangu people actually offer visitors a range of eco-cultural tourism activities that focus on sharing Indigenous culture, knowledge and traditions, which don’t involve planting feet on a sacred place. These activities including nature walks, painting workshops, bush yarns and bush food experiences.
This decision to close the rock to climbers comes after many years of conceding rights back to the Anangu, and is possibly one of the few times where Indigenous values have truly been prioritised over other interests.
Giving power back to Uluru’s traditional owners
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, declared in 1950, was handed back to the Anangu on October 26, 1985. While the agreement required the park to be leased to the Australian Parks and Wildlife Services under a co-management arrangement, the handover was a symbolic high point for land rights.
In practice, however, aspects of the park’s operations were contrary to the traditional owners’ approach to conservation and management. For instance, park management models stated the need to place:
… emphasis on developing acceptable patterns of use of the physical environment and not on recognition of social and spiritual values of land to Indigenous people.
In 2010, the park’s management plan proposed to close the rock if the proportion of visitors who wished to climb Uluru was below 20%. An independent analysis of track counter data and visitor statistics undertaken by the Griffith Institute for Tourism over a four year period revealed that in almost all circumstances (and even with allowance for track counter inaccuracy) the proportion was under 20%.
Finally on November 1, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board of Management, consisting of eight traditional owners and four government officials, voted unanimously to close Uluru (Ayers Rock) to climbers. The local tourism industry supported the decision.
Indigenous tourism on the rise
Increasingly, visitors around the world are seeking such opportunities to experience various aspects of Indigenous culture. Not surprisingly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are realising the sociocultural and economic opportunities of tourism and have now become an integral part of the Australian tourism industry.
But for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, getting involved in the tourism industry comes with its own set of problems. They have been tasked with juggling their heritage, customs, culture and traditions with government initiatives that prioritise economic over socio-cultural development. For example, as Quandamooka Dreaming “targets big dollars from tourism” in SE Queensland, the traditional owners are successfully balancing their socio-economic aspirations with cultural lores by determining that some sacred sites will remain accessible only to elders and initiated Indigenous Quandamooka people. But other sites will be open to eco-tourists.
However, too often, tourism development is associated with issues of commercialisation, lack of authenticity and exploitation of culture.
Empowering Indigenous Australians
Given the considerable pressure tourism places on local resources and places, the involvement of local communities and different groups within them is now considered critical for achieving sustainable tourism.
A recent report concludes that participation and empowerment of local communities are success factors to managing tourism growth. It’s the local community that looks after the destination, and it can make or break a tourist’s experience. The report finds developing tourism without input from the local people has often led to conflict.
Closing Uluru for climbing should be seen as a shining example of sustainable tourism being a vehicle for the preservation, maintenance and ongoing development of culture, traditions and knowledge.
And when reconciliation principles are practised not preached, traditional custodians of the land are afforded due respect. This then leads them to share their 60,000 year old knowledge of the management of the land we are privileged to utilise as tourism destinations.
Michelle Whitford, Associate Professor of Indigenous Tourism, Griffith University and Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Director, Griffith Institute for Tourism, Griffith University