New economic opportunities for Aboriginal land

Aboriginal land offers innovative opportunities for economic benefit. Carbon farming, biobanks, cattle and farming are just a start.

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Selected statistics

Percentage of bush food supplied by Aboriginal companies. 97% is supplied by non-Aboriginal companies.
Percentage of Aboriginal representation in the supply chain, from growers to farm managers and exporters.
Percentage of Australia's land mass managed by Aboriginal people.
Number of native food types in Australia that are certified by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand and developed for local and international markets. Total number of native food types: 6,500.

As Aboriginal people develop their own economy, new and innovative uses of their land emerge. Some are based on proprietary traditional knowledge, others are in cooperation with non-Aboriginal companies.

Emerging models of cooperation focus more and more on leasing land rather than selling, as leasing agreements maintain Aboriginal custodianship of the land.

Carbon Farming

Carbon farming means managing vegetation to increase carbon storage or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Aboriginal people use a range of methods to manage emissions and profit from the on-selling of any emission reductions to industries which need to offset their pollution.

The burns are a delicate act between burning too little (and triggering devastating late-season fires) and too much (devastating your earnings).

A sustainable Aboriginal carbon industry would deliver several benefits, such as slow climate change, contribute to Aboriginal wealth and help rangers manage of traditional lands and waters.

Some of the approved carbon farming methods include:

  • Savanna burning involves patchwork burning in the early dry season when greenhouse gas emissions are low. This is currently the most popular form of carbon farming, and in 2018 there were 80 projects using this technique. In the Northern Territory, Aboriginal people operate more than half of them, often traditional custodians and rangers who decide what's appropriate for their country.
  • Vegetation includes planting trees and assisting regrowth in areas with high rainfall.
  • Savanna enrichment means growing food and carbon at the same time.
  • Rangelands is regeneration through management of cattle, feral animals, fire and weeds.

Early season burning always results in tired but happy rangers, a landscape that is well managed and, in recent times, an economic return from selling carbon credits.

— Rowan Foley, Aboriginal ranger, Alice Springs

In 2010 Rowan Foley, an Aboriginal ranger set up the Aboriginal Carbon Fund in Alice Springs as a not-for-profit company. Its vision is to "nurture and build a sustainable Aboriginal carbon industry" which delivers environmental, social and cultural benefits for communities and financial returns for traditional custodians.

By July 2017, the fund had completed 18 projects across Australia and was working on four. It also shares information with a Canadian First Nations group to exchange knowledge.

One savanna-burning project early in the season avoided 24,100 tonnes of carbon, which, at auction, could have been worth more than $250,000.

In July 2012 the government set up the Indigenous Carbon Farming Fund to assist Aboriginal people with carbon farming projects which could, for example, conduct cool, prescribed burns on country to reduce the emissions into the atmosphere compared to an out-of-control wildfire. The emissions saved can then be on-sold to industry.

This delivers economic benefits to Aboriginal communities, helps provide land management jobs and strengthens Aboriginal people's cultural ties to country while improving the biodiversity of the environment. By 2022, units from First Nations-led projects were highly-sought after and made up more than 50% of those sold on the voluntary market.

The Carbon Farming Initiative is a voluntary scheme where resources that store carbon, such as trees, can be audited and then assessed for credits, which can then be sold to polluters looking to offset carbon emissions.

Such a scheme could lead to new relationships between Aboriginal companies and land councils and the corporate world. Aboriginal people could not only plant trees, but also bush foods and medicinal plants, leading to even more commercial ventures.

Aboriginal people manage around 20% of Australia's land mass.

The carbon market is the next big opportunity for Aboriginal people and puts us on the path to economic independence.

— Nolan Hunter, acting chief executive, Kimberley Land Council

The Indigenous Carbon Industry Network provides information about rights and interest in the carbon industry and supports members advocate on behalf of First Nations peoples to the federal government. See

Video: Kimberley Land Council – Carbon Farming Methodologies

The video explains how carbon farming projects allow landowners to earn money for projects that cut down the amount of carbon dioxide and how projects must follow a certain set of rules. It explains different types of projects one can do in the Kimberley, WA.


A biobank is a piece of land that has been audited to measure endangered species, native species and biodiversity and rate them using a credits system. Then, when a developer wants to take another piece of land and destroy habitat, they can buy a corresponding number of biobank credits and the money goes to the entity managing the biobank.

Once a biobank has been set up the land cannot be developed.

Australia's first Aboriginal-owned biobank opened in the Hunter Valley in April 2012.

Video: Aboriginal biobanking

Fast-forward to 1:06 to watch Josh Ridgeway who travelled to the New South Wales community of Singleton to see how biobanking is working with the Wonnarua Nation Aboriginal Corporation and the state government.

Cattle industry

Aboriginal-controlled pastoral stations can merge to achieve better prices to attract investors. In Western Australia's Kimberley region, 10 stations merged in 2014 to export directly to Asia, with help from Chinese investors.

Individually, stations have often struggled to achieve good prices. They hope to become competitive using world-class breeding, management and feed-crop technology.

Elders in the region are pleased, because they have grown disappointed that the stations on which many of them grew up do not have the ability to employ larger numbers of young Aboriginal people. This might change as the Co-op grows in strength.


Although mining is one of the threats to Aboriginal land it can also deliver benefits. Some Aboriginal people support mining on their land, despite the drawbacks.

Following are initiatives which show that Aboriginal traditional groups start to emerge as experienced, highly educated business partners.

The Njamal people from Australia's Pilbara region signed a deal with the Fortescue Metals Group in December 2011 which is believed to be the first joint venture between a miner and an Aboriginal group.

The deal makes them managers of a mine eventually producing 100 million tonnes of iron ore. The Njamal mine the ore within their native title claim area while Fortescue buys it at an agreed price.

The deal is significant as the miner gives away part of their resource to a native title group for the long-term sustainability of the group.

The Njamal are aware of the two-sided sword mining is for them. "I feel sad to see mining happening in our country, digging up the environment," says Doris Eaton, a traditional law-woman and also the co-chairwoman of Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation which facilitated the deal. "I am unhappy that some things will be destroyed and happy that this is a new turnover for our younger generation."

Fortescue has agreed to respect exclusion zones around important cultural sites which include engraved artwork comprising concentric circles and wavy lines, a style that has been dated between 30,000 and 38,000 years old. It might be the oldest art in the world .

Royalties from the joint venture will finance mango farms and education for Aboriginal children.

On a sour note, Eaton believes that had the Njamal not negotiated this deal, Fortescue would have gone ahead to mine on the land anyway.

In December 2012, in a controversial move, the NSW Aboriginal Land Council applied to explore for coal seam gas under 40% of the state. The council said that its move "was born out of frustration and an understanding that if Aboriginal people wait for government to invest properly in Aboriginal communities, they'd wait a long, long time."

The Gumatj people in north-east Arnhemland, Northern Territory, in May 2011 signed a deal with Rio Tinto. They formed a new corporation to deal with the monies in a new way, participating in modern Australian life on their own terms:

  • Investment. More than half of the incomings was invested in a managed "future fund".
  • Community employment teams.
  • Health clinic.
  • Cattle station: 100 square kilometres of fenced paddocks with Gumatj stockmen running 500 head of cattle, including an abattoir.
  • Timer mill: Operated by a local work team from related clans who cut wood for the mines.
  • Wood-working factory: Three local craftsmen shape raw timber into furniture.
  • Plant nursery: Nine Aboriginal women grow and tend plants for local, municipal and mine-site use.
  • Child care and primary school: housed in prefabricated buildings, the first school in the community.

43 Aboriginal people are working in Gumatj corporation-owned businesses, earning standard private sector wages. "People are working now, they're sweating, and that's OK," says local resident Erika Schebeck.

Former driller and corporate adviser Klaus Helms sums up the changes in the community: "What I see of our progress fills me with hope. But it's what I don't see that's more important. I don't see a line of women with broken limbs and black eyes waiting at the clinic. I don't see drunks shouting and fighting every night. I don't see bodies hanging from the trees by the side of the road."

Dependency was what they had been given for years but autonomy was what they wanted.

— The Weekend Australian

Community farms & gardens

By establishing a network of farms in their communities for local produce Aboriginal people can enjoy several benefits:

  • Sustainable business. The business can provide some sort of economy, especially the homeland communities, providing food for the local area and selling surplus regionally, for example to restaurants.
  • Identity. Aboriginal people can establish a local brand that boosts their self-esteem and people will be able to recognise.
  • Employment. A local business creates a number of new employment opportunities across communities. Working for their own people is much more attractive.
  • Apply traditional knowledge. Aboriginal people are able to apply their ancient knowledge of the land to tailor the venture to the local land and climate.

Gardens, including rooftop gardens in urban areas, are another form to grow native and medicinal plant species and bush food. Aboriginal start-up company Yerrabingin created Australia's first Aboriginal urban bush food production garden in 2019 on the rooftop of an office block in the middle of Sydney’s Eveleigh industrial park. The garden doubles as a destination for immersive tours, sustainability workshops, performances and traditional workshop practices.

Ancient native grains

Traditional knowledge about ancient seeds and grains can help explore new options for economic ventures.

Native grains include kangaroo grass, native millet, warrigal greens, samphires, pigweed (purslane), wattle seed and water ribbons.

When a baker received a sample of kangaroo grass seeds, a grain used by Aboriginal people to make flour, he made some experiments and found that it was "like putting rocket fuel in the car". It accelerated the baking process, broke down gluten and had a "distinct flavour".

An Adelaide-based distillery discovered wattle seed as a viable ingredient to produce uniquely Australian-flavoured whiskey.

A year-long study by the University of Sydney, in consultation with Aboriginal people, found ancient grains in Australia to be commercially viable. Researchers examined 15 native grain crops, found in grassland and open woodland ecosystems. After considering factors like nutrition, sustainable growing, harvesting, processing, pricing, sales and food production, they found native millet to have the most potential in north-west NSW, with its strong growth, ease of processing and the health benefits of its flour. Other species might be suitable for niche use or export.

Benefits of native grains include

  • Undemanding plants. Indigenous grains are drought resistant, can grow on degraded land, don't need fertiliser and only little or no water. There is also no need for any weedicide, pesticide or chemicals.
  • Integration with existing farming. Native grass production could be included in farm plans along with traditional crops, and could be used to fatten cattle.
  • Use of non-arable land. Producing ancient grains on land not suited for farming could give it a new lease and make it profitable.
  • A positive (and yummy) access to Aboriginal culture. Learning about Aboriginal history can be confrontational for most non-Aboriginal people. "But sharing food over a table together is a more positive way of doing it," believes Bruce Pascoe. "Since we've been involved in the food industry, we've found that people come to it in a guilt-free way."

However, challenges remain such as threshing. Some species don't run well through headers, sorters or threshing machines. Such technical challenges make products more expensive.

Other challenges include testing and certification to push foods to supermarket shelves and export markets, and securing funding and government support for research.

We spend so much time killing plants that want to grow and then spend and enormous amount of money trying to grow plants that don't want to grow in Australia — let's grow Australian plants.

— Bruce Pascoe

Aboriginal people from the Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay country in north-west NSW are known as the "grass people".

Boonwurrung and Yuin man, Bruce Pascoe, pioneers the use of native grains in Victoria with his business Black Duck Foods. Another company specialising in Australian bush foods is IndigiGrow.

There are more than 6,000 species of plants used throughout Aboriginal history.

Renewable energy

Aboriginal land often has long exposure to sunlight and wind. While most renewable energy projects are small and only serve the local communities, there is potential for large-scale projects that can sell energy to domestic and international markets.

The declining cost of energy generation and storage has made transmission over long distances increasingly economically viable.

Renewable energy projects are attractive to traditional custodians as they align with custodians' responsibilities of caring for country.

One such large-scale projects is the Asian Renewable Energy Hub, developed in partnership with the Nyangumarta people, traditional custodians of the East Pilbara in northern Western Australia, about 600 kms south of Broome. It's a project that could deliver up to 11 Gigawatts of wind and solar energy to Jakarta and Singapore on Nyangumarta land, and create about 3,000 jobs during its 10-year construction period, and 400 jobs during its more than 50-year operations and maintenance period.

To transport the energy the project uses a submarine cable and "clean" hydrogen products.


View article sources (19)

[1] [1a] ''Edible, medicinal or cultural': first Indigenous rooftop farm opens in Sydney', The Guardian 26/4/2019
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[7] ''The idea is coming of age': Indigenous Australians take carbon farming to Canada', The Guardian Australia 23/7/2017
[8] 'Caring for Country is key to address climate crisis', Koori Mail 23/2/2022 p.26
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[10] 'Hunter biobank in business', Koori Mail 524 p.7
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[12] 'Plan to explore for gas under 40% of state', SMH 8/12/2012
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[14] 'Bakers rise to use of native grains as kangaroo grass hops into recipes', SMH 7/10/2018
[15] 'Wattle seed whiskey made from ancient Australian grains and age-old craft distilling', ABC News 15/8/2019
[16] [16a] [16b] 'Indigenous grains grown in northern NSW deemed 'commercially viable'', ABC News 8/11/2020
[17] ''Time to embrace history of country': Bruce Pascoe and the first dancing grass harvest in 200 years', The Guardian 13/5/2020
[18] [18a] [18b] [18c] 'Back on country to build an industry for native grains and grasses', ABC News 27/6/2020
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Cite this page

Korff, J 2022, New economic opportunities for Aboriginal land, <>, retrieved 14 July 2024

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