Practical Principles – by Kim Courtenay
Practical principals for the ‘enrichment planting’ of indigenous plant species in natural ecosystems and the development of community food gardens
Some history and practicalities related to Kimberley TAFE training initiatives promoting the development of community food gardens and ‘enrichment planting’ of indigenous plant species in natural ecosystems.
Summary: In recent years there has been increasing recognition within governments and the broader community of a need to establish sustainable enterprises on remote Aboriginal Communities, to address health and nutrition issues of the people living there and to rebuild their connections with traditional culture.
The establishment of community fruit and vegetable gardens and the cultivation of traditionally important native plants through practical training programs have been identified as potentially effective strategies in addressing these issues.
Introduction: While traditional Aboriginal people across Australia had an intimate connection with native plants, many had their first experience of plant cultivation i.e. tilling the soil, plant propagation and basic irrigation on the early cattle stations and missions.
Food gardens were a life giving resource in the early days of settlement and in the Kimberley many Aboriginal people became enthusiastic gardeners under the direction and encouragement of missionaries and pastoralists.
By the early 1900s, in the thriving, multi-cultural community of Broome exotic gardens producing, fruit, vegetables, tobacco, herbs and spices were being grown and tended by Asian pearlers.
Local historians and botanists believe Macassan traders, who began visiting northern Australia from around 1700, were the first to cultivate plants on the Australian continent when they planted tamarinds at seasonally visited camp sites along the coast.
However a recent theory that generates great fascination is that eons earlier the first plants introduced to Australia by humans were in fact boab trees brought to the Kimberley around 50,000 years ago by the people represented in the mysterious African-like figures of the Bradshaw paintings.
Aboriginal Communities and the Outstation Movement:
The Aboriginal outstation movement began in the mid 1980s and has been a government funded program to support Aboriginal people wishing to return to their ancestral lands. Successful applicants have been granted legal access to their traditional country and given financial support to establish building infrastructure and essential services such as water, power and sewerage. Several have been further supported to develop enterprises related to tourism, aquaculture, horticulture and cattle farming. According to information published by the WA Department of Indigenous Affairs in 2003 over 200 Aboriginal Communities and outstation Communities were listed across the Kimberley region.
The Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) system has provided ongoing funding for wages and materials for people living and working on these communities. Although there have been some notable successes in relation to the establishment of enterprises on Aboriginal Communities and outstation communities,
recent changes in the CDEP system are in response to an identified need for more training and support if more communities are to become self sustaining.
Technology and Horticultural Skills:
The development of efficient and reliable automatic irrigation systems and advances in agronomy are creating many exciting new opportunities in the modern horticultural industry. The technology is now available to make the deserts bloom, to provide measured doses of water capable of sustaining a myriad assortment of plants in numerous situations. Results can be spectacular but they rely on a calculated, thorough and meticulous approach when designing, installing and maintaining irrigation systems. The same applies in pest and disease management and weed control.
In delivering practical training a fundamental philosophy is “learn how to harness water and set up efficient irrigation systems and a giant door opens to growing plants, even in the most harsh and arid climates.”
Communities seriously considering commercial horticulture as an economic opportunity require a high standard of training and ongoing support in the development of enterprises. A history of mixed success of horticultural training on Aboriginal communities suggests there is a need to develop specific training models and techniques that take full advantage of the latest developments in horticulture and cater for the special needs of communities. (See When Droughts Break).
Nutrition and Well Being:
With diet-related diabetes a major problem on remote communities, the development of community gardens and bush tucker plantations has the potential to provide significant health benefits. Gardening is a healthy interest and pastime for individuals and provides social and economic benefits for the whole community. Arguably the development and maintenance of food gardens on remote communities should be regarded as an essential service alongside the provision of water, power and sewerage. (See Bush Potato Potential).
Successful TAFE training initiatives with Aboriginal groups in Broome and on communities have relied on close associations with community leaders, Traditional Owners and Elders. (See Hot on the Trail) Mutual trust and respect between trainers and students has relied on open communication and a willingness by trainers to acknowledge and promote traditional culture. (See Minyirr Magic)
Similarly a spirit of cooperation between government agencies and industry is critical in the development of Aboriginal enterprises. With many examples of economic opportunities related to the cultivation of Australian native plants being lost overseas (macadamia nuts, Western Australian wildflowers) there is a need and a growing preparedness for institutions and organizations associated with the bush tucker industry to work together. (See Bidyadanga Bonus) Initiatives related to the development of the terminalia ferdinandiana (Kakadu plum or gubinge) industry by Charles Darwin University in recent years have promoted a philosophy aiming to support local enterprises and maximize opportunities for Aboriginal people. (See Sleeping Giants) Several years ago it was reported that tissue culture material of terminalia ferdinandiana had been sent to Brazil with the aim of establishing commercial plantations there. There is a need and an opportunity for local people to take a leading role now in setting up cultivation models and land management strategies.
Conservation, Land Management, Sustainability and NOTPA:
Over the last 10 – 12 years a proposal to establish a broad acre cotton industry in the Kimberley has met with widespread opposition from Traditional Owners and conservationists. Concerns were expressed regarding the water requirements and chemical use associated with cotton cultivation and in particular a proposal to dam the Fitzroy River.
In response to these community concerns the WA Department of Agriculture is undertaking a special project titled New Opportunities for Tropical and Pastoral Agriculture (NOTPA). The mission of NOTPA is to explore and promote new opportunities in agriculture and horticulture with an emphasis on environmental sustainability and the engagement of Aboriginal communities and organizations.
NOTPA has provided financial support for a Community Gardens project including a joint venture between Kimberley TAFE and WA Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) formerly CALM to establish an “enrichment cultivation” trial of terminalia ferdinandiana at the Broome 12 Mile area later this year.
Burgeoning Bush Tucker and the Untapped North:
Terminalia ferdinandiana is one of several indigenous plant species across Australia currently showing great commercial potential.
Rich in antioxidants and containing the highest levels of vitamin C of any known fruit in the world it is being sought after by both the pharmaceutical and health food industries. With large areas of Australia currently affected by drought and serious concerns about climate change, many believe the good soils, warm climate and large amounts of underground water across the North present a sleeping agricultural giant. And there is a growing opinion that as this giant awakens if the “clever country” is to live up to its name, cultivated native plants will be recognised more and more for their economic potential, environmental sustainability and nutritional value.