Supporting Indigenous communities in the NT to create commercial and sustainable forestry on their land

Commercial and sustainable forestry for Indigenous communities in the NT
Workers at the Gumatj Aboriginal Corporation saw mill

A new research project will investigate the potential for commercial Indigenous forestry in the Northern Territory’s East Arnhem Land, and will support the traditional owners to facilitate a sustainable forest-based livelihood.

This project will provide the insights necessary to underpin the long-term commercial viability of forestry in the area and support Indigenous communities to use their land for employment and economic benefit, alongside cultural purposes.

The research is being delivered by the University of the Sunshine Coast, with a number of partner entities led by Developing East Arnhem Limited (DEAL), an independent not-for-profit company that aims to drive economic development in East Arnhem, promoting the resilience of the region and opportunity for its people.

“We know there is a strong interest amongst East Arnhem communities in Indigenous-led forest and timber product enterprises,” said Jordy Bowman, CEO at DEAL.

“The region contains large areas of Indigenous-owned native forests with commercial potential, which can be capitalised on to help develop a sustainable post-mining future for the region and its people.”

Current data suggests local forests have commercial value, however this is yet to be fully validated.

A lack of proven data limits the ability to accurately forecast the most appropriate and profitable product types, harvestable quantities and values, and broader market and supply chain opportunities.

Indigenous communities, while indicating an interest in sustainable and commercial forestry, have not had access to enough information to support progressing business development in this area. 

“The project will support traditional owners to recognise the commercial assets they have on their land. It will provide an evidence base that enables them to make informed decisions,” Ms Bowman said.

Balupalu Yunupingu, Gumatj elder and director of Gumatj Corporation, said the project is about bringing together old and new ways.

“It’s about developing partnerships for our future, working together and learning from the past, and creating sustainable jobs for our young people,” Bulapalu said of the project, when speaking at the Economic Development Forum at the 2019 Garma Festival.

In support of traditional owners and sustainable development, DEAL will work with researchers from the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC), the Gumatj Corporation, the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), Aboriginal land management organisations and a range of Northern Territory government bodies and other Aboriginal workforce development organisations in the region.

What are some of the major parts of the project?

The project will run for three years and will include several components, including:

  • Mapping and reporting of the forests of East Arnhem and their commercial potential, including forestry inventory assessment and the development of forest assessment tools that can be utilised by local communities to develop and maintain inventories, and collect meaningful data to help them understand their resource.
  • A harvesting demonstration and training site, and assessment of how different regimes would meet forest certification standards.
  • A marketing pilot to identify, manufacture and market-test timber products made from logs sourced from East Arnhem native Indigenous-owned forests. This will provide a good indication of how much the market is willing to pay for the various products.
  • Engagement with traditional owners and communities to build a deeper understanding of their interest in forestry opportunities across East Arnhem.
  • Training of communities in technical forestry operations on the job and the manufacture of forest products, and linking them with prospective markets, buyers, partners and investors.

Who is backing the project?

The project is funded by DEAL, Gumatj Corporation, NIAA, and the NT Government, with matched funding from the Australian Government, as part of its voluntary matching agreement with Forest and Wood Products Australia (FWPA), which is managing the project.

In addition, the University of the Sunshine Coast is making a significant investment in the project.

Mark Annandale, Research Manager at the University of the Sunshine Coast, said the institution has long been committed to demonstrating its support for creating sustainable livelihoods for Indigenous people.

“As the forests of northern Australia come under increasing pressure from commercial entities, we are proud to be involved with an initiative that supports their development, under the guidance of their traditional owners,” Mr Annandale said.

Dr Chris Lafferty, Research and Development Manager at FWPA, who is managing the project, said it provides a great example of how voluntary matching supports projects that might not otherwise have been able to progress. 

“The voluntary matching agreement allows for the support of research projects in smaller markets, that is not necessarily driven by the promise of big returns or wider industry inclusion,” Dr Lafferty explained.

“But by supporting emerging markets through R&D we can help place them in a strong position to thrive over time and grow into much more significant sections of the industry.”