Reconnecting with culture for future generations: The Banbai Experience at Wattleridge and Tarriwa Kurrukun Indigenous Protected Areas, NSW
Tanya Patterson and Janet Hunt
The Banbai nation lives around what is now known as Guyra, a small town on the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales. Our people have lived on this land for thousands of years. This was where the tribes from the western slopes and the eastern coastal regions would meet and exchange tools, ochres, fibres and shells. Our people lived well on yams, and other root plants, and native fruits as well as on fish, ducks, turtles, yabbies, kangaroo, possums and other animals. We even ground our own flour from the native Goolah grass. But when the Unda (white men) came we were forced off our land. From the late nineteenth century our people were made to live under the Aboriginal Protection Board and later the Aborigines Welfare Board in reserves on the edge of the town; they tried to assimilate us: we were not allowed to use our language, so our grandparents were the last generation to speak it; and children were taken away as part of the Stolen Generation. So we lost a lot of our culture and our knowledge. Some of our people worked in the pastoral industry for a time, but as the industry changed gradually they lost that work and many of our parents and our generation faced long term unemployment.
Our early childhood family memories were of our mother and pop travelling throughout the northern tablelands region attending meetings, and going all over – to the Tent Embassy in Canberra and to Sydney, walking across the bridge in protest– fighting for our rights as people and our rights to our land.
In 1983 the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act was passed, and that enabled us to start making land claims on Crown reserves. The Guyra Local Aboriginal Land Council was set up and we began submitting claims. It was a slow process, and our claims went nowhere for a long time. By now, members of the Banbai nation were really feeling dispossessed of land, having no spiritual, mental or physical connection to our country, and we were worried about the future for our children. So from 1995 onwards Banbai members continued to seek out various organisations and government bodies to purchase some land on our behalf ¬- some land we could call our own, so we could re-establish our connection to country. Time after time knockbacks began to dishearten Banbai people.
Then in 1996 the then Minister of Crown Lands visited our Land Council and he asked what he could do to help. Quick as a flash we said ‘help progress our land claims’. Within a year those claims were granted. One of them is for the land which much later became our second IPA, Tarriwa Kurrukun.
With the land claims win in our pocket and a new gusto of confidence we didn’t stop there! We still wanted more land for Banbai people and we also wanted to create jobs, as in the mid-1990s only tow or three Banbai people had paid employment and Guyra was in decline. In 1995 and 1996 we managed to get 20 people trained over six months in cultural heritage site work through a government employment training program. During the training courses we talked to local landholders about the new Native Title legislation and land rights, and we documented a lot of cultural sites around the area. It was during the first of these courses that one of the landholders where we had been surveying, approached us and invited us to buy his property, Wattleridge. It’s a very picturesque 650 hectares on the eastern fall of the New England Tablelands, about 40 kilometres north east of Guyra. Some 80 per cent of it is natural bushland, with many rare and endangered species including the Black Grevillea and the Powerful Owl. It also has some important cultural sites which we now control in a restricted zone.
We tried to raise funds to buy Wattleridge through ATSIC, and we spent several years travelling to Sydney and Brisbane and lobbying hard, but although ATSIC supported us, we couldn’t get the funds. Then we heard about the new Indigenous Land Corporation and approached them. Eventually, in November 1998, they bought Wattleridge on behalf of our Banbai traditional owners. So then we had this land with its cultural and environmental significance and now we had to work out what we would do with it. We were searching through many avenues to find what best suited us and our needs as well as what would help us look after the land.
In 1999 we heard about the Indigenous Protected Areas that the then Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) offered. At first we were dubious as we didn’t know what an Indigenous Protected Area meant, and what effects it would have on us, our future generations and the land. So we conducted a survey of our members asking them about their concerns. They wanted to know if they could still camp on the land and visit the property at any time, whether could they still enjoy the land we had so recently acquired and re-connected with, and how decisions we might make today would affect future generations. Then a crowded busload of 23 of us all went on a bus trip – three days each way – to visit the Nepabunna Aboriginal community in South Australia (the first group to declare an IPA in Australia). That visit abated some of our concerns, and after much deliberation, and many, many meetings, late nights and cups of tea, the decision to declare Wattleridge an IPA was unanimous. The declaration took place on 30 June 2001 and this was the first IPA in NSW. By then, we had set up Banbai Land Enterprises and the ILC had transferred ownership of Wattleridge to us. We also had to set up Banbai Business Enterprises Incorporated to oversee the day to day management of the property. We control the Boards of both organisations, and younger members of Banbai are also Board members. Like our old people, our vision has always been ‘future generations’ and we continue to plan for them.
The idea of turning an area of the Guyra Local Aboriginal Land Council land, then known as ‘Tenterden’ came about later, when Banbai members, who were also Guyra LALC members, were hearing reports at Land Council meetings about notices from the local weeds authority about weeds there. The LALC didn’t have any money in their budget to manage the land or to pay the fines they were getting because of the weeds. That land had sat idle for 14 years with no management. Because Banbai are a conservation group, Border Rivers Gwydir Catchment Management Authority(BRG CMA)said they had some money left they’d like to spend with us and they gave us a small grant to get some weed work done at ‘Tenterden’. After that, they asked us where we saw things going and we said ‘we’d like to turn this land into an IPA’. So we met with the Land Council to get an MOU between them and our Banbai organisation, that we would manage the property. Then we started the process to get it declared an IPA. BRG CMA gave us money to do a cultural site survey and a flora and fauna survey that we needed to get the IPA process going. And DEWHA also gave us money and we began the consultation process, which took two years. On 9 June 2009 we declared Tarriwa Kurrukun an IPA. It is 40 kilometres west of Guyra and is larger than Wattleridge – 930 hectares of wetlands and stringy bark forest, and it is home to lot of different plants, birds and animals, including endangered ones like the glossy black and red-tailed black cockatoos, and the spotted-tailed quoll. There is also evidence of cultural use like scarred trees and stone tool making on the land. We called it Tarriwa Kurrukun because that means ‘strong one’ in the Banbai language.
It’s been a big thing for us to get land back and to be able to manage TK. When we grew up, and when our parents and our children grew up, Banbai people didn’t have any land, we were dispossessed, but now our children and grandchildren and future generations will have land and have that connection back to the land. It changes how we feel and how we think. Health and well being has improved, simply because we are back out on country. We are working out there and getting fitter and taking pride in the work, so self esteem is higher. The rangers come home really tired sometimes and it’s good for them because they’re mostly young people and it’s not good for them to just sit around at home. They’re more conscious of looking after their health now too, to be able to do the work.
The younger ones are really taking a pride in their work and we have given them portfolios, like culture, water, occupational health and safety, feral animal control and so on. They do all the contacts, phone calls, all the arrangements in those areas – so we are stretching them, but they are growing into it and their confidence is growing. They sometimes get frustrated initially but when they see things come together or completed they realise it wasn’t so difficult.
We are so happy to be able to give our people employment; so they have a job and can look after their families. The kids have new clothes, they can afford a car and pay their rent; it’s such a pride and a real joy to see this younger generation – because for our parents and my generation it was so hard to get a job; we were always on the dole, but watching the turnaround in just one generation it’s exciting. The younger generation also want to see their children have jobs in the future, so they are coming up with all sorts of ideas and we are encouraging them to take a lot more responsibility for the organisation, so it doesn’t all fall on a few of us older ones and we are preparing them to take over in the future.
Our original staff of three in 2001 has grown to 18 in 2011 (15 full time and 3 part-time) – all Banbai people, making our organisation completely Banbai owned and operated. Our current team ranges from 50 to 19 years old, with 12 of them under 25 years old. Over the 10 years we’ve been operating we’ve been able to employ a total of 42 Banbai people and some of them have gone on to other jobs or further study. Our staff does everything from administration to the ranger work. Our duties include book keeping, staff management, administration, budgeting, report writing, and of course all the environmental and cultural management. We do conservation work, pest management, cultural site protection, fencing, walking track maintenance, propagation of native plants, fire management and planning, revegetation, water quality monitoring, heavy machinery works, and rare and endangered species management.
Our people have had a lot of training too. One of the things our people love is all the skills they are learning and the qualifications they are gaining. Even those who have worked elsewhere say that they’ve never had the opportunity for so much training and the confidence it brings. All the rangers have completed their Certificate III in Conservation and Land Management-Indigenous, and are now working towards their Certificate IV. Banbai members have also had training in areas such as occupational health and safety, chainsaw operations, chemicals handling, construction work, driving, safe firearms handling, and operation of machinery like bobcats or excavators, as well as senior first aid, basic information technology, and conflict resolution. With all these people conflicts can happen and we need to know how to resolve them! The office staff have also had a lot of training in IT and financial management, payroll, and a wide range of administrative skills.
Most importantly, the land is improving, weeds and feral animals are being reduced, we can see the land changing for the better and that has an impact on the people too because if the land is healthy we are healthy. We are holistic managers, we watch the seasons, the fire, the water, the animals, the plants, the land itself and we adjust things as we notice changes. We’ve been removing weeds like Mexican alder, blackberries, broom, paspalum, and nodding thistle and replanting areas with plants endemic to this locality that we propagate in our own nursery at Wattleridge. It’s going to take a long time, but just the rangers seeing that a blackberry bush isn’t growing there any more that’s good – they take a pride. We’re reducing the number of feral animals, like pigs, rabbits, foxes, and deer. More native animals are coming back too.
We have a problem in the rivers with a fish called Eastern Gambusia. It’s threatening local fish species and native frogs and breeds rapidly. No-one knows how to eradicate them so we are testing out some strategies. One of our female rangers found out about the bark of a tree, Red Ash, that stuns the fish when you put it in the water – but it’s feral to this area so we are trying with the bark of one of our native trees – Indigo Australis -instead. The idea is that you put the bark in the water and it would stun all the fish and they come up to the surface, but you could just pull out the Gambusia and leave the native fish in the water, and they would soon recover as they are only stunned temporarily. We are trialling how much bark you need to use to stun the fish. The only other way is to just pull the Gambusia out and stomp on them. That’s the humane way. Someone from the University has given us some advice in this trialling and they are keen to see our results.
Introduced trout is another issue, especially at Tarriwa Kurrukun – there was a known fishing spot there and people were breaking down our fence to get in to the fishing spot that they’d been getting access to for the last 14 years. Another issue out there is that one of the neighbours had dug a huge hole on our land and dumped a whole lot of chemical drums in it and then covered it over – we can’t see what the chemicals were as all the labels have rotted away, but we have to get the soil tested for the chemical residue from what might have been dumped there.
We’ve done a lot of cultural surveying at both Wattleridge and Tarriwa Kurrukun, and we’ve had money from the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (SEWPAC) to do that. They didn’t necessarily want to know all the details; they just wanted to know we’d done it. Some of the knowledge is restricted so we didn’t want to document it for everyone. We know now and we’ll hold that information for our people. SEWPAC are also giving us money to hold a culture week. A couple of the younger ones organised the first culture week and we’re having another one this year that they’ll organise again. A lot of our culture has gone, as our grandparents and parents weren’t allowed to practice it, but our generation, we’re trying to recover it, to research it, like the fire management. We want to ask some of the elders from around the region how they managed fire.
We’ve been doing some fire hazard reduction burning and we’ve worked closely with the Rural Fire Service doing this. But we want to do traditional Indigenous mosaic burning and we are tying to get the Rural Fire Service to understand that approach. We’re hoping to go to Queensland, to Cape York, to learn more from an Aboriginal group there. They already took NSW RFS members up there and showed them. We want to know what the men and women do before and after the burning and so on, just getting that cultural experience. We are making our own culture really. Hopefully they’ll also be able to come down here and help us put a burn through.
Of course this hasn’t all been easy. It’s been a long struggle, and we are just so grateful for what our parents did, fighting for land rights and helping lay the groundwork for what we’ve been able to achieve. It’s sad that our Mum didn’t live long enough to see us get the land back and our Pop didn’t see how our organisation has grown to what it is today.
One of the difficulties has been that we don’t have all weather road access to either of the properties, so that means there are times when we can’t get out there to work, and it also means with Wattleridge that we can’t really promote tourism there much at this stage in case the weather means that access is impossible. At Tarriwa Kurrukun it’s granite country, and the granite soil doesn’t hold too well. So apart from the soft surface of the road, if there is a big windstorm (and these happen nearly every year in August) it can twist the tops of trees off and bring down huge trees, especially old gum trees. It took us nearly a full month to cut the track clear again when that wind came through in 2010. There’s some real occupational health and safety issues too with such conditions. The workers have to wear hard hats.
We have to be very careful about occupational health and safety, with weed spraying for example. The workers must wear thick gloves and face masks, as we don’t want thirty years later their family losing them because of the work they’ve done. We’re also getting 4WD training for all of them because some of the country has really steep hills. But one of the difficulties here is it’s such a small community that it’s really hard to get trainers, we have to bring people in from elsewhere all the time. We’ve been lucky with TAFE NSW who send the teacher to us and we have the Conservation and Land Management training out on our country at the IPAs.
When funding was more short term and uncertain, staff change was more frequent than it is now, but even minor changes now can create some problems for training. A lot of the current staff are trained but any new ones we recruit aren’t, so we don’t have the numbers to support another full training course for them, but we need them trained. They have to do training with non-indigenous people to make up the numbers. Guyra Adult Learning Centre helps us link up with other people, for example who might want to learn chainsaw operation. But there’s still a problem when all our rangers get Cert IV CALM-Indigenous, and new people join us we’re not sure what we’ll do to get them trained and qualified from lower levels up.
In earlier years we developed a good relationship with the local schools. In 2009-2010 Guyra Central School allowed two of the Banbai students to spend a day or two each week with us doing the CALM Cert III course, as an incentive to stay at school and complete their Year 10 and Year 12 studies. The older student has now got a full time job with us as a ranger and is doing well. The other student completed his Year 10. Unfortunately, the school principal changed, and all that collaboration has ended. It’s really frustrating as we worked so hard with the previous principal to get Aboriginal Studies in the curriculum and to have this good working relationship and now it’s just gone.
Being a female manager hasn’t been easy. Often the people I had to deal with didn’t really take me seriously so it was very stressful at times. My Mum was a strong woman so I assumed that was natural, but when I came into this role I found that men, often white men, in equivalent positions to mine in other organisations, didn’t see me as an equal and didn’t think I could cut it. It was also difficult being the youngest sister and being the boss of my older brothers and sisters. They thought I was being disrespectful when I would say ‘if you’re not doing your job, you’re not getting paid!’
One particularly hard time was when the CDEP ended. That was in the middle of 2009 and we had almost 30 staff then, many of whom had been working on CDEP with ‘top up’. When CDEP ended we had to lay off nine people and that was really hard, very emotional, as it’s our own family and we had to tell them we couldn’t employ them any more. It was such a heartbreak to have to let people go. It was also worrying as this situation could have stirred up community factionalism again, and that had been slowly breaking down. Since then we’ve tried to find some other funding to get at least some of those people back working, even if only part-time. Our funding now all comes from the IPA program and Working on Country but it’s only till 2013 and then we have to hope it continues. We want to build up our own earned income but that can only happen slowly at the moment.
When we first began it was hard to get recognition in our own community, who associated us with all the usual stereotypes of Aboriginal people. It’s taken us years to change those perspectives, to show that we don’t all want to be on welfare and that we work hard. We are finally getting that recognition and when I tell people now that I work at Banbai they’ll say ‘you people are doing such a great job’. I think the majority of people now realise our achievements. Until recently, they didn’t realise that this little town was the first to get an Indigenous Protected Area in New South Wales. In 2010 I was asked to speak at a breakfast organised by our credit union for all their business customers, and people were just amazed that us Aboriginal people had done that. The credit union staff said they had seen us put millions of dollars into their account, but they didn’t know what we did. Local businesses have also supported us when we put a football team into the knockout competition in Armidale a couple of years ago, and that would never have happened before. So it’s definitely changed our relationships with people in Guyra. And we spend a lot of money in town too – we spend our wages in local shops, and we buy what we can locally for our work.
Our success is first and foremost because of our Aboriginal community; they wanted us to succeed and with them backing us it’s been encouraging. If you haven’t got your community behind you, if the community can’t agree, it won’t work. Our committee is so strong about us succeeding, that they push us, but it’s in a good way. We’ve always lived under the shadow of the major towns around us – Glen Innes, where the Aboriginal community had the most land in the state, and Armidale, which is a city. There was a lot of factionalism and friction in our community, yet we were all related. In the mid-1990s, with support from NSW ALC, to try to deal with this, we brought together the families and organisations in the town for mediation. The result of that was we all signed off on an MOU to work together and promote the best interests of the Aboriginal people of Guyra. We closed ourselves off so that we could build up our people. It’s a small community, we’re Banbai, and there aren’t many others from outside nations here, and we’re all related anyway. Our strategy has paid off because now other communities are wanting our people to come and help them.
Our success also comes because we were taught by our Mum and stepdad how to fight for our rights. We were dragged around to what we thought were boring meetings as children but that was teaching us black politics and that we do have to fight for our rights and opportunities. Our Mum raised us to be strong and almost all of us work – and she taught us that we have to plan for the next generation. So we are doing a lot of succession planning – I could walk away tomorrow knowing that the business wouldn’t fall down, and the younger ones are thinking about the future for their kids. We’ve run this business now for 11 years, and not many Aboriginal organisations, other than Land Councils, can say they’ve done that.
Obviously we couldn’t have done all this without getting our land back and having funds through the IPA program initially, and until 2009, through CDEP. Now we have funding through the Working on Country Program. The IPA program is really good. We’ve established a track record with them, and now they tell us how much money we’ll have for the next year or two and ask us how we’d like to spend it. Working on Country has been good too. These programs give us four or five year funding so we can give our staff some security and we can build up our capacity.
The fact that we’ve invested a great deal in slowly building up our peoples’ skills and knowledge across all aspects of running the organisation has also contributed to our success. We’ve had to build up our own systems, such as our financial systems, to match our growth as an organisation. We work hard to maintain good relationships and keep our good reputation with our main funding partners, and other partner organisations, like the Catchment Management Authorities who work with us, especially the BRG CMA which is very supportive.
We’ve had some quiet help from one local non-Indigenous family – their son is the archaeologist, who helped at the beginning, especially with the cultural work, and he was coordinator for just one year; his parents are on our board and they support and advise us if we need it, such as with good bookkeeping, or legal or political advice. But we always have the final say.
For the future, we want to be providing more employment, and stability of that employment, for Aboriginal people.
At Wattleridge we are developing a native plant nursery, and are hoping to have a seed bank and to propagate native plant species for sale; for example, when they do the vegetation works along roadsides, they use native plants, but not plants endemic to this area. We’d like to be able to provide local native plants for that sort of use.
We really want to build up the tourism at Wattleridge. We have some cabins and a couple of old houses that were on the property that we are renovating, but we’d love to have a proper conference centre out there. So many people want to go out there and we don’t really have the facilities to cater for them yet. We get by, but if we could get more people out there as eco-tourists, on our terms, that would be a good source of income.
With Tarriwa Kurrukun we are just setting up some basic infrastructure out there – we have a toilet there now and a couple of shipping containers, one to turn into a kitchen area for the rangers. BRG has given us some funds to set up a feral animal program, and set up a propagation area, also a workshed. We aren’t sure if we’ll go for cabins and things like that but BRG is envisaging school groups going out there for tours; they are so supportive of us. We get first dibs of their budget. When they do their 10-year plan they come to us to see what they can do for us, because Tarriwa Kurrukun is the first IPA in their catchment and they are really promoting us. Wattleridge is in Northern Rivers CMA but we haven’t had the same level of support from them.
We’re also wanting to explore the development of small contracting businesses for individuals who are currently working with us, such as in feral animal or weed control, so that they can work partly on other public or private land and partly with us in those areas; we can also explore bush tucker and bush medicines, as well as carbon trading or biobanking. If we can build up the tourism and take advantage of some of these other opportunities we hope to build up our own income and be independent one day.
Tanya Patterson is a Banbai woman from a large family. She has seven siblings, 27 nieces and nephews and 26 great nieces and nephews. She has been the Manager of Banbai Business Enterprises since 2003. She has qualifications in Business Administration and Training. She has always been involved in black politics and working with Aboriginal organisations. She worked for the Guyra Local Aboriginal Land Council as Housing Officer in the 1990s, initially voluntarily then in a paid job. Her first ever job was as a car detailer in Armidale for the local land council that owned a wrecking yard.
Janet Hunt is a Fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University, Canberra. She is conducting research about the socio-economic benefits of Aboriginal people’s engagement in land and sea management in New South Wales, with a grant from the Office of Environment and Heritage, Department of the Premier, New South Wales. She was previously the Senior Research Manager of the Indigenous Community Governance Project. She has a background in international development.