Branching out into farming on ancestors’ land
‘Income from farming and equity in land means we can dream and plan 20 to 30 years ahead’
Aaron Morgan never envisaged part-owning a cattle farm in the majestic river red gum country where he and his family have always lived.
As a proud Gunditjmara man from the Bochara (Glenelg River) region of far southwest Victoria, the fertile river flats and grassy hills walked by his ancestors for centuries have — for the past 180 years — been owned by wealthy white pastoralists and their descendants, effectively extinguishing indigenous native title.
Instead of land ownership, Mr Morgan, 21, and his Gunditjmara relatives have been largely con- stricted to living in small towns, many dependent on government welfare.
But this week is a new beginning for Mr Morgan and Heywood’s Gunditjmara community, where its Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation is based.
A 1044ha freehold farm on the banks of the Bochara north of Casterton has been passed to Winda-Mara after being acquired at auction years ago by the national Indigenous Land Corporation.
Over the past four years, Mr Morgan, Debbie Malseed and Braydon Saunders, and other occasional Winda-Mara helpers, have worked to rejuvenate rundown Kooreelah farm.
They have scrubbed blackberries and weeds, replaced broken fences, sown new pastures, and built dams and cattleyards, all in readiness for a day when the farm might become their own.
This year the ILC — established in 1995 after the Mabo decision to help dispossessed traditional indigenous owners gain access to freehold land outside the native title system — decided the Winda-Mara group had proven their ability to own and manage Kooreelah as a profitable working cattle and forestry farm.
“It’s a great feeling; I never imagined when I grew up with kids from farming families that we might be able to own one too,” Mr Morgan said yesterday, pointing out ochre pits, scar trees and a women’s birthing tree among the farm’s mighty river red gums.
“It’s been hard work but I’ve learnt farming and land management skills like handling cattle, sowing pastures and putting in fencing that I’ve never done before; now it feels like we are doing it for ourselves.”
Winda-Mara chief executive Michael Bell is certain possession of the cattle farm will bestow a very different, more economically independent, future on young locals such as Mr Morgan to that of their parents and grandparents.
“You’re looking at the first generation of Gunditjmara landown- ers here; these guys all have families and this land will be passed down just as white farming families have been doing for years,” Mr Bell said.
“It’s about retaining connection to country and giving traditional landowners access to their land when they have been dispossessed, but it’s also more than that; income from farming and equity in land means we can dream and plan 20 to 30 years ahead without always being reliant on government funding and the three-year political cycle.”
ILC deputy chief executive Tricia Button said the handover of Kooreelah to the indigenous group that had demonstrated it could manage the farm well and profitably, was part of a changed policy direction for the 22-yearold national organisation.
MICHAEL BELL WINDA-MARA CEO
Aaron Morgan, Debbie Malseed and Braydon Saunders at Kooreelah station near Casterton in western Victoria