Branch­ing out into farm­ing on an­ces­tors’ land

The Australian - - THE NATION - SUE NEALES RU­RAL RE­PORTER

‘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

STU­ART McEVOY

Aaron Mor­gan, Deb­bie Malseed and Bray­don Saun­ders at Kooree­lah sta­tion near Caster­ton in west­ern Vic­to­ria

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