Savanna Explorer > Kimberley > Grazing > Station management

From Savanna Links, Issue 31, January – June, 2005. Savanna Links is written and produced by the Tropical Savannas CRC.

Strong station management benefits all

When Aboriginal people regain country through station purchases it can be a long and rugged road to building a successful business. Especially when those stations are severely run down. The Bunuba people of the Fitzroy Valley are achieving strong growth in their cattle business, and are looking after country and culture into the bargain. By Kathryn Thorburn.

Bunuba cattle yard
Bunuba people have turned Leopold and Fairfield Downs into an economically viable enterprise. Photo: Kathryn Thorburn

ON country to the north-west of Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley, the Bunuba people run two cattle stations with a combined size of 404,648 hectares. Leopold Downs was purchased on behalf of the Bunuba Aboriginal Corporation (BAC) by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 1991. In 1995 the adjoining station Fairfield Downs was also purchased.

In acquiring two large stations, BAC also acquired a significant debt. The ATSIC purchase meant only that BAC was provided with initial finance to be repaid to ATSIC instead of to a bank or loan institution. And neither station, at time of purchase, was in a good state: Leopold was in receivership and Fairfield had been destocked as a result of tuberculosis. Infrastructure on both was in a state of severe disrepair, and land condition was very poor.

It has been a long road for the two stations—but the debt to ATSIC has been repaid, and the company refinanced through a regular agricultural financier. They are now managed by the Bunuba Cattle Company (BCC), and supported by Business Coordinator Ned McCord, an experienced agribusiness professional who knows about running huge cattle stations and respecting the aspirations of Aboriginal people.

That the company now has a manageable debt, and has rebuilt its stock levels, makes it one of just a handful of northern Aboriginal-owned cattle companies in this situation.

“Up until this point in time, our priority has been to get the cattle company out of debt and into a position where it is a financially viable operation under its own steam,” said Joe Ross, the outgoing BCC Chairman. “And with the help of Ned, we’ve been able to achieve that.”

Managing conflicting aims

The trick for Indigenous companies like the BCC is to manage sometimes conflicting pressures: building a business enterprise, which is owned by the community, while also being seen to be contributing to that community’s wellbeing.

To this end, the governing body for Bunuba people, Bunuba Inc, is establishing a foundation which will be an independent legal entity to the cattle company. This foundation will manage distribution of the company’s net profits back to the community via specific projects. These are the profits surplus to re-investment needed to keep the station running profitably—those funds will still be administered by the Board with the guidance of the business coordinator.

By structuring their organisations in this way, Bunuba people decrease the likelihood of conflict over how surplus monies are distributed—an issue that often destabilises Indigenous community-owned businesses in remote Australia. As Joe points out, by holding and distributing the dividends made by the company, the foundation will play a critical role in reassuring the community that profits are going towards community development.

Stakeholders of the BCC: Bunuba people

Bunuba stockmen Dion Brooking and Lloyd Shaw. Photo: Kathryn Thorburn

The difference between the Bunuba Cattle Company and those owned by non-Indigenous pastoral companies, is that the BCC’s stakeholders are a language group: the Bunuba people. Bunuba people not only had a traditional association with the country of Leopold and Fairfield Downs—many also have an historical association. Many Bunuba people around their mid-40s and 50s grew up on the stations, and recall these days fondly as there were still many old people, culture was strong and alcohol simply not in the picture.

However, the 1966 Cattle Station Industry Equal Pay case started to have a major impact in the early 70s and eventually saw hundreds of people moved off stations in the Kimberley (and the Northern Territory). The Kimberley township of Fitzroy Crossing became akin to a refugee camp for Aboriginal people from stations throughout the Fitzroy River Valley.

Bunuba people were not the only language group shunted into Fitzroy; there were four other language groups who were forced to live together. Despite the potential for conflict, disputes across language groups in these early days of Fitzroy Crossing were uncommon, arguably because of the presence of very strong leaders.

That reputation of being a place where people get along continues to the present, despite a strong ‘home­lands’ move­ment that has seen people from all language groups returning to their own country.

The majority of Bunuba people still reside in Junjuwa community in Fitzroy Crossing. However, others live on Leopold Downs as well as on other smaller communities, some as far away as 200 km. Many of these communities are lacking in infrastructure—housing, reliable supplies of power and water. And there are pressing social issues, as in many remote Indigenous comm­unities in the Kimberley.

Benefiting Bunuba people

Bunuba station managers
Clockwise from front left: Danny Marr, observers Marty Stevens and Kathryn Thorburn, then June Oscar, Ned McCord, Joe Ross and Dillon Andrews. Photo: Bruce Bland

Leopold and Fairfield stations

The total area of Leopold and Fairfield stations combined is 404,648 hectares. The main weed problems are Parkinsonia and bellyache bush and a management program is in place. The stations’ major land management issue at present is soil erosion. Significant areas of country on Fairfield are black soil, fragile and susceptible to overgrazing and impacts from fire. Currently the stations carry around 10,000 head of mixed cattle, though the Department of Agriculture Western Australia estimates the stations could carry up to 20,000 breeders. The company currently turns off about 2300 head per year, mainly to live export. Ned McCord estimates there are around 3000 wild cattle running on undeveloped areas on perimeters of the stations.

According to June Oscar, the new BCC Chairperson, the way to manage the cattle properties for the benefit of Bunuba communities is by taking a holistic approach.

“Sure, we need the commercial side strong,” said June, “but for Bunuba people there is a whole lot more to these stations than just making a dollar. There’s a lot of culture out there for us, there are some really important sites and these need to be looked after in the proper way.

“I don’t see these cultural con­cerns as somehow separate from the cattle business,” added June. “For us, they are the part of the same vision, and that vision wants to ensure that the country is looked after, so that it can remain productive in every sense of the word for generations to come.”

Ned McCord is keen to get as many young Bunuba people as possible to come out to their stations.

“It is important for these stations to become a secure financial investment,” said Ned, “but as part of that process there are terrific opportunities for Bunuba people to spend time out on their own country; whether they are work­ing for the cattle comp­any, or taking the old people out bush to places of cultural significance.”

It’s an about-face for those on the BCC Board with memories of growing up on cattle stations. Back when they were children, the white manager called the shots, delivered rations, and set the local Aboriginal people to work. Nowadays, these same people are calling the shots, working with Ned to determine how they want things managed, prioritising investment and establishing rules for how things should be run.

In addition, the company is setting up a trainee ranger program with WA’s Department of Conservation and Land Management.

“This is an example of where we want things to head,” said June Oscar. “The ranger will work half time on the stations, and half time in a National Park—all of which is on Bunuba land. The position’s focus will be looking after country, and checking on impacts, cattle, tourists, weeds, you name it and managing these. But these impacts will be considered not just in ecological terms, but cultural as well,” added June.

The BCC is also hoping to get some scientific help identifying the environmental significance of various areas on the stations. “This information can then feed into our strategy for managing natural and cultural resources of our country,” said June.

Kathryn Thorburn is a undertaking a PhD as part of the ARC Linkage Project, “Indigenous Community Governance”, at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, the Australian National University. See link below.