An Aboriginal community in Western Australia’s Kimberley region has said attempts to make its cattle station profitable and create jobs are being stymied by state government red tape.
The Mowanjum Aboriginal Corporation near Derby was recognised for excellence in the Premier’s Award two years ago for its innovative circle irrigation trial, but CEO Steve Austin said delays in approval for a second pivot have caused the community to lose valuable momentum.
“If you’re stuck on one [pivot], you’re not going to make any money,” he said.
“You need to advance it to probably two to three: two to break even, three when you really start to put some money in the bank.
“The biggest drawback is the government red tape. It just never ends. Just when you think you’ve got it all sweet, they come up with something else.”
The pivot trial on the 55,000-hectare cattle station is the flagship project of the State Government’s $40 million “Water for Food” project, which aims to drive regional growth by encouraging more investment in irrigation.
The Government said Aboriginal business partnerships “are considered essential to lifting food production, particularly in the north of the State”.
The centre pivot irrigator at Mowanjum currently waters 38 hectares of low-value grazing, producing green grass year-round.
Western Australia’s Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan has defended the timeliness of the approval process for Mowanjum, saying Western Australia does not want to repeat the mistakes made in eastern states, where overallocation has caused environmental problems and led to communities fighting over water.
“I think the very fact we are placing great emphasis on getting this right and not saying we are just going to get this out the door should give people some confidence,” she said.
“We are being careful in the way we go forward, but it is obvious from the number of approvals that have been given that we have not had our foot on the hose, that we are making sure that when we are making the decision it’s underpinned by good science.”
A second pivot was recently approved for Mowanjum after 18 months, but for Steve Austin, the process was costly and took too long.
“All the energy you put in the first time, you want to carry that forward. It leaves you in the middle of no-man’s land, you’ve got to regenerate yourself to get going again,” he said.
Mr Austin said work would start on a second pivot when financing was settled, but a third was likely a long way off.
Accusations fly at the cattle station
A new stumbling block has also just emerged.
Mowanjum has been accused of illegally clearing 80 hectares in preparation for the second pivot.
Mr Austin disputed this and said scrub was only thinned to make mustering safer and major trees were not touched.
The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation said it was unable to comment on an ongoing investigation, but Minister MacTiernan said she believed more Aboriginal stations with access to water would be able to move into irrigation.
“There is no doubt a lot more could be done on those Indigenous stations and we want to work with the communities to deliver that.
“We can see a very substantial increase in the take from the groundwater and also from some of the cross-country river flows.”