Thursday, April 25, 2024

First Nations farmer demands that ag steps up

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Indigenous men and women make up only 2.5% of Australia’s farmers, and that’s something Worimi man Josh Gilbert is working hard to change.
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New Zealand farmers are not alone in facing the challenge of striving for value while mitigating their environmental footprint. Senior reporter Richard Rennie is in Australia to find out how our neighbours are approaching the issues of gene technology, carbon farming and sustainability.

As an Aboriginal farmer, Josh Gilbert is a rarity, walking between two quite different worlds calling on his sector to confront its difficult past, and hoping for reconciliation in the years to come. 

His family are fourth-generation graziers in the Gloucester region of New South Wales, but his people have lived in the district’s mountains and hills for over 40,000 years. 

As a Worimi man of First Nations descent who has chosen to farm on his native lands, Gilbert represents a minority of a minority. 

Despite native title comprising 56% of Australia’s pastoral land and First Nations people claiming freehold title to 17% of the country, native farmers comprise only 2.5% of the country’s farmers. 

It’s something Gilbert is working hard to change, while also raising awareness about climate change on the land, and the role of native land practices in helping to ease its impact. 

In the past decade he has shown an innate ability to reach across cultures, and along the value chain of Australian farming. 

It is an ability that has had him recognised by the Australian Geographic as the young conservationist of the year, be nominated as a Young Australian of the year finalist, and win praise for his efforts in gaining greater recognition for the native foods sector.

Pastoral Australia’s relationship with First Nations people has always been a difficult, painful one. 

Gilbert does not mince words describing the impact the country’s largest pastoral operator, Australian Agricultural Company, had through land seizure and community disruption, labelling it a form of planned extinction in its early days.

Then there is the Vestey Corporation, whose history of land tenure and treatment of First Nations people was memorably recorded in the Paul Kelly song From Little Things Big Things Grow. 

It documented the historic Wave Hill Walk-off of 1966, when Vincent Lingiari led his people off the land in protest at appalling work conditions.

“There is a real need there for more truth telling and acknowledging agriculture’s role in that history,” Gilbert says.

The 12,000 First Nations people engaged in farming in 1901 in Western Australia greatly outnumbered the estimated 6500 across all of Australia today, Gilbert points out.

With younger First Nations people forming the fastest growing demographic in Australia – and often living in areas with poor employment opportunities –  he sees agriculture as a pathway for many to improve their lives and communities on land they are often owners or dwellers upon.

At present Australia only has five First Nations agricultural graduates a year.

“At that rate it means it will take 1600 years to match the representation Native Americans get in the United States. There are about 8000 Native American farmers now, we would be lucky to have 100.”

He is optimistic, however, that more First Nations people will be drawn to the sector in coming years, in a way that is representative of Australia’s growing acknowledgment of its dark past. 

A common means to try to address past racial issues is for organisations to conduct reconciliation action plans. 

These formal approaches administered by third parties have participating organisations undertaking programmes to strategically take meaningful action to advance reconciliation.

Gilbert is heartened to see this at last being picked up by the primary sector, kicking off with the Grains Research Development Corporation taking on an action plan in only the past month.

“But this does still leave quite a few other industry groups to do one. We have the likes of Meat and Livestock Australia and Dairy Australia, for example. There have been 2000 plans done by companies, but agriculture is only just getting started.

“The best thing we can do as an industry is engage the plans and have events and really focus on diversity in the workforce.”
He looks to the US at efforts made there to repatriate and engage Native American farmers as offering a good template to follow in Australia. 

He puts the US about 40 years ahead of Australia with its native farming achievements but is optimistic it will not take 40 years for Australia to catch up.

“The government engagement is more now than even two years ago, and 10 years ago we would not have been having this conversation at all. It would have been far more divisive.”

The recent Indigenous Voice referendum did not go the way he would have liked, and he acknowledges his disappointment but accepts it is broadly reflective of Australian society, for now.

“And here we are today, needing to get rid of that image of agriculture being the old white guy on a horse in a wide-brim hat with his dog. 

“We need to be able to share an image of agriculture we can all be proud of as a nation. 

“That requires our own self-determination, an ability to be able to rock up to the table and get recognition, representation and relationships that matter.”

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