Fire management and the Jawun Cycle – how Kimberley Land Council is creating sustainable economies on country
The Kimberley Land Council (KLC) seeks to support its members and Aboriginal communities throughout the Kimberley with access to opportunities. KLC leads an ambitious empowerment agenda drive to create self-sustainability and enable self-determination, and pursues opportunities with vigour both nationally and internationally to overcome barriers and challenges in the region including lack of industry opportunities and competition for resources.
As an organisation that has “emerged from land rights protests to enterprise creation”, innovation is key for KLC. Despite winning a long and costly struggle for native title determination, KLC, like many “prescribed body corporates” (PBCs), struggles to find the revenue and resources necessary to support itself and its constituent communities. Native title is not fungible, which means raising capital is hard, and it is very common for PBCs to rely solely on government funding.
KLC has been a partner of Jawun since 2012, and approximately 100 skilled corporate and government employees have supported the organisation with its ranger network, cultural enterprise hub, leadership and education initiatives, and other strategic pieces of organisational development. Guided by the leadership and vision of KLC management, Jawun secondees have often worked in sequence finding innovative ways to ensure the organisation’s Indigenous-led empowerment initiatives find the right policy or market context to be viable.
Across all their enterprises, KLC recognises the need to find the right balance between using land as equity and developing long-term sustainable businesses. KLC is currently pursuing a number of creative, revenue-generating enterprises, including carbon sequestration, tourism, and the now well-established KAPCO cattle initiative.
Fire management is a critical part of the culturally informed environmental management strategies that underpin these enterprises. Drawing on ancient practices, Indigenous ranger groups that are part of the KLC’s Land and Sea Management Unit work with the Kimberley Ranger Network and Traditional Owners to carry out early dry-season fire operations on an annual basis. During these operations, a broad range of stakeholders come together to develop fire plans and conduct strategic burning on country.
KLC supports the principle of ‘right-way fire management’ as an important way of bringing traditional cultural knowledge into the modern context and economy of land management. Outcomes include reductions in the size and destructive impact of late dry season wildfires on the environment, protection for culturally and environmentally significant animals and plants, protection for threatened species, reduced carbon emissions and the social benefits of maintaining traditional practices that strengthen communities.
It has not been straightforward. Initially, when KLC ranger groups were found to be practising customary fire management on native title lands, the state government challenged the safety of it and placed the entire organisation under review. Although the efficacy of the approach was well known locally, it ran counter to state government protocols for land management and fell short of environmental and work safety standards.
KLC began a process of drawing on connections and expertise to support them to engage constructively with government so that they could continue their work. From 2012, for several years, a sequence of Jawun secondees worked with KLC to articulate their fire management practices, define organisational WHS policies, establish workplace and environmental protocols and, ultimately, secured accreditation. Jawun secondees provided specialist skills, critical thinking and dedicated time to focus on problem-solving.
KLC has coined the phrase “the Jawun Cycle” to describe how they leverage these skilled resources ‘borrowed’ from corporate and government Australia. As Deputy CEO Tyronne Garstone describes:
“We were able to use secondees to proactively show government the credibility of what we were doing. We call it the ‘Jawun cycle’ where we identify gaps, then a secondment allows us to define and put in place new practices or systems. In the case of fire management, we developed new safety practices, got OBRIM accredited, demonstrated that we were achieving better fire and carbon outcomes and showed that we were employing more Indigenous rangers on country. With this, our pride and purpose grew stronger, we had the resources to address social issues like incarceration, suicide and poverty, and our outcomes were recognised internationally. After that more opportunities could be created, gaps identified in order to fill them, and the cycle starts again”
CEO Nolan Hunter adds;
‘it is about the way solutions are created. It is about understanding that sometimes we have to change what we do to get a different result. The challenge is always about trying to dissuade success formulas that rely on doing business the same old way. Global research indicates that businesses mostly achieve a little over 60% of their strategies and yet they keep trying to run the same strategy. We acknowledge and embrace the understanding of our groups who are creating their own solutions and hold the knowledge that informs them. This is innovation.’
Jawun secondees have supported this innovation. Tony McCleod & Kristanne Mahony (APS – MDBA) have furnished a road map for KLC to support the aspirations of Traditional Owners and community involvement in water management in the Kimberley region. Lachlan Russell (KPMG) has identified strategic investment opportunities for KLC in the broad-acre cropping industries. Nick Thornley (KPMG) is preparing a cost analysis of new procedures around exploration licences involving areas with cultural heritage value. Julia Ward (Woodside) strengthened the carbon narrative and contributed to the evaluation of key strategic opportunities in the emerging Indigenous carbon industry. David Gordon (APS – Agriculture) prepared a prospectus for a significant building project.
Whilst innovation is a priority for KLC, organisational development remains an ongoing focus, and Jawun secondees also contribute to progressing the maturity, vision and values of the organisation. CEO Nolan Hunter calls this “how do we get to be on the front foot, to be able to respond to our members needs.” Recently Shiona March (ATO) has worked with KLC on aligning strategy, vision and values in how to manage change. Bronte Courtney (Qantas) focused on leadership development and succession planning and Ale Soto (RAC) is continuing this work, putting together a draft HR Leadership Toolkit. Karen Walker Jones (APS -Agriculture) is developing a management process for contracts to ensure consistency in tracking progress and compliance across the business.
Not only has KLC’s enterprises benefited from establishing the right to practice customary fire management on their own native title lands, but this expertise has also become a valued commodity in its own right. KLC now provides specialist fire services and regional co-ordination to the Kimberley Rangers Network and other regional groups, and mining and resource companies are commissioning their firebreak experience.
The recognition goes further than Western Australia. Aboriginal fire management practices are increasingly recognised worldwide as being effective and sustainable, built on millennia of understanding and co-existence between people and ecosystems. In 2018, five KLC rangers went to Botswana to teach local rangers effective fire management as a key part of the International Savannah Fire Management Initiative. This South African initiative draws on the knowledge of Australia’s First Nations people in reducing carbon emissions through right-way fire. It was featured widely in Australian and overseas media and, in 2019, the Botswana rangers made the return trip to the Kimberley. The project is due to expand to other countries in the years to come.
The vision and determination of KLC and its leaders have made these achievements possible, and their skill in directing the dedication and commitment of secondees wanting to make a difference has made it happen. As Tyronne puts it, noting the two-way benefit of this connection between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians,
“It’s off the back of Jawun secondees. Their expertise and work have been critical as we’ve sought to create sustainable economies on our country and find a place for those in the market and policy context. And we also see the two-way learning benefit of having secondees – they are a conduit for social change.”
In addition to contract management, environmental management, and training, KLC intends to focus on maintaining a well-governed and effective Kimberley Ranger Network for the benefit of Indigenous land managers and PBCs in the region. They are also developing carbon abatement as an innovative, and potentially, lucrative on-country enterprise. Social return on investment modelling approach and findings support a strategy of diversified investments and KLC plan to reduce reliance on government funding. The leadership is vigilant in looking for opportunities and they plan to continually innovate in response to member needs.
At the heart of all their ideas and enterprises sits KLC’s commitment to community. In the years to come, they will continue to use every opportunity, including Jawun secondees, to pursue their vision of social, cultural and economic empowerment for Aboriginal people in the Kimberley.