Some Aboriginal native food producers are concerned “how-to” guides on bush food production may not protect their cultural property in an industry dominated by non-Indigenous people.

Key points:

  • The West Australian Department of Primary Industries has released two guides to help Aboriginal people start bush food businesses
  • Some producers are concerned the guides do not go far enough, or may be used by non-Indigenous people who already dominate the industry
  • A range of strategies have been offered to best serve the Aboriginal bush food industry

Western Australia’s Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) published two guides last week as resources to promote new Aboriginal bush food businesses.

The free guides address product development, funding, and the cultural and legal obligations in setting up and running a bush foods business.

WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan hopes the guides “will boost the success and representation of Aboriginal businesses in the bush foods industry”.

The Noongar Land Enterprise Group estimates non-Aboriginal people receive more than 98 per cent of Australian bush produce profits.

a bucket of wattle seeds

Wattle seeds harvested by Aboriginal food producers in WA.(Supplied: Michael Baldwin)

“We’ve been trying to tackle this — we’ve produced a Ngooka honey, and we’ve done a lot of work around the intellectual property and the cultural integrity [of bush produce],” group director and Beverley bush produce farmer Oral McGuire said.

He is concerned the guides will not protect the cultural property of Aboriginal people or prevent non-Aboriginal people developing native foods industries without them.

Commercial opportunity, cultural property

The day after releasing the guides, DPIRD hosted a business development day for 50 Aboriginal people hoping to start bush food businesses.

“Yes, it’s hard to capture all of the depths of knowledge and connection and issues associated with bush foods [in the documents], but I think we’ve done a fairly good job of getting something that’s useful and practical,” DPIRD Aboriginal Economic Development manager Melissa Hartmann said.

Ms Hartmann emphasised that the guides were produced following two years of consultation with Aboriginal people around Australia.

the covers of the two bush food guides

The guides are freely available online.(Supplied: DPIRD)

“From DPIRD’s point of view, it’s about building the knowledge around business development and giving people the tools they need to take their businesses forward.

“Once they’re in business, there’s a range of programs including food and trade support that is possible through the department.”

However, Mr McGuire has doubts about commercialisation as a goal in itself, having watched the cultural value of several native species erode as their commercial value grew.

“The sandalwood industry has absolutely destroyed the cultural value of sandalwood, which is a native species for lots of Aboriginal groups,” he said.

“They’re making gin and alcohol with [wattle seed]. Should Aboriginal people be involved in producing beer or gin or scotch when these cause serious issues in our communities?”

Mr McGuire manages Yaraguia, a West Australian farm which produces a range of bush foods using Noongar cultivation techniques.

“Once [bush produce] goes into the hands of the entrepreneurs and the people persuaded by the dollar, it’s completely out of hand.”

‘Invest in Aboriginal people’

Even among Aboriginal people who support commercial expansion of bush foods, opinions are mixed on how best to support it.

When Tahn Donovan built her own Aboriginal bush food business, she grappled with all the bureaucratic and administrative hurdles addressed in DPIRD’s guides.

However, for her, the biggest obstacles were financial.

A woman in front of red Pilbara hills and grasses.

Tahn Donovan in the Pilbara.(Supplied: Michael Baldwin)

“If someone said they could invest, that would’ve been a hell of a helping hand for me,” Ms Donovan said.

For Aboriginal foods supplier and retailer Gerry Matera, securing Indigenous peoples’ intellectual property and pathways to market is essential.

“The guides are a start. There are the right people there and it’s good to have Aboriginal people at the table,” he said.

“But the whole native food movement needs an overhaul.

“In Queensland they’ve passed laws around IP (intellectual property). There definitely needs to be some rule or process around it.”

Native food producers question ‘how-to’ bush food guides
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