First Nations estate can boost Australian agriculture

5 October 2022

A landmark report calls for serious leadership and investment in the agricultural potential of the First Nations estate, especially if governments are serious about closing the gap and unlocking north Australia's development potential.  

The report, commissioned by the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia (CRCNA) and led by the First Nations Portfolio and researchers from the Fenner School of Environment and Society at The Australian National University (ANU), is the first study to examine the agricultural capacity of the First Nations estate, which covers more than 57 per cent of Australia's landmass.  

Vice-President for First Nations at ANU, Professor Peter Yu, said the opportunity for First Nations people to participate in primary production industries was being missed by governments and businesses across Australia.

"This is not only a considerable economic loss for our First Nations communities but also for the nation," Professor Yu said.

"Our study shows there is potential to grow the First Nations primary production industry, particularly across the east coast, the southwest corner of Western Australia and our northern coastline.

"Though relatively small, there is an emerging and unique First Nations primary production industry that is diverse, increasingly financially sustainable, and delivering significant cultural, social and environmental benefits.

"However, the extent of the First Nations primary production sector is not well known. We found little statistical or other data that captures the full extent that primary products created by the First Nations estate are contributing to regional and national economies and for our benefit."

The study identified 95 First Nations primary production businesses across Australia, with a majority of those being located in Northern Australia. The researchers argue, the lack of data and frameworks to capture that data limits First Nations participation in public policy and business decisions.

The report authors say the business model of First Nations enterprises is also "highly suitable" for environmental, social and governance (ESG) oriented investment. 

"Yet very few of these businesses have attracted private capital," Professor Yu said. "They rely on institutions like the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation to divest land and grant funds for business development.   

"There is a real opportunity to attract social impact and other ESG orientated investment in the emerging First Nations sector."

To achieve mutually beneficial outcomes, the report calls for the creation of a First Nations Primary Industries Taskforce, which would see governments, industry and First Nations organisations work together to establish appropriate frameworks and strategies to foster primary production and agricultural enterprises on the First Nations estate.   

The study was co-funded by the CRCNA and the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation (ILSC) and undertaken in partnership with the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

Ms Anne Stünzner, CEO of the CRCNA said: "Understanding the true value of Northern Australia's First Nations Estate is crucial to unlocking the economic potential of the north.  While, we have not been able to define this during this project, the work by Professor Yu's team highlights the need for action to address the ongoing impediments around the democratisation and accessibility of data to help inform decision-making and investment planning."

Mr Joe Morrison, Group CEO of the ILSC said: "We see this study as providing an important baseline and steppingstone in the path to creating sustainable, culturally appropriate business opportunities in agriculture for First Nations and leading ultimately to self-determined futures.

"Incorporating First Nation peoples' knowledge of their Country with modern and emerging primary production will lead to outcomes that have never before been realised across the nation. We are on the cusp of a paradigm change for Australian agriculture and First Nations should be firmly embedded in the design and delivery of the nation's agricultural outputs."

Read the full report online.