Can Aboriginal ecotourism save communities as companies eye land?

Broome, Australia – Bart Pigram leads a group of tourists through a mangrove thicket, telling stories and discussing the landscape.

The group is a mix of Australian and international visitors, all having travelled significant distances to be here in Broome, the biggest township in the Kimberley region of northwest Australia.

On Pigram’s “Narlijia Cultural Tours”, guests are invited to learn about the culture of the Traditional Owners of the Broome area, the Djugun-Yawuru people.

As a descendant of thousands of years of local Aboriginal history, Pigram told Al Jazeera he wants to be able to preserve the past and help pass it on to future generations.

“We live in one of the last pristine places in the world,” he said. “We should be doing all we can to protect it and share it with those who come and visit.”

The Kimberley region is immense, roughly the same size as California, and encompasses the northernmost section of Australia’s largest state, Western Australia.

Bart Pigram shows visitors the culture and surroundings of the Traditional Owners of the Broome area [Bart Pigram/Al Jazeera]

Internationally renowned for its wilderness, vast tracts of the region have been recognised by UNESCO.

However, largely due to its isolation and monsoon climate, the Kimberley is home to just over 40,000 people, almost half of whom are indigenous.

Consequentially, job opportunities are limited, which only serves to accentuate the Kimberley’s significant social issues: homelessness, arguably the worst suicide rates in the world and the highest domestic violence statistics in the state.

Then there are the challenges brought by internal migration by Aboriginal communities who travel to larger townships. In many cases, individuals are drawn away from their ancestral lands to pursue opportunities that are not forthcoming.

Governments at all levels in Australia need to continue to commit funds and resources to make sure Aboriginal enterprises are supported to benefit from tourism opportunities.

Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, lecturer in tourism at University of South Australia

The advent of cultural tourism may yet prove to be a way to help address and overcome these issues.

Several businesses like Pigram’s have been set up in recent years, seeking to preserve an ancestral connection to the country through sustainable projects.

They also serve to build employment and inject much-needed funds into the local economy.

Nature tours, harvesting of bush foods and discussions about cultural identity all form part of this burgeoning industry.

The Kimberley landscape near Broome has attracted tourists from Australia and the world [Nick Rodway/Al Jazeera]

Operators such as Pigram act as role models in the community and show that there are entrepreneurial opportunities in and around the Kimberley.

Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, senior lecturer in tourism at the University of South Australia, said cultural ventures could succeed in the long term, provided they receive support.

“Governments at all levels in Australia need to continue to commit funds and resources to make sure Aboriginal enterprises are supported to benefit from tourism opportunities,” she told Al Jazeera.

However, she highlighted one key challenge that could affect the industry – non-indigenous tourism businesses offering an interpretation of Aboriginal culture.

This would result in Aboriginal tourism operators losing out financially as their culture is misrepresented.

Higgins-Desbiolles believes it is essential to recognise Aboriginal expertise and value “as a way to fairly remunerate Aboriginal peoples for all they can offer”.

The Pentecost river in the Kimberley region, described by Aboriginal ecotourism entrepreneur Bart Pigram as one of the ‘last pristine places in the world’ [Jim Wilson/The Wilderness Society]

The growth of cultural tourism has surfaced at a time when the future of the West Kimberley is being vigorously debated.

Environmental groups champion the region as largely pristine, home to the most extensive, unspoiled savannah in the world, with untouched coastlines that are comparable to the Antarctic.

It is also hugely rich in mineral supplies, and both local and multinational companies have begun to identify mining sites across the region.

One of these areas is the Canning Basin, which holds significant reserves of liquid natural gas.

While there is a moratorium currently in place across Western Australia on mining gas through hydro-fracturing – fracking – there is potential to exploit gas in the Kimberley by drilling up to 40,000 wells across its expanse.

Western Australia has recently come to the end of its mining boom, an industrial period that lasted for much of the early 21st century and saw the state handling over 40 percent of Australia’s exports.

Since 2014, Western Australia’s treasury has not returned a surplus budget, and with state debt forecast to top AUD 40bn in 2019, questions are being asked as to whether large-scale mining will recommence.

Mitchell Falls is an iconic Kimberley attraction [Glen Walker/The Wilderness Society]

While controversial, many mining companies have advocated the industry as a way to break the poverty and unemployment cycle that can harm First Nations communities.

But not everyone is convinced wide-scale mining is the answer.

Doctor Anne Poelina, a Nyikina Warrwa Traditional Custodian, runs Madjulla Incorporated, an indigenous community development NGO.

She believes the Kimberley would benefit more through investment in ecological initiatives.

“There are far more indigenous jobs in the culture and green collar industries such as wild harvest bush foods, land care and tourism than in mining,” she told Al Jazeera. “These enterprises are sustainable and produce national ecosystem services and cultural benefits for Aboriginal people.”

Tours are reconciliation in practice. The way to get someone to really appreciate culture is through showing them personally. We’re bringing Australia together, slowly but surely.

Bart Pigram, Aboriginal ecotourism operator

While the debate around mining continues, tourism is waiting to be advanced in the Kimberley region.

Earlier this year, the first international flights in over a decade recommenced from Singapore. The state government has also voiced its desire to invest in tourism infrastructure.

Recently, the Premier of Western Australia, Mark McGowan, announced that airline tickets to Broome would be subsidised as a means to create jobs for local people through a “tourism renaissance in the Kimberley”.

For Pigram, who runs tours, such support could also be seen as a way to advance reconciliation at a time when Australia is attempting to come to terms with many years of Aboriginal dispossession.

“Tours are reconciliation in practice,” Pigram said, looking out over the shores of Roebuck Bay in Broome. “The way to get someone to really appreciate culture is through showing them personally. We’re bringing Australia together, slowly but surely.”

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