A small Indigenous community's big dream of self-sufficiency

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Nestled among rolling hills, under misty skies, is a sleepy township that is waking up.

Key points:

  • Jumbun is a community of about 140 people between Townsville and Cairns
  • It once thrived as a farming township, and visitors drive through Jumbun to see the nearby Murray Falls
  • Locals want to take control of the land and create jobs, rather than relying on government funding

The small Indigenous community of Jumbun is on a mission to take full control of its land and create meaningful employment on country.

Jumbun is a 244-hectare freehold property near Cardwell, about halfway between Townsville and Cairns.

In 1976, the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission purchased the land, which has been inherited by several other government authorities since — the current being the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation (ILSC).

The community has also relied on government funding for employment, services and projects in the past.

But locals dream of a life of self-sufficiency.

“It’s been ingrained in us for so long that the government has the answer for us,” said Girramay elder and chairman of Jumbun Limited Abe Muriata.

“I want to do away with the government departments … but we’ve got to be prepared to stand up and work hard.”

Gudjala woman and Jumbun Limited coordinator Nicole Huxley said Jumbun was not alone.

“A lot of our communities out there want to be sustainable enough to not rely on government funding,” Ms Huxley said.

“There’s a lot of stereotypes out there that say we’re lazy people that want handouts — that’s not true.

“Our people want real employment. Our people want good education. But every time the government moves the goalposts it makes life more difficult for our people.”

A prosperous past

Mr Muriata said the farming township thrived from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, when produce like bananas, pumpkins and watermelons turned over big dollars and many locals were employed.

“Confidence was sky high,” Mr Muriata said.

“We had a prosperous farm. We worked probably 12 hours a day, sometimes 13, 14 hours a day every day … to make our farm work, to make this place work.”

Tourism ventures including cultural tours were also being developed in the early 2000s.

Locals said agriculture and tourism faded from about 2009 after the withdrawal of the Federal Government’s Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), which helped the community grow sustainable enterprises.

But Mr Muriata said the community’s failure to plan for life after the CDEP jeopardised its self-sufficiency dream.

Damage from severe weather, including Cyclone Yasi, did not help.

Today, a third party has a licence to agist cattle on about half of Jumbun’s land.

A cultural Keeping Place displaying locally woven baskets remains open but few people visit as they pass through the township to see the nearby Murray Falls.

More local jobs needed

The ILSC’s job is to help Jumbun’s 140 or so residents acquire and manage land.

It has employed a couple of locals to operate the water reticulation and a sewage treatment systems.

There are few jobs in Jumbun outside of that.

“Today, if [locals] want to work and bring [in] an income for their family, they have to go outside [of Jumbun],” Ms Huxley said.

“To get outside, they have to have transport and some of them don’t even have driver’s licences or even have a car.”

Jumbun Limited, the community-owned organisation that manages assets including 26 houses and farmland, gets its income from the rent and leases.

Ms Huxley has been helping Jumbun Limited’s new board try to turn the town’s fortunes around since late last year.

She said in recent years Jumbun Limited had owed $400,000 to various government entities, like the Australian Taxation Office, and was now $20,000 in the red.

Ms Huxley said Jumbun Limited had a payment plan to be debt free by July.

She has been training a couple of locals on the corporation’s administration systems, and started talking to governments and employment agencies about job opportunities for the community.

“There’s been a lot of years of no real communication with the community on how they can actually work,” Ms Huxley said.

“We want to identify business opportunities that aren’t just about tomorrow — it’s got to be about the next 10, 20, 50 years’ time.”

Getting land back

Like Mr Muriata, Girramay woman Marcia Jerry ultimately wanted Jumbun to be returned to her people.

“It is ours in the first place,” said Ms Jerry, former Jumbun Limited chairwoman.

“We just want this place to be here for our little ones so when they grow up … they can continue to farm [and] live here — not be hassled by the government.”

The ILSC said it would grant the land to Jumbun Limited once it could prove its ongoing capacity to own and manage the property, including becoming an accredited housing provider.

The ILSC also wanted to complete key projects itself including the installation of solar panels to offset energy costs associated with water and sewerage municipal services.

Ms Huxley said the high cost of maintaining the infrastructure was a setback the community faced ahead of owning the land, and a lack of adequate housing also needed to be addressed.

Overcoming the hurdles

ILSC deputy CEO Tricia Stroud said the corporation was speaking to the community about its agribusiness aspirations and taking steps to help it acquire the land.

“Granting Jumbun to Jumbun Limited is our ultimate goal and we look forward to that day,” Ms Stroud said.

“I don’t think Jumbun Limited are struggling any more than any other group would to be able to take on what, in essence, small Aboriginal Shire Councils take on.

“We absolutely recognise that this is a small town and we recognise the journey that Jumbun Limited have taken and the challenges they’ve taken on.

“[We] are really buoyed by their renewed level of enthusiasm and commitment to realise divestment.”

Ms Stroud said the ILSC had acquired and granted more than 190 properties to Indigenous groups, while about 45 properties, including Jumbun, were still on the books.

Jenny Pryor, former north Queensland commissioner for ATSIC, the body that owned the land before the ILSC, said there were opportunities for Jumbun to pursue.

“A lot of it doesn’t need a lot of money but if they get the proper resources they can make something good out of Jumbun,” Ms Pryor said.

“They have got structure there, they know about their land rights and land management.

“There are tourists going through there all the time … and there’s natural talent with their Aboriginal artwork and crafts and language.”

Locals like Mr Muriata are determined to take the lead.

“I will overcome it. I’m determined. I just have to be a good leader and tell people we have to go in that direction to achieve that goal,” Mr Muriata said.