When Aboriginal people regain country through
station purchases it can be a long and rugged road to building a
successful business. Especially when those stations are severely
run down. The Bunuba people of the Fitzroy Valley are achieving
strong growth in their cattle business, and are looking after
country and culture into the bargain. By Kathryn Thorburn.
Bunuba people have turned Leopold and Fairfield Downs into an
economically viable enterprise. Photo: Kathryn Thorburn
ON country to the north-west of Fitzroy Crossing in the
Kimberley, the Bunuba people run two cattle stations with a
combined size of 404,648 hectares. Leopold Downs was purchased on
behalf of the Bunuba Aboriginal Corporation (BAC) by the Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 1991. In 1995 the
adjoining station Fairfield Downs was also purchased.
In acquiring two large stations, BAC also acquired a significant
debt. The ATSIC purchase meant only that BAC was provided with
initial finance to be repaid to ATSIC instead of to a bank or loan
institution. And neither station, at time of purchase, was in a
good state: Leopold was in receivership and Fairfield had been
destocked as a result of tuberculosis. Infrastructure on both was
in a state of severe disrepair, and land condition was very
It has been a long road for the two stations—but the debt
to ATSIC has been repaid, and the company refinanced through a
regular agricultural financier. They are now managed by the Bunuba
Cattle Company (BCC), and supported by Business Coordinator Ned
McCord, an experienced agribusiness professional who knows about
running huge cattle stations and respecting the aspirations of
That the company now has a manageable debt, and has rebuilt its
stock levels, makes it one of just a handful of northern
Aboriginal-owned cattle companies in this situation.
“Up until this point in time, our priority has been to get
the cattle company out of debt and into a position where it is a
financially viable operation under its own steam,” said Joe
Ross, the outgoing BCC Chairman. “And with the help of Ned,
we’ve been able to achieve that.”
Managing conflicting aims
The trick for Indigenous companies like the BCC is to manage
sometimes conflicting pressures: building a business enterprise,
which is owned by the community, while also being seen to be
contributing to that community’s wellbeing.
To this end, the governing body for Bunuba people, Bunuba Inc,
is establishing a foundation which will be an independent legal
entity to the cattle company. This foundation will manage
distribution of the company’s net profits back to the
community via specific projects. These are the profits surplus to
re-investment needed to keep the station running
profitably—those funds will still be administered by the
Board with the guidance of the business coordinator.
By structuring their organisations in this way, Bunuba people
decrease the likelihood of conflict over how surplus monies are
distributed—an issue that often destabilises Indigenous
community-owned businesses in remote Australia. As Joe points out,
by holding and distributing the dividends made by the company, the
foundation will play a critical role in reassuring the community
that profits are going towards community development.
Stakeholders of the BCC: Bunuba people
Bunuba stockmen Dion Brooking and Lloyd Shaw. Photo: Kathryn
The difference between the Bunuba Cattle Company and those owned
by non-Indigenous pastoral companies, is that the BCC’s
stakeholders are a language group: the Bunuba people. Bunuba people
not only had a traditional association with the country of Leopold
and Fairfield Downs—many also have an historical association.
Many Bunuba people around their mid-40s and 50s grew up on the
stations, and recall these days fondly as there were still many old
people, culture was strong and alcohol simply not in the
However, the 1966 Cattle Station Industry Equal Pay case started
to have a major impact in the early 70s and eventually saw hundreds
of people moved off stations in the Kimberley (and the Northern
Territory). The Kimberley township of Fitzroy Crossing became akin
to a refugee camp for Aboriginal people from stations throughout
the Fitzroy River Valley.
Bunuba people were not the only language group shunted into
Fitzroy; there were four other language groups who were forced to
live together. Despite the potential for conflict, disputes across
language groups in these early days of Fitzroy Crossing were
uncommon, arguably because of the presence of very strong
That reputation of being a place where people get along
continues to the present, despite a strong
‘homelands’ movement that has seen people
from all language groups returning to their own country.
The majority of Bunuba people still reside in Junjuwa community
in Fitzroy Crossing. However, others live on Leopold Downs as well
as on other smaller communities, some as far away as 200 km. Many
of these communities are lacking in infrastructure—housing,
reliable supplies of power and water. And there are pressing social
issues, as in many remote Indigenous communities in the
Benefiting Bunuba people
Clockwise from front left: Danny Marr, observers Marty Stevens and
Kathryn Thorburn, then June Oscar, Ned McCord, Joe Ross and Dillon
Andrews. Photo: Bruce Bland
Leopold and Fairfield stations
The total area of Leopold and Fairfield
stations combined is 404,648 hectares. The main weed problems are
Parkinsonia and bellyache bush and a management program is in
place. The stations’ major land management issue at present
is soil erosion. Significant areas of country on Fairfield are
black soil, fragile and susceptible to overgrazing and impacts from
fire. Currently the stations carry around 10,000 head of mixed
cattle, though the Department of Agriculture Western Australia
estimates the stations could carry up to 20,000 breeders. The
company currently turns off about 2300 head per year, mainly to
live export. Ned McCord estimates there are around 3000 wild cattle
running on undeveloped areas on perimeters of the stations.
According to June Oscar, the new BCC Chairperson, the way to
manage the cattle properties for the benefit of Bunuba communities
is by taking a holistic approach.
“Sure, we need the commercial side strong,” said
June, “but for Bunuba people there is a whole lot more to
these stations than just making a dollar. There’s a lot of
culture out there for us, there are some really important sites and
these need to be looked after in the proper way.
“I don’t see these cultural concerns as somehow
separate from the cattle business,” added June. “For
us, they are the part of the same vision, and that vision wants to
ensure that the country is looked after, so that it can remain
productive in every sense of the word for generations to
Ned McCord is keen to get as many young Bunuba people as
possible to come out to their stations.
“It is important for these stations to become a secure
financial investment,” said Ned, “but as part of that
process there are terrific opportunities for Bunuba people to spend
time out on their own country; whether they are working for
the cattle company, or taking the old people out bush to
places of cultural significance.”
It’s an about-face for those on the BCC Board with
memories of growing up on cattle stations. Back when they were
children, the white manager called the shots, delivered rations,
and set the local Aboriginal people to work. Nowadays, these same
people are calling the shots, working with Ned to determine how
they want things managed, prioritising investment and establishing
rules for how things should be run.
In addition, the company is setting up a trainee ranger program
with WA’s Department of Conservation and Land Management.
“This is an example of where we want things to
head,” said June Oscar. “The ranger will work half time
on the stations, and half time in a National Park—all of
which is on Bunuba land. The position’s focus will be looking
after country, and checking on impacts, cattle, tourists, weeds,
you name it and managing these. But these impacts will be
considered not just in ecological terms, but cultural as
well,” added June.
The BCC is also hoping to get some scientific help identifying
the environmental significance of various areas on the stations.
“This information can then feed into our strategy for
managing natural and cultural resources of our country,” said
Kathryn Thorburn is a undertaking a PhD as part of the ARC
Linkage Project, “Indigenous Community Governance”, at
the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, the Australian
National University. See link below.