They have drawn up detailed plans to develop a lucrative aquaculture industry, open a manganese mine, build a boarding school and start a correctional culture-cum-boot camp.
The 14 clans represented by Anindilyakwa Land Council are also working towards taking control of housing, township land and health services. And the Traditional Owners are lobbying to break away from the East Arnhem Regional Council and re-establish their own local government on Groote.
Land council chair Tony Wurramarrba is excited about the ambitious plans, which he believes will not only give islanders economic power but also improve education, health, and law and order.
“We want to build a better future for our people,” he says.
Chinese buyers have already shown interest in the aquaculture industry, which will concentrate on farming high-end products, such as crayfish, oysters, trepang and giant clams.
“It will be boutique,” says land council chief executive Mark Hewitt. “Clean and green.”
The demand for protein around the world is beginning to outstrip supply, which has spurred tremendous growth in the aquaculture industry. But Asian fish farms have a reputation for poor hygiene. Traditional Owners know they can exploit Australia’s reputation for clean seafood harvested in a well-managed, sustainable way.
Islanders traded trepang with Macassan fishermen for hundreds of years – and evidence of the connection can be seen in “contact” rock art on Groote depicting prahus and the many Macassan words in the local language.
Mr Wurramarrba’s great grandfather sailed to Sulawesi with Macassans and didn’t return for four years.
“He did it for adventure.”
In a marvellous opportunity for history to repeat itself, the land council intends to ask the Federal Government to allow Indonesians from Sulawesi to work temporarily on Groote during harvest time.
“They have all the right skills,” says Mr Hewitt.
The land council has set aside $1 million to build an access road to the lagoons where the farm will be built.
A “single desk” sales office will be set up to sell all the products to China, which should enable Traditional Owners to make bigger and better deals.
Work on the farm infrastructure will begin later this year.
The Anindilyakwa Land Council, through its Royalty Development team, is also working towards opening a manganese mine on the small Akwamburrkba Island.
A new company, Anindilyakwa Advancement Aboriginal Corporation, has formed a joint venture with a Chinese investor and is carrying out a $7 million exploration program.
The aquaculture venture and the small mine are part of a comprehensive economic strategy aimed at earning income after royalties stop when the giant South32-owned manganese operation ceases production in 2030.
Economists say Groote’s Future Fund has to grow from $200 million today to $550 million so the interest can be used to maintain important social programs.
Traditional Owners also plan to build a boarding school on Bickerton Island.
“We’re committed to giving our children a good education,” says Mr Wurramarrba. “Kids not going to school is a big problem in our community. We realise that education is the key to the outside world.”
Only 20 percent of Groote children enrolled in school actually attend – and many, if not most, children aren’t even enrolled.
“It has become the norm for children not to go to school,” says Mr Hewitt. “It’s a crisis.”
The independent school will hold up to 50 students from aged eight and have a bilingual curriculum.
“Groote children don’t speak English as their first language so they are disadvantaged from day one,” says Mr Hewitt.
Students will board with house parents Monday to Friday – a model used with great success at the college on the Tiwi Islands – and go home at weekends if they wish.
“We went to see the Tiwi college and were very impressed,” says Mr Wurramarrba.
A survey of three quarters of Groote parents revealed that 80 percent would send their children to the new school.
The land council is applying to the Aboriginals Benefit Account for funding and hopes to have the school built within two years.
Mr Wurramarrba says the NT Education Department is strongly supportive of the initiative.
Fifty Groote children are already living with house parents in Queensland and going to local schools.
Traditional Owners also plan to develop an “alternative to sentencing” bush camp for offenders in the isolated, uninhabited far north of the main island.
“A terrible number of our people go to prison,” says Mr Wurramarrba. “We want to stop that.”
The camp will employ professional staff and be overseen by a Justice Advisory Group, which includes islanders who have been to prison.
“People will be diverted to the camp rather than go to prison,” says Mr Wurramarrba.
Leanne Liddle, director of the Territory Government’s Aboriginal Justice Unit, says: “The opportunity to partner with an Aboriginal organisation to work together to improve the lives of Aboriginal people and future generations is nothing short of amazing and it is a privilege.”
A local decision-making agreement signed with the Territory Government means the Anindilyakwa Land Council can gradually take ownership of the 300 houses on Groote.
A five-year plan has been drawn up to renovate homes and build new properties to alleviate chronic overcrowding.
“These are not going to be cheap houses,” says Mr Hewitt. “They will be to a high standard, built for local conditions.”
The land council is taking control of township land, which was taken over by the Federal Government as part of the Intervention.
Health services will also go under Aboriginal control within a few years.
Traditional Owners believe that there is one more piece in the puzzle before they truly regain control over their own lives – local government.
Groote’s three small local councils were scrapped when the so-called super shires were formed in 2008.
The island is now represented by the East Arnhem Regional Council, which is based on the mainland at Nhulunbuy.
Traditional Owners want to break away from the super shire and be represented by a single Groote council.
“It’s all about being able to make our own decisions,” says Mr Wurramarrba. TQ