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Traditional Owners throughout the Top End are rising to another great challenge – laying the economic foundations for a prosperous future for the generations to come.

Northern Land Council chair Sam Bush-Blanasi says Indigenous leaders often say to him: “The battle for land rights has been won. Now we must do something for our children and their children.” 

Aboriginal people are using their land and manpower to reap economic benefits, not just in wages but profits to be ploughed back into community programs. The overarching aim is to provide a strong economic base for the future without damaging the land or culture. There are about 470 Indigenous-owned businesses in the Northern Territory, many in joint ventures and many operating from Aboriginal communities.

 The key difference between Aboriginal community-owned businesses and other enterprises is that the profits go back to the community. 

The Northern Land Council’s most important responsibility is to consult Traditional Owners about the use of their land. 

By law, landowners must give “informed consent” before any action is taken to affect their lands and seas. 

The land council’s obligations under Aboriginal Land Rights Act include: 

• Ascertaining and following the wishes of Aboriginal people about the management of their land • Negotiating on behalf of Traditional Owners with people interested in using Aboriginal land 

• Helping Aboriginal people carry out commercial activities. 

Despite a common misconception, the NLC must do what Traditional Owners tell it to do – not the other way round.



Traditional Owner Daniel Jones walked into the Northern Land Council office in Timber Creek one day and said: “I don’t want to keep living on welfare – I want to build something for the community.” 

He knew that the Defence Department had promised Indigenous people a fair crack at winning contracts on the Bradshaw military training ground. 

The NLC’s Greg Kimpton called a meeting of the eight clans surrounding Bradshaw. 

“I was honest with them,” he says. “I told them that it would be tough – that most small businesses fail. But they were determined to go ahead.” 

The company is thriving after winning a string of maintenance contracts, including fire mitigation on Bradshaw and Tindal RAAF base, and maintenance of the Buchanan Highway. 

Only one of the 20 staff is non-Indigenous. 

Mr Jones is business manager and is proud of what has been achieved. 

“We’re all working hard and enjoying what we’re doing,” he says. “It was a big change going from welfare to wages, but we’ve got there.”


The most eye-catching enterprise on Indigenous land is the Arnhem Space Centre near Nhulunbuy. 

Australia’s first and only commercial spaceport is operated by Equatorial Launch Australia under an agreement with the Gumatj Corporation. 

Last year, it became the site of NASA’s first suborbital sounding rocket launch from a commercial port outside the United States. 

The Gumatj Corporation is creating wealth and work in many other ways, including through a joint venture called Delta Reef Gumatj, which builds houses, schools and workspaces.

Building costs are kept down by the in-house manufacture of materials, such as concrete blocks and timber roof trusses, and recycling pre-used appliances, such as air conditioners.

Delta, which is rebuilding 80 cyclone ravaged homes on Galiwin’ku, trains Indigenous workers to become builders.

General manager Mick Martin says: “We may not build a house as quickly as others, but we give them real skills that they can take to another job.” 

Gumatj is also preparing to open a 955 hectare bauxite mine 40 kilometres from Nhulunbuy. 

The mine, which will extract 150,000 tonnes of ore a year for the Asian market, is doubling as a training centre. 

The corporation also runs a grounds maintenance and waste management business, and operates a workshop, which maintains vehicles and plant, and fixes cars, trucks, tractors, lawnmowers and generators. 

An Indigenous-owned 100 square kilometre station 90 kilometres from Nhulunbuy rears Brahman cattle. 

The beef is sold in Aboriginal communities and a butcher in Nhulunbuy. 

There are plans to send livestock to Darwin for export to Asia. 

Gumatj Corporation also owns a cafe, nursery and community store, plus rents out property to Rio Tinto workers and other local people. 

As the late Gumatj chairman Galarrwuy Yunupingu said: “We are determined to be a part of the economic life of this nation and to use our assets for the betterment of our people’s lives.”


Rirratjingu Traditional Owners operate the Gove Blue metal quarry, which sold 60,000 tonnes to resources giant Rio Tinto for rehabilitation projects last financial year. 

The corporation’s pond 4 capping project and the Indigenous heavy machinery specialists YBE are also creating profits to provide further job opportunities for Yolngu people. 

Rirratjingu Mining is expanding several contracts, such as the Indigenous works crew, which provides garden maintenance and other services to more than 100 Rio properties, and services the 26 highquality Malpi Village properties. Rirratjingu Investments was set up in 2004 to seek business and investment opportunities. 

And Rirratjingu Fuel has an eight-year contract with Rio Tinto to import 50 million litres of fuel a year directly from the regional distribution centre in Singapore. 

The contract was won against competition from multinational companies. 

The aim of all Rirratjingu Corporation’s business projects is to create the wealth needed to sustain the community after the Rio mine closes. 


Wadeye, the largest indigenous community in the Northern Territory, is home to the Thamarrurr Development Corporation, an organisation that has demonstrated its ability to drive economic growth. 

The TDC operates under the guidance of three main ceremonial groups – the Wangka, Lirrga, and Tjanpa peoples – and was established by 20 clans from the Thamarrurr region. 

The organisation employs 280 staff and serves the vast Thamarrur region, which is considered the fourth most disadvantaged region in Australia. 

TDC is dedicated to infrastructure development and fulfills a range of community needs, including Wadeye Post Office, the Women’s Centre, Thamarrurr plum, the Men’s Shed, house builds, maintenance programs, aged care services, NDIS, Thamarrurr Rangers, Thamarrurr Carbon Project, the Children’s and Family Centre and the Community Development Program. 

TDC’s vision is to achieve economic growth in Wadeye with projects such as: • Mudcrabs, salmon, and barramundi fishing businesses have five Aboriginal Coastal Licences in the Joseph Boneparte Gulf 

• Two trials for an oyster business • Carbon projects through the Thamarrurr Rangers 
• Harvesting and selling mi marrarl (Thamarrurr plum), which was recognised with an NT export award in 2021. 

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the region is the housing and construction unit, which leads in construction, housing maintenance, tenancy. and civil works. 

More than half of the workforce is Indigenous, with many employees having completed VET courses in construction. 

TDC chair Ethelreda Dartinga is a strong supporter of economic empowerment for Indigenous people. 

“TDC is a business that is there for everyone,” she says. 


The Arnhem Land Progress Association owns five stores – at Ramingining, Galiwin’ku, Gapuwiyak, Milingimbi, and Minjilang (Croker Island) – and manages shops on behalf of other corporations. It also runs construction, labour hire, corporate services, visitor accommodation and furniture-making businesses. 

ALPA is financially-independent – it does not rely on outside funding or subsidies. 

The organisation self-funds business development to increase employment and improve services to the community. 

Profits go back to the communities through benevolent programs. 


 Indigenous economic development isn’t restricted to the land. 

The Aboriginal Sea Company was set up by the Northern, Tiwi and Anindilyakwa land councils to play a leading role in commercial fishing and the aquaculture industry.

 Board chair Calvin Devereaux says: “This is all about self determination and empowerment for Aboriginal people.” 

The company wants to help Traditional Owners take a major stake in commercial fishing and set up aquaculture ventures. It envisages Indigenous people not just as deckhands and skippers, but also as the owners of high-end aquaculture ventures stretching right along the Territory coast. 


Indigenous people are also setting up small fishing enterprises. 

For instance, Maningrida Wild Foods sells fish caught off the Arnhem Land coast in communities but hopes one day to expand the business and send some to Darwin.

Traditional Owner Don Wilton started the business with a 25-metre net in 2015. 

“I was sitting on the cliff drinking tea on my land at Nardilmok, watching a big mob of mullet go by, and I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to go find out what we can do to start something with all this seafood’.” 

The fishermen have acquired a boat and are leasing a small barramundi licence.