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An Aboriginal organisation covering an area almost the size of Tasmania is one of Australia’s great quiet achievers.

An Aboriginal organisation covering an area almost the size of Tasmania is one of Australia’s great quiet achievers.

Apart from the Territory and Federal governments, the Katherinebased Jawoyn Association is the main economic force in the Big Rivers region.

It employs 260 staff, 180 of them Indigenous, working in nine business divisions and has an annual turnover of $35 million.

About 77 percent of its income is self-generated.

“Most people don’t realise that,” says John Berto, who has overseen sustained growth since being appointed chief executive seven years ago.

“Most of our income is created by us. The government money is mainly for social programs.” Jawoyn elders have a grand vision: to one day wean their people off welfare. “We want to create the wealth to make Jawoyn people financially secure without government help,” says Mr Berto. “We don’t want handouts.”

The Jawoyn Association represents about 2500 people from 17 clans in 12 communities.

The association has opened a small office in Darwin.

“We want to penetrate into the place with the greatest economic force in the NT,” says Mr Berto. “We’re looking for economic opportunities. Our board is happy to support that.”

Each of the association’s business divisions operates separately on a free market basis. But that’s where the comparison with other companies ends – rather than going to shareholders, profits are ploughed back into community work and social services, including education and sport.

Elders decided when the organisation was established in 1985 that royalties and profits should be re-invested in services that support all members and community, rather than individuals.



The Jawoyn Association set up Nitmiluk Tours in 2005 after buying Werner Sarny’s Travel North company. The Indigenous-owned business now runs all the tourist operations at Nitmiluk Gorge, plus the awardwinning five-star Cicada Lodge.

Tours include boat trips through the gorge, dinner cruises, helicopter rides and canoe hire.

Some politicians whipped up racial tension by arguing that Traditional Owners would close the gorge to tourists after the handback in 1989.

In fact, the opposite has happened – the whole of the national park is now more accessible than ever.

Jawoyn Association chair Lisa Mumbin says that Traditional Owners enjoy showing off their beautiful sandstone country.

“We have always been happy to share our country and show people how much it means to us,” she says.

The association owns the kiosk at Leliyn, formerly Edith Falls, and maintains the campground there, 60 kilometres north of Katherine, through a contract with Parks and Wildlife.


The Jawoyn Rangers have been hugely successful since going into operation in the 1990s.

Their jobs are the most sought after among Jawoyn people. The rangers combine traditional management techniques, including fire control, with scientific methods. There are 16 permanent rangers, increasing to more than 40 during the fire-management season.

The rangers offer companies the opportunity to offset their carbon liabilities through their involvement in the Jawoyn Fire Project.

The project is Australian Governmentapproved and offers carbon credits for reducing wildfires through strategic, controlled savanna burning.


The Jawoyn Association has bought the three-star Beagle Hotel in Katherine and uses it as a training base for Cicada Lodge. It plans to build an industrial laundry on a block of land next to the Beagle and use it to take in all the laundry from the hotel and the Cicada, plus take in work from outside, which would create five jobs and save $200,000 a year.


Community Development Program

The Jawoyn Association has formed a joint venture with Nyirrunggulung Rise to run the CDP in five communities – Bulman, Barunga, Beswick, Manyallaluk and Binjari – for 570 workers, who do a wide range of work, including running an op shop.

Regular Federal Government reviews find that the association is properly managing the CDP.


Jawoyn Contracting owns more than $10 million worth of equipment and is made up of two divisions – general contracting, including renovations, maintenance and repairs, and civil construction.

A third division was recently set up and is now building a duplex at Manyallaluk, formerly Eva Valley, after receiving a select tender from the Department of Infrastructure and Planning.

There is also about $10 million in the pipeline for work for the next two-three years. Jawoyn and the new build division have also completed building three staff houses at Nitmiluk Gorge and five more homes on two of its homelands.


“We want long-term contracts so that we can have sustainable employment,” says Mr Berto. He says that the Jawoyn don’t expect to be given contracts just because they are Aboriginal.

“We know that we have to be competitive.”

Jawoyn Contracting, which can work on projects from $2-5 million, has a housing repair and maintenance contract for Barunga, Beswick and Manyallaluk worth $2 million a year. The contract supports 14 jobs. The company is developing a new homeland on the edge of Katherine.

Information technology

Jawoyn IT, a joint venture with Emerge IT, has won a three-year computer maintenance contract at RAAF Tindal. The long-term aim is to train Jawoyn people in IT.

Property ownership

The Jawoyn Association’s property portfolio includes the Pandanus office complex, the Beagle Hotel and an eight-hectare block of land in Katherine’s Emungalan Road, which will be used as the HQ for

The association also owns its own headquarters and has bought the block of land next door.



Jawoyn traditional land stretches across 55,000 square kilometres – north-west from Katherine to Pine Creek, makes a north-east arc crossing the southern part of Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land to Bulman, then returns south-west to the township of Mataranka and to Katherine.

Most traditional land has been handed back under Aboriginal land rights and native title legislation.

Jawoyn people believe their land was created by the powerful ancestor Bula, who came from saltwater country to the north.

With his two wives, the Ngalenjilenji, he hunted across the land and transformed the landscape, leaving his image as paintings in rock shelters.