Mowanjum Aboriginal Corporation

Developing a pastoral business

Mowanjum Aboriginal Corporation (MAC) holds a 55,000 hectare pastoral lease situated just outside Derby in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia (WA).

The lease, underutilised for the last 40 years, is now increasing beef production and creating job opportunities, especially for the region’s young people.

A few years ago MAC faced the prospect of losing its pastoral lease because it was under-performing. The land was dominated by Acacia (wattle) scrub, but there was not enough money to be made from growing wattle.

To create a viable business for the Mowanjum community, MAC needed to improve the utilisation of its land and groundwater assets.

The corporation produced a business plan for beef production and negotiated a bank loan and financial support from the Indigenous Land Corporation for new infrastructure to develop what was a rundown pastoral lease.

Mowanjum station irrigation trial

In June 2014, the WA Government, impressed by MAC’s initiative and it willingness to borrow and invest, supported a business case to establish an irrigation trial on a 400-hectare diversification permit area on Mowanjum station.

In August 2015, MAC commissioned a 38-hectare centre pivot irrigation system to access underutilised groundwater sources and develop a stand-and-graze operation. The system was funded by the WA Government’s Water for Food initiative.

Irrigated fodder production meant MAC could drought-proof its business, avoiding the need to truck-in hay. It allowed for stand-and-graze beef production with average weight gains of 700 grams per day, per animal.

This enabled MAC to predictably turn and provide cattle to markets with known live weights all year round.

‘The irrigation trial is the first step on MAC’s journey towards becoming a significant player in the Kimberley beef industry,’ says Steve Austin, CEO of MAC.

A template for Indigenous communities entering the beef industry

Mowanjum field trial and land tenure option areas

MAC wants to share the knowledge it has gained to develop a template for other Aboriginal communities looking to create similar opportunities.

‘We hope we are demonstrating models for Aboriginal ownership and management of state-of-the art agricultural production in northern Australia,’ says Austin.

In December 2015, the WA Government approved MAC’s application for an option to proceed to conditional freehold for an area of 4,100 hectares, in accordance with the Water for Food Land Tenure Option Plan.

‘The opportunity to create freehold land and use our water resources is a key to optimising our sustainable development,’ says Eddie Bear, Mowanjum Elder. ‘We are now working on who we might partner with on the journey.’

MAC has also developed a number of strategic alliances with companies that are helping advance its beef ambitions.

Pardoo Beef

In November 2015, MAC was introduced to Singapore-based investor Pardoo Beef Corporation. Soon afterwards, Pardoo agreed to agist Pardoo cattle at Mowanjum and have them grown on contract.

MAC and Pardoo have since expanded their relationship to a five-year beef production agreement with the option of a further five years.

‘The Pardoo relationship is ticking along well,’ says Austin. ‘They are a good partner. We are hoping we can do more with in the future.’

Pardoo’s ambition is to create a reliable, safe and secure supply of ultra-premium Wagyu beef for niche Asian markets by introducing innovative, artesian micro-farming methods.

‘Pardoo is committed to working with local traditional owners and other Western Australian Indigenous communities to develop long-term employment, mutually beneficial land use agreements, new business opportunities, and agistment partnerships with Aboriginal-owned stations,’ says Bruce Cheung, CEO of Pardoo.

Pardoo has also developed relationships with the Ngarla people, the traditional owners of Pardoo Station, and the Wanparta Aboriginal Corporation which administers land on the Ngarla people’s behalf.

In November 2016 the Mowanjum Irrigation Trial project won the WA Premier’s Award in the category ‘Improving Aboriginal Outcomes’ and was selected as the overall winner.

‘The trial showcases the change that is possible when a community’s vision and investment is matched with expert water science and industry know-how,’ says Bear.

‘The role Mowanjum as a community is playing, to innovate and lift beef production, support tenure reform, identify investment opportunities and partners, highlights many useful lessons as the pastoral industry diversifies into irrigation.’

'We hope we are demonstrating models for Aboriginal ownership and management of state-of-the art agricultural production in northern Australia.' 

Steve Austin, CEO, Mowanjum Aboriginal Corporation

Mowanjum Community

Mowanjum Station

The Mowanjum community is home to approximately 300 Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Wunambal people. Each year the Mowanjum Art and Culture Centre hosts the Mowanjum Festival, one of Australia's longest running Indigenous cultural festivals.

Interestingly, the Mowanjum community members are not the traditional owners of the Mowanjum station area. The station is covered by a native title determination in favour of the Nyikina Mangala people and also an undetermined claim by the Warrwa people.

Mowanjum will need to negotiate an Indigenous Land Use Agreement when or if it exercises its conditional freehold option over the 4,100 hectare area.

Image 1: Mowanjum field trial and land tenure option areas. Source: Mowanjum Aboriginal Corporation.
Image 2: Mowanjum Station. Source: Mowanjum Aboriginal Corporation.