Gubinge: A Cultural and Economic Enterprise

The Kimberley Institute, Broome, WA.

Introduction

Paul Lane from the Kimberley Institute in Broome, Western Australia believes that potential opportunities in growing and harvesting native fruits and plants will contribute to maintaining and building resilience in Aboriginal communities by improving social and economic outcomes. He has been facilitating discussions and initiatives in the West Kimberley region of Western Australia around creating a regional business hub for a native plants and fruits industry. The objective is to create an Aboriginal supply chain involving all aspects of growing, harvesting, processing, marketing and distributing native plant and fruit products. Profits would go back to communities to build more enterprises and create more jobs. The regional hub would work directly with Aboriginal people on their land and within their communities to facilitate local self-sustaining enterprises that focus on the value of the natural resources, ensure long term stability and preserve and promote Indigenous culture and tradition.

A major focus is the gubinge fruit which grows wild throughout the tropical savannah regions of northern Australia. The gubinge tree (terminalia ferdinandiana) and its fruit is known as ‘gubinge’ by many Aboriginal people in the Kimberley region although it is known traditionally by other names by other Aboriginal groups. It is also commonly known as the Billy Goat plum and the Kakadu plum. The fruit has the highest recorded level of natural Vitamin C and also displays antioxidant and anti-microbial properties. For Aboriginal people the fruit is a source of bush food and the tree including the fruit has been a healing remedy because of its anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal properties. [1]

Commercial interest in the various applications of the fruit’s properties has seen it used as a preservative for the seafood industry. The red meat processing industry is also developing a similar preservative to extend the shelf life of processed meats. International health and cosmetic companies have included it in beauty products such as cleansers, body lotions, hand cream and lip balm. There are also other alternative uses such as nutritional supplements, hand washes, scabies treatment including tea and health drinks. The poultry industry has shown interest in the leaves of a similar tree as a supplement for poultry food given its anti-microbial properties.

Tradition and Economic Sustainability

Aboriginal families in the Dampier peninsula north of Broome harvest the gubinge in the wild supplementing their income with what they earn. The money is used to buy food and household items including school books for their children.  In pre-colonial times Aboriginal people managed and harvested the plants and fruits on country when in season as a normal part of the cycle of life. But it’s becoming more and more difficult for Aboriginal people to live their traditional form of sustainability and there are so few opportunities to take children onto country. However, the contemporary management and harvest of gubinge and other native fruits and trees allows Aboriginal people to be on country for extended periods of time doing what they have always done.

Twelve or fifteen years ago, Aboriginal families began harvesting gubinge on a small scale, supplying to cosmetic companies. Since then the wild harvest has grown nationally to around 30 tonnes of fruit per year. It is still a cottage industry and is perfectly suited for family groups and outstation communities. Some people mill the product, by drying and grounding it and selling it as powder. Others sell the frozen fruit, and some sell it as pulp, where they pip it like and olive. As a cottage industry it has developed at a pace determined by Aboriginal people and this has enabled them to work out how they will participate in the industry and how they market their product.

However, in ten to twenty years the scale of demand will be such that it won’t be a cottage industry. Therefore, the challenge is to grow the industry to meet increased demand for gubinge but also ensure the integrity of the industry by maintaining the cultural values. Future market demands will require substantial planting of gubinge trees through enrichment methodologies. This requires additional labour and personnel to nurture and manage trees into production. Aboriginal families are also looking at other opportunities to create more value from the gubinge fruit as well as looking at what other bush fruits and products can be used. This is where universities and tertiary institutions can work with communities to identify the value of the fruit and tree and match it with a commercial opportunity.

To meet a growing market Aboriginal groups and organisations in Broome and other communities in the West Kimberley have planted around 10,000 gubinge trees in the last two years. To be able to supply the future market Aboriginal communities and outstations will need to plant trees rather than rely on wild harvest. This planting needs to be done now because it takes 6-7 years for trees to come into production. Access to land and water are important but what is critical is the need for partnerships between families and outstation communities with native title entities because the trees will need to be grown over large areas of land. It can only be done in partnership with native title groups who are prepared to commit large areas of their country.

Social and Cultural Resilience

Paul Lane says Aboriginal people are well positioned to develop a sustainable native fruits and plants industry because the value of native fruits and trees has not been exploited or decimated by the colonial outcome. Further the recognition of native title has provided protection from exploitation and so Aboriginal people now have security of tenure and a product that is desired by mainstream society.  However, Lane cautions that the development of an industry must be driven and owned by Aboriginal interests on whose land the product exists. He believes that Aboriginal people can develop economic opportunities from native plants and fruits with a cultural component. Such industry would deliver employment, training, improved management of Aboriginal-held land, and both business creation and development. The overall outcome is that the industry will contribute to building and maintaining social and cultural resilience in Aboriginal communities because it incorporates traditional and cultural knowledge and practices.

Culture, Connection and Resilience

According to Paul Lane, Aboriginal resilience has been the capacity to physically survive over a couple of centuries in accordance with their cultural aspirations. The capacity to survive culturally is related to one’s connection to culture, country and community. For Yawuru people in Broome mabu liyan reflects their sense of belonging and being, emotional strength, dignity and pride. Mabu liyan is enhanced by connectedness to family, community and country.[2] A native fruit and plant industry fits well with cultural aspirations because it will build that connectedness as it enables people to do constructive cultural and economic activities on country. Families can educate their children about country to reinforce sense of belonging and identity, while at the same time have an economic purpose for going out on country. It’s an important lever to get young people back onto country.  

The combination of traditional and cultural practices with the economic potential opens opportunities for young Aboriginal people particularly those who are at risk of incarceration or who have been incarcerated.  It will provide training and employment outcomes plus a cultural outcome. Paul Lane says the high rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal young people sits parallel with one of the best opportunities to sustaining communities and country. He says that if you align them together you can keep people out of jail, provide them with productive activities to do while at the same time manage and sustain an industry that can produce real economic opportunities for communities. As a diversionary or post-release programme it will not only strengthen cultural connectedness but also provide economic opportunities for Aboriginal people.

------------------------------------------------------------------

[1] https://www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2018-02-05/gubinge-harvest-growing-despite-setbacks-in-kimberley/9312636 [Accessed 12/2/2019].

[2] Many Yap & Eunice Yu (2016) ‘Community wellbeing from the ground up: a Yawuru example’, Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre Research Report 3/16 August.