The future for more than 40 Indigenous people living in a Jabiru town camp slated for demolition to make way for a makeover worth hundreds of millions of dollars, including a luxury hotel and glamping, is in limbo with no official response on what will happen if, as proposed, the land is handed back to the traditional owners next year.
The group are residents of the Manabadurma town camp, and are mostly descendants of people who moved into the area from Arnhem Land up to 100 years ago, according to long-term Kakadu resident, former ranger and now manager of the Buffalo Farm in the park David Lindner, and thus not members of the traditional owner group, the Mirarr people.
A 2017 report prepared for the Department of Government, Housing and Community Development by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu entitled Living on the edge: Northern Territory town camps review, found the Mirarr – who are slated to be handed a lease over the town through a new body called the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation Jabiru Town – said the residents of the Manabadurma town camp were not welcome on their country and the town camp is slated for demolition.
The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the Mirarr people, did not respond to questions about what plans they have for the town camp once the land is handed back, most likely on June 30.
But their Jabiru masterplan 2018-28 states the town camp will be moved and consideration given to the land north of the lake, including where the town camp is, to be subdivided to allow tenure for visitor welcome facilities for self-drive tourism managed by Western Arnhem Shire Council.
Chief Minister Michael Gunner, Infrastructure Minister Eva Lawler and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Selena Uibo did not respond to questions about what plans they had for town camp residents, or if the government had spent money to fix the houses to meet the standards of the Residential Tenancies Act.
Northern Land Council spokesman Bob Goford said the organisation did not know if the people wanted to stay “as the NLC is not aware of the personal circumstances” of the residents.
“The NLC is aware that there are people in the town camp that work in various organisations such as Red Lily Health board, West Arnhem Regional Council and appreciates that there has to be support to get them into housing in Jabiru,” he said in a statement.
“This is part of the transition plan which the NLC will work with the federal and NT governments, Parks Australia and other stakeholders to develop and implement in early 2021.”
Meanwhile, the organisation that provides repairs and maintenance for the town camp, Warnbi Aboriginal Corporation, said it had recently heard unofficially the demolition had been deferred for about three years.
Historic amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act recently passed through the federal parliament in September allowing for ownership of the land to be returned to the Mirarr on a long-term lease, possibly for 99 years.
This provided the basis for the future plan of the town – a massive undertaking that presumes it can be repurposed as a tourism mecca in the middle of nowhere.
The GAC, which represents the Mirarr people and distributes and invests royalties, was raided by police and the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations in September last year. That investigation by ORIC is ongoing. A new organisation, the GACJT, was created to control the land.
However, insiders say the lease transfer may not be signed off on until the ORIC investigation has been completed, although federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt has never confirmed this. His office did not respond to questions about the handing over of the lease to GACJT.
The Northern Territory Government recently set up a company called Jabiru Kabolkmakmen Limited in partnership with the GAC to support the town’s transition including supporting the transition of ownership, leasing and maintenance of housing. The government holds 51 per cent and GAC 49 per cent.
The plan for the town’s future
The town was established in 1981 to service the nearby Ranger uranium mine. ERA, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, will close the mine next month and begin its rehabilitation.
Jabiru has a population of just over 1000 people – down from a peak of about 3,000 – but would lose population with the mine closure, and a masterplan was developed to transform the town into a tourism hub touted as ‘economic empowerment’ and growth for the community.
Mirarr senior traditional owner Yvonne Margarula – who won the 1998 Friends of the Earth International Environment Award and the 1998 Nuclear-Free Future Award, as well as the 1999 US Goldman Environmental Prize for her fight against Jakiluka uranium mine – told the media the legislative changes were part of her people’s plan for the future.
“They are essential to ensuring the vibrant post-mining future of Jabiru and the Kakadu region that Mirarr have been planning for,” she said.
“We look forward to welcoming visitors from all around the world to our beautiful country.”
GAC chief executive officer Justin O’Brien also told the media the handback of the land was a “cause for celebration”.
“Since 2000, the Mirarr have wanted to see Jabiru become an Aboriginal-owned township,” he said.
“This bipartisan change to the legislation is an essential step to correct the historical exclusion of the town of Jabiru from Aboriginal ownership and allow Mirarr to take the legal control they need to enact their vision.”
The masterplan states the Mirarr people have a vision for Jabiru as: “A world leading ecologically sustainable, economically and socially vibrant community where traditional Aboriginal culture, all people and the natural environment flourishes.”
The vision is a $446 million rejuvenation across Kakadu National Park. In Jabiru, this includes a massive new luxury hotel and wellness spa, a lakeside beach and crocodiles removed from the lake, as well as a visitor centre and a world heritage centre.
According to the masterplan, the site of the current town camp is close to the area designated for a luxury hotel and glamping.
GAC began developing the masterplan in late 2016, and said the key purpose was to make sure traditional owners’ views and vision were considered in future government and private stakeholder decision making.
The masterplan stated the Mirarr and GAC had considered the interests of other Aboriginal people who live and work in Jabiru.
However, people inside Kakadu and familiar with what is happening, said GAC did not consult over the masterplan.
In July 2018, the Northern Territory Government promised $135.5 million to be spent in the town over four years and in 2019 the Federal Government promised to spend $75 million to $95 million in the town.
ERA holds most of the roughly 300 houses in the town, which will be handed back to the traditional owners. The company signed a memorandum of understanding in 2019 saying it would repair the houses, which were built in the 1980s.
A differing view on Kakadu
Mr Lindner said there was widespread concern within Jabiru the “grandiose” plan for Kakadu is defended only by those “who haven’t realised it will not make money,” and said the plan to establish a five-star hotel is “ludicrous” and unlikely to eventuate in the wake of the worst recession in three decades.
“What could happen is these people will be evicted, they’ll clear the land and then there won’t be the funds to make the hotel,” he said.
“There is an office of government employees committed to this.
“The executive of Gundjeihmi corporation have Labor ties. They are regarded as having a plausible finger on the pulse of Jabiru but that is not true.
“The NT Government could probably have responded quite well to different advice coming from Jabiru.
“The Mirarr traditional elders have been shown an artist’s impression of the finished product, but they are being misled.
“The reality is not explained – it will take several years to get to the finished product, some of these people might not even live to see it all done.”
He cites the closure of the Aurora Kakadu Resort in September of last year “due to decreased interest in Kakadu” as proof it will not work.
Data from Parks Australia shows visitor numbers have fallen over the last decade. There were 195,693 visitors in 2019, compared to 227,262 visitors in 2008.
“Access is poor, and people are not coming here to see indoor stuff, they want to see Kakadu on the ground,” Mr Lindner said.
“This idea of a hotel for millionaire playboys is fanciful.
“A tourism hub for Kakadu means producing low-key services for park users like backpackers, families and grey nomads.”
Closely tied to the town camp community through family connections, Mr Lindner said there is no dispute between Jabiru’s traditional elders.
“Executives of Gundjeihmi [Aboriginal Corporation] do not want to build new houses, but traditional elders want to look after these people,” he said.
The plan for the Manabadurma town camp
The plan for the future of the Manabadurma town camp is more difficult to understand.
The $2.37 million Living on the Edge report estimated it would cost just over $7 million to fix the Manabadurma houses themselves and the infrastructure supporting the town camp.
The report said the lease for the land where the 12 houses sat was due to expire in January 2021 and traditional owners said they would not support a further extension of the lease and residents needed to be assisted in moving back to their own lands or major urban centres.
However, the Northern Land Council disputed the report stating the issue of the lease was incorrect and would not be expiring in January. It said the town camp had never been subject to any sublease from the Jabiru Town Development Authority, or any other tenure arrangements, because there has been no viable proponent to take responsibility for Manabadurma and planning laws have not permitted residential use of the land.
It said Manabadurma was previously zoned as Recreation and Future Use and is currently zoned as Tourism Commercial. So possibly after June 30 it will be on GACJT land and subject to their decisions.
The GAC did not respond to questions about whether the traditional owners still wanted the town camp knocked down when they took over the land.
Mr Lindner said he also understood that a recent decision gave a stay of demolition of the houses for several years.
“Last year when the grand plan came into being for the upgrading of Jabiru, the town camp was in the way,” he said.
“Last month they were definitely being given a very short period of time that they would have to leave the town camp and go back to wherever they come from, whatever that means.”
But he said he now understood it could be several years before they had to move and said his understanding was the traditional owners were happy to have them stay in the area but it was white executives from GAC who wanted them gone.
Mr Lindner said he understood there had been a proposal to build homes out of Jabiru town for the people but it was considered by the government to be too close to the old mine and left the agenda.
“The issues have been very stressful and causing irritation depending on the nature of the people being inflicted upon, and have been changed by the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, because they did not reflect the views of the traditional owners,” he said.
“It is very, very unsatisfactory.”
Warnbi Aboriginal Corporation’s Avinash Yadav said they were aware the Department of Chief Minister consulted with Manabadurma residents in late 2019 and a report had been prepared.
“We have not received any official notification of an outcome but we understand that DCM is liaising with Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation on the matter,” she said.
“As a service provider we understand that residents from Manabadurma do not want to move elsewhere, we cannot comment whether they should be moved, or where they can be moved if they get moved.
“As per the Living on the Edge report, we understand Manabadurma could possibly be allocated up to $1.94 million but for some reasons we are not aware of, no funds for Manabadurma were allocated except regular repairs and maintenance, and in absence of major boost of funds we are not able to bring the houses up to the Residential Tenancy Act.”
The Territory Government’s initial response to the report did not mention the town camp specifically and it has not been mentioned by name in follow up reports by the Town Camps Futures Unit, which was created as a response to the report.
Jabiru was established on freehold leased land from the Director of National Parks to the Jabiru Town Development Authority, which is a Northern Territory statutory authority. The lease is due to end on June 30, 2021.
Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt has not specifically said when the land will be handed to the GACJT but it is presumed that it will be June 30, but as noted earlier, there are some who believe it is now dependent on the findings of the ORIC investigation.
In April 2018, the Territory Government released its initial response to the town camp review, and promised $25.5 million for urgent repairs and maintenance and the establishment of the Town Camps Futures Unit.
The Futures Unit was established four months later in August 2018, and developed a five-year plan for town camps running from 2019 – 2024 which raised the action needed and the development of five-year investment plans, and community specific action plans through local decision making but did not provide specific details about what would happen in each town camp.
Across 2019 to 2021 there was to be resident local housing groups and/or associations established and community specific action plans developed.
In November 2018, the Territory Government announced a further $20 million for additional works in Top End town camps.
The Northern Territory Government has not publicly stated what will happen with Manabadurma.
In its June 30, 2019 progress report, the Futures Unit did not mention Manabadurma in the section entitled, “percentage of houses made safe”.
Despite that report stating there would be a progress report provided to the government by September 30 each year, the most recent one does not seem to be publicly available.
But it does state $38.4 million of the $40.4 million promised for housing and infrastructure has been spent across 14 town camps.
However, it does not state which town camps and doesn’t detail exactly what work has been done.
Mr Gosford said the NLC would be working to hold the Commonwealth and NT governments and ERA to account and ensure they meet their obligations as part of the transition plan that will see Jabiru township move from a mining town to a tourism-based town and regional service hub.
Mr Gosford said the NLC understood that the majority of residents of Manabadurma are from country throughout the west and central Arnhem regions. But the NLC said they did not know how many people were affected.
The NT Independent understands the NLC did discuss the future of these people with members of GAC in Katherine last week.
What the Living on the Edge report says about Manabadurma
Manabadurma started in 1978 as Lake Camp initially by a small family group who moved between Jabiru and Mudginberri (Madjinbardi) outstation, 15km northeast of Jabiru, the report said.
But now, some of the people who live there permanently originally came from Gunbalanyah community or Manmoiyi outstation.
The report says it was left alone because it wasn’t understood that the people who lived there didn’t own the land, and the Mirrar people did not have their own organisation to speak on their behalf.
Warnbi Aboriginal Corporation – which was established by the Kakadu traditional owners to provide services and community development for outstations – oversees services at the camp but does not get enough money from rent, which is roughly $30 per adult per week – to provide services, except for some repairs and maintenance from $2,800 in funding per house a year.
“They say they are keen to maintain their relationship with the residents but are well aware of the negative views that the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, the traditional owners organisation, has in relation about the continuing presence of the town camp on their traditional lands,” the report says
“The residents do not seem to be aware of the negative views about their continued occupation of Mirarr traditional lands. They like living where they are and have developed an attachment to the area based on length of stay and a desire for the services Jabiru offers them.”
The review said GAC thinks town camp residents should return to their communities of origin and they say they have been given instructions by the Mirrar people to make sure their views are heard.
“This view has not always been expressed by Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, and previous management provided support for the residents at Manabadurma, and introduced them to the award-winning architects who built their homes, Troppo Architects,” the report said.
Those Troppo designed houses were built in the late 1980s and are the ones that stand today.
“GAC made it clear during the review that one of the first actions the traditional owners will take is to demolish Manabaduma, and send the current residents back to their own communities,” the report said.
“GAC executive staff say the residents have no traditional ties to this place and are not welcome, and have never been.”
The report said Manabadurma’s future looked bleak and said over the next five years the residents “need to be assisted to transition back to their own lands or to major urban areas if that is their wish”.
It said minimal money should be spent on the camp to ensure people are safe and well as the transition happens.
The cost to fix up the houses to comply with the Residential Tenancy Act was estimated to be $1,944,777. All of the houses are more than 20 years old and with most in average condition and the rest in poor condition, with an average of 2.7 people living per bedroom.
It cited hygiene and cleanliness of the houses as a significant issue with the conditions unsanitary and likely to manifest in significant health issues.
The report said it was likely there was asbestos, and two houses did not have serviceable doors and eight did not have serviceable windows.
The report estimated it would cost $5.1 million to fix the existing infrastructure.
A deeper exploration of history
Mr Lindner’s account of the history of the camp differs from the town camp’s review document.
Unwritten in widespread history, he says at the turn of the last century, a group of people from Arnhem Land moved to the area in search of coffee, tea and sugar, and were welcomed by buffalo shooters short on labour. He said they lived in camps in the Alligator rivers area and began a camp called Mudginberri about 15km from the current town.
Mr Lindner said they came from around where Maningrida now is, including his wife’s family who came about 80 years ago for buffalo hunting before the hide industry collapsed in the 1950s. He said they later moved because of the alcohol-fuelled violence in Mudginberri to Bush Camp 009 closer to where the airport is near Ranger, which had no services and was just a shanty camp.
He said Manabaduma town camp was established in Jabiru as a transient camp but they began to occupy it permanently and now had a fluctuating population of more than 60 who are descendants from the original movement from Arnhem Land.
“This history [widely] is unknown,” he says. “…and the people have been here since.”
“These people have been here all their lives. They were born in the Alligators rivers area but with ancestors towards Maningrida.
“The town camp is essentially comprised of one group of buffalo culture people who were out of Mudginberri and other stations and they have family clan links with each other.
“They don’t want to leave.
“Some of the senior traditional owners have unwittingly been a party to evicting some people they were very friendly with.”
What the masterplan was based on
The masterplan pivoted off a business case which was not created until June 2018, by Stafford Strategy who consult in the areas of planning and development, economics, finance and marketing. The masterplan is largely a cut and paste of that document. Stafford Strategy says it prepared the business case for GAC. The Department of Chief Minister and Cabinet confirms it paid for it but did not say how much it cost and there is no record of it on the Territory Government’s tender website as being put out to public tender.
The business case authors said it would cost $446 million to rejuvenate Kakadu National park and Jabiru to guarantee their future as tourism destinations. This would be made up of $256.3 million in public funding for infrastructure for Jabiru but including $51 million for Kakadu National Park. In this, $35.8 million was to be spent on the Jabiru Airport, $16.2 million for an education precinct, $21.9 million for the Bininj Resource Centre, $8.3 million for a community entertainment hub and $174.1 million for residential, roads, electricity and bridges.
There would also be $133.5 million in public-private partnership money. This would be made up of publicly funded projects, including $57.7 million for a World Heritage Interpretive Centre (WHIC), $19.6 million for a government services hub, $11.2 million for a medical centre and $45 million for residential property management. It said these had potential to generate profit and could attract private investment while the WHIC would have a “unique immersive technology attraction” which would cost money to go to and “may offer a financial partnership arrangement”.
The report also suggested $56.3 million in privately funded commercial projects, with $6.5 million for a wellness centre and spa, $1.7 million for an “eco recreation hub”, and $48.1 million for a five-star lodge and glamping facilities.
Under the category of innovation opportunities, it suggested the introduction of electric cars and boats and for robotics for delivering services in the interpretive centre.
It also suggested a bio-tech for future medicinal and health products within Kakadu National Park.
The business case also saw the introduction of augmented reality and virtual reality to “provide forms of cultural tourism experiences which do not necessitate high staffing numbers”.
The NT Independent revealed in July that Department of Chief Minister deputy chief executive Andy Cowan charged taxpayers for a trip to Epcot Centre at Disney World in Orlando, Florida last November – a theme park known as the “experimental prototype city of tomorrow”.
He said the money was being reimbursed by Kakadu Tourism – eight months after his trip – and that he went there at the request of the chair of Kakadu Tourism to support a board member in his role as chair of the Jabiru and Kakadu Taskforce.”
Kakadu Tourism director Robert Allert said they were considering a virtual reality exhibit in a Jabiru Indigenous cultural centre and said he wanted Mr Cowan to see the Epcot Centre exhibit so when he made representations to the government Mr Cowan would know what he was talking about.
No record of a “taskforce” exists in publicly available government documents, however a document from 2017 states that Mr Cowan is one of four NT Government employees on the Jabiru Steering Committee.
What they predict the changes will do
That committee estimated there would be 92,000 more visitors – or about double the number who visit now – in the first year all the attractions were operating. The masterplan said it would take until 2028 until construction of the lakeside cultural precinct began. However, this was based on the assumption the land would be handed to the Mirarr in 2018.
There was no explanation of how that figure was arrived at, but in the conclusion it stated the top line cost benefit analysis was based on solid market demand research and robust assumptions.
“Importantly, it is likely to be far harder to generate the estimated visitor growth forecasts without the critical mass of attractions and facilities all being operational together; a staged approach to delivery of elements would therefore likely struggle to generate the same level of visitor growth and likely returns,” the business case said.
It stated that during the construction phase there would be $1,751 unique jobs created across the NT with 178 in Jabiru and 1,574 in Darwin. And $1.02 billion in total economic output including direct construction costs and broader economic multiplier effects, with $222.6 million Jabiru and $795.7 million in Darwin. And it estimated $7.2 million in payroll tax for the NT Government and $45 million in GST revenue for the Federal Government.
During the operational phase, the report said it would provide 125.7 full time equivalent jobs and an increase of visitors to the NT of 2.7 million over 10 years, with 1.3 million of them going to Jabiru.
With additional reporting by Roxanne Fitzgerald