Outback Livelihoods Research Project

Outback Livelihoods

Project leader: Rolf Gerritsen, Tropical Savannas CRC and Charles Darwin University, Alice Springs

Introduction: The Outback Livelihoods Project

This project was to be a precursor to more sustained socio-economic research contingent upon the Tropical Savannas CRC being refunded for a further five years. It involved four separate sub-projects:

  • A CSIRO-led exercise looking at constructing and applying Bayesian belief systems in regional economic development (led by Dr Tom Measham, CSIRO);
  • PhD student Eva McRae-Williams, who investigated the conflict of ideas behind western and Aboriginal notions of “work” and the paradoxes that entails;
  • A study of economic multipliers, an exercise of direct and important relevance to regional economic development undertaken by Dr Natalie Stoeckl and A/Prof. Owen Stanley); and
  • An investigation of the possibility of establishing an Aboriginal natural resource management enterprise, using the market based instrument of carbon credit trading, led by Dr Rolf Gerritsen, Tropical Savannas CRC.

Regional Economic Multipliers in Australia's Tropical Savannas

Dr Natalie Stoeckl and A/Prof. Owen Stanley, James Cook University 

This project investigated economic development and industry interactions in remote and regional northern Australia and found that a healthy northern economy needs to focus on how it produces goods and services—hiring and buying locally—as well as the types of products and services it produces.  

A report of the project's work, Regional Economic Multipliers in Australia’s Savannas, found that organisations which use resources from within a rural community or region help the local economy to become more diverse—in turn making it more resilient—and ensure development paths are sustainable long term.

The study surveyed more than 970 organisations across 17 industries—one of the most extensive ever done in the region. Led by Dr Natalie Stoeckl and Associate Professor Owen Stanley of James Cook University in Townsville, the study also found that expenditure patterns of organisations in the savannas differed from their wider Australian counterparts.

You can download the entire report, and executive summary on this page.
Limited hardcopies are available; contact Dr Natalie Stoeckl.

Understandings and Values of Work in Ngukurr

The Other-Side of the Roper: Work ideology in Ngukurr
Eva McRae-Williams, Tropical Savannas CRC and Charles Darwin University

This PhD is titled Understandings and Values of Work in Ngukurr. It will concentrate on my analysis of the ethnographic data collected during periods of fieldwork. I began this research project in July 2005 and hope to submit my final draft in the middle of this year.

The concept of work is complex, its purpose, structure and value has changed over time and its meaning can be interpreted from many historical, social and cultural perspectives. My thesis draws upon the work ideologies inherent in Western culture and those which have developed within an Australian Aboriginal community. It describes the issues and differences within and between these ideologies and how they have influenced Aboriginal perspectives and experiences of work within a specific Aboriginal community; Ngukurr in South East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia.

My thesis stems from a need to better understand the perceived “problem” of Aboriginal employment or more precisely unemployment in remote communities. It questions common assumptions associated with the purpose, meaning and value of work through analysing historical, cultural and social components that have influenced the development and construction of work ideology in the study setting. In this presentation I will discuss the nature of Aboriginal work ideology in Ngukurr and through this process question the usefulness of employment statistics in the measurement of life quality in this remote Aboriginal community.

Modelling regional grazing viability

Dr Tom Measham, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Canberra

The idea of livelihoods — the capabilities, assets and activities required for a means of living — represents an important way of thinking about the health and viability of outback regions and the people who live them.

The project produced a 65-page report that reviews the literature on the livelihoods concept and its application to outback Australia. The literature reviewed clearly showed that diversification is a crucial way to maintain a viable income in rural Australia given the proportion of Australian farm households which is dependent on off-farm income. The report shows how an understanding of outback livelihoods can assist in promoting resilience amongst grazing regions, particularly for family-operated businesses.

The research also developed a model of the key factors affecting people's livelihoods in the upper Burdekin grazing communities of Queensland. This model uses Bayesian Belief Networks which bring together information from quantitative natural, environmental and resource management sciences with social, economic and cognitive sciences. This analysis showed that in the Burdekin region revenue rates and regional viability are the two of the most important livelihood elements, followed by grazing costs and succession planning.

You can download the report on this page, or contact Dr Tom Measham (contact details on this page).

Establishing a south-east Arnhem Land carbon credits enterprise

Summary of talk delivered by Dr Rolf Gerretsen at the Savanna Futures Forum, Darwin, 28 February, 2008

This project was initiated in 2005 and designed over a period of two years (2006–07) dry season fieldwork. I have had an intermittent association with the Ngukurr community for nearly 30 years and am on close terms with some of the most senior males in the community. So the fieldwork was not constrained by a lack of trust but focused upon educating people on the possibilities of a carbon trading business.

This talk describes the sub-project and then goes on to outline conundrums created by the “institutional” implications for the future of remote Aboriginal communities in northern (and central) Australia that arose out of the project and the resulting requirements for further research.  

The data upon which the south-east Arnhem Land carbon credit enterprise was predicated was supplied by Felicity Watt, of the NT Bushfires Council, and used the same satellite monitoring system pioneered by the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project. The WALFA project is essentially a regulatory grant program. What I wanted to design was a market-based instrument approach, which is less dependent upon governmental regulatory interventions and relies upon the incentive structure of the market. 

Data for fire patterns in south-east Arnhem Land was collected for five years. Vegetation patterns were incorporated into the data to provide a bank of potential carbon savings (by increasing early dry-season fires and decreasing late dry-season fires). The difference in fire intensity between early and late fires, creates this potential carbon saving and hence the tradeable credit. Depending upon the price obtained for each tonne of verifiable carbon saved, there is a potential annual income stream of between $400,000 and about $1 million available to this “business”. 

Therefore a south-east Arnhem Land carbon credit trading corporation is sustainable and economically viable, in the strict capitalist sense. But it is unlikely to happen, at least soon.

I now seek to explain why a sustainable, equitable and participatory carbon credits enterprise is not viable under contemporary institutional frameworks and hence why dramatic reforms in the institutional framework enveloping remote Aboriginal communities is required.

Firstly, the difficulty of implementing this carbon trading scheme is not because of Aboriginal incapacity. The Aboriginal people of south-east Arnhem Land know how to burn the country correctly. Incipient conflicts between various groups and the potential for overlapping claims to country (caused in part by intermarriage between groups and the increase in accessing rights to country through matrilineal descent lines) can be resolved with patient consultation over an extended period.

Also there are plenty of people in the community who could oversee the “business” elements of the enterprise. The problems with implementing the change in living arrangements involved in this proposal reside mainly with the structures and operation of government (and arguably these effects are worse than they were 20 years ago).

So I would claim that the difficulties with implementing this proposal lies squarely with the methods and processes of governments.

The governmental factors inhibiting Aboriginal people living on country

There are basically two sets of issues here:

A centralising spatial bias

Essentially this is about systems of incentives that have evolved over the past 20 years and which discourage Aboriginal people from living in small family or clan groups on country and force/encourage them to live on large multi-group communities. For example:

  • The centralization of (very inadequate) education opportunities that discourages families with children from living on outstations/homelands; and
  • The central bias of many programs and infrastructure (eg sporting and other facilities)

Even progressive governmental programs — in particular those associated with NRM or Aboriginal Land Management — ignore or devalue Aboriginal cultural interests in country and so are of limited social sustainability. That is they assist Aboriginal people to look after country but not necessarily to live on that country.

So the Aboriginal people remain dependent upon government for the funding to carry out their conservation and land management activities. That dependence is a fragile framework for the future.

The incapacity of government

This is an equally serious charge against governments of all persuasions. It has several interconnected elements which I will outline but do not have the time to elaborate upon:

  • The New Public Management (NPM) and the incentive structures created by programme budgeting versus effective fused service delivery (imposed “coordination”, via a central or lead agency, will not solve this). Related to the effects of NPM, the absence of long term and programmatically consistent funding (programs come and go with bewildering rapidity and inevitable ineffectiveness).
  • Credentialism vs para-professionalism which limits service delivery options (this particularly affects medical services) and means inadequate levels of services are inevitable (e.g. the shortage of doctors in remote Aboriginal Australia).
  • The change in whitefella socio-economic expectations
  • This creates high staff turnover, which is inimical both to Aboriginal modes of operating with whitefellas and means that government service agencies have little historical memory or policy continuity. It means high transaction costs for whitefella staff. Inadequate resources; a particular NT problem though endemic even in Commonwealth programs (e.g. Wadeye COAG trial).
  • Programs such as Land and Sea Rangers, IPA conservation programs, etc. — to say nothing of education and health (e.g. the inadequate medicare based funding in the NT) are all under-funded relative to need.
Arising out of the research I conducted in this Outback Livelihoods sub-project I have now begun an investigation of the means to rectify the systems of perverse incentives created by the relationship between government and remote Aboriginal communities: in effect, to try and provide an answer to the paradoxes that bedevil these “continuing conundrums”. The solutions I will propose will have to await another forum.


Dr Rolf Gerritsen
Tropical Savannas CRC
Tel: 08 8946 6792

Fax: 08 8946 7107

Bldg 42, Charles Darwin University

Ms Eva McRae-Williams
Menzies School of Health Research

24/68 Ryland Rd

Dr Tom Measham
Human Geographer
CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems
Tel: 03 6242 1789

Mobile: 0408 152 349
Fax: 02 6242 1705

Gungahlin Homestead

Dr Natalie Stoeckl
Senior Lecturer
Economics Program School of Business
Tel: 07 4781 4868

James Cook University