Article by Paul Garvey courtesy of the Australian.
Western Australia’s Kimberley is regional Australia at its most extreme, whether it is in scale, beauty, challenges or opportunity. And it is a region at a crucial moment in its history.
When record-breaking floodwaters swept through much of the region earlier this year, following well-publicised social unrest and crime last year, the region’s immediate prospects looked difficult. Yet it is a region that has continued to capture imaginations, with the area now emerging as a prospective new renewable energy hotspot and drawing a new generation of investment that could take it closer to finally capitalising on its potential.
A region that has often felt like it has been forgotten by governments will now also find itself at the epicentre of new Indigenous policies at both state and federal level. With around 98 per cent of the Kimberley covered by Native Title, and with around 50 per cent of the region’s population Indigenous, it will be one of the areas most exposed to Western Australia’s overhauled Aboriginal cultural heritage laws and, potentially, an Indigenous voice to parliament.
Tyronne Garstone – the chief executive of the Kimberley region’s peak Indigenous body, the Kimberley Land Council, which works with more than two dozen of the region’s Native Title groups – can sense the change.
“We are at a pivotal time in the development of the Kimberleys,” Garstone told The Australian.
The winds of change are already sweeping through agriculture in the region, where cattle stations are developing new breeds.
The Kimberley covers more than 400,000 square kilometres – more than half the size of NSW – but is home to just over 35,000 people. It boasts some of the most spectacular natural beauty anywhere in Australia, from Purnululu National Park’s Bungle Bungles and the Mitchell Plateau in the east, through to Broome’s Cable Beach in the west, and is rich in examples of Indigenous heritage and culture.
Economically, however, it has always lived in the shadow of its more geologically blessed southern neighbour, the Pilbara. Its biggest contribution to the state’s mining industry, the famous Argyle diamond mine, closed forever in 2020 and has left an economic hole that is yet to be filled.
There are some early signs, however, that the global push towards clean energy could be the economic accelerator the Kimberley has been looking for.
Pollination Group, a global climate change investment and advisory firm, recently unveiled its plans for a $3.5bn renewable energy project. The project aims to take advantage of the vast amounts of hydro power from the Ord River formerly used by Argyle, as well as electricity from a huge 900-megawatt solar farm it says will be the largest in Australia, to help produce 50,000 tonnes a year of hydrogen.
The project’s proximity to the port of Wyndham, on the Kimberley’s northern coast, puts it closer to key markets of Asia. Notably, Pollination has been joined as equal equity partners by the KLC and local traditional owners, MG Corporation and Balangarra Aboriginal Corporation.
Rob Grant has spent 20 years working in the Kimberley, having been closely involved in the operation of the Ord hydro project.
Pollination saw the opportunity to combine the available capacity from Ord hydro with nearby Indigenous freehold landholdings that are ideal for solar farm development.
Grant believes the ownership structure of the East Kimberley project can set a new template for other similar ventures.
“The project is unique in the Australian context because of its physical characteristics, but we are also hoping that the ownership model is something that can be rolled out more broadly across the state and the country,” he said.
“The Kimberley is not the Pilbara, it hasn’t got the large-scale mining royalties that the Pilbara has enjoyed, so the balance sheets of the prescribed body corporates are obviously quite different.
“So to be able to offer them that opportunity, and the opportunity to build a commercial capacity by having them put people into the development company and see how projects of this type get developed, is exciting.”
Large-scale industrial development has not always been easy in the Kimberley. Woodside Energy ultimately abandoned plans to build a massive liquefied natural gas plant north of Broome – a plan that attracted vocal opposition from environmental groups and some traditional owners – after the cost of the project blew out dramatically.
Attempts to explore the region’s onshore gas potential attracted similar opposition, with Andrew Forrest’s Goshawk Energy ultimately walking away from its plans.
But renewable energy projects offer an ideological alignment with traditional owners that some abandoned plans did not. Garstone said the Kimberley had found it difficult in the past to balance its unique landscape and the cultural, social and environmental values of traditional owner groups with economic opportunities.
“I do see a new wave of renewable energy and potentially decarbonisation requirements present a really big opportunity for the traditional owners, because those industries do align with the value set,” he said.
It appears Pollination Group is by no means the only well- resourced group that has picked up on the potential of the Kimberley in recent times.
Yawuru’s chief business development officer Ellen Smith has seen a lot of unsolicited approaches over the past year from groups interested in trying to partner with the organisation.
“The global movement towards more ESG (environmental, social, governance) engagement means we’re seeing a lot more companies knocking on our door and saying ‘hey, we’ve got this opportunity and do you as an Aboriginal corporation want to join in?’,” she said.
“It feels like we are coming into an era both where people are needing to engage with Aboriginal corporations in order to get their social licence, but where they also recognise the value that First Nations people have in terms of their connection to country and community and what that can bring to the table. It’s really exciting.”
Indigenous engagement is also at the centre of what is the biggest active investment currently underway in the Kimberley, the $484m Thunderbird mineral sands mine owned by ASX- listed Sheffield Resources and China’s Yansteel through their 50-50 joint venture Kimberley Mineral Sands (KMS) some 150km east of Broome. Sheffield has set a target for 40 per cent of Thunderbird’s operational workforce to be Indigenous by the eighth year of operation.
Sheffield executive chairman Bruce Griffin says that while many have questioned whether the target is achievable, the joint venture was committed to it. Those jobs, he says, will be spread across all tiers of the operation.
“It’s not a success if 40 per cent means 80 per cent of low-level positions and zero per cent of management positions,” he said.
“We would see success as when you see diversity and representation across the whole business.”
Beyond employment, KMS is looking to collaborate with local Indigenous businesses.
It has already agreed to work with Yawuru in taking long-term leases over some of the 15 homes the Indigenous corporation is planning to build on some of its landholdings around Broome.
While Broome is in the middle of a protracted housing shortage, the economics of building more homes has not always been compelling due to the higher costs of getting things built in the Kimberley. The commitment from KMS and others has helped improve the financial certainty of the housing project.
KMS is also looking to use local contractors for the mine wherever possible.
Broome-based KRED Enterprises, an Indigenous-run group that helps support Kimberley Indigenous groups in exploring economic opportunities, is currently supporting the establishment of a haulage business to truck mineral sands from the mine for export.
KRED chief executive Damien Parriman said that while that opportunity was still at an early stage, the potential opportunity was significant and it is a shift in the right direction.
“Traditional owners work really hard to make sure there are opportunities not only for employment but also for business opportunities when there is development on their traditional lands,” he said.
The mine’s Kimberley location has given KMS a point of difference when it comes to recruitment and staff retention in WA’s extremely tight labour market.
The option of living in Broome and driving in and out of the site for each swing can be an appealing alternative to FIFO life out of Perth.
Mr Griffin told The Australian that the main challenge stemming from Thunderbird’s Kimberley location was energy.
Rather than run Thunderbird off diesel, the project will operate using LNG trucked up to site from the Pilbara.
Meanwhile, the historical mainstay of the region’s economy, the pastoral industry, isn’t sitting still.
The cattle stations of the Kimberley have typically been home to Brahmin breeds, a hardy type of cattle that is well suited to the Kimberley climate but whose meat holds limited appeal domestically.
The vast majority of the region’s cattle end up being shipped to Indonesia. Some Kimberley cattle stations are now turning to find support from domestic markets.
The Kimberley’s reputation as a largely unspoilt natural paradise makes for an obvious marketing strategy if it can produce beef better suited to local palates.
The historic Fossil Downs station near Fitzroy Crossing, owned by Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Agriculture, recently welcomed the first calves of what it hopes will be a new crossbreed of cattle it has dubbed the Kimberley Composite.
The cattle are a combination of four different breeds. Station manager Rick Ford hopes the Kimberley Composite will tolerate the region’s tropical climate, will have a slick coat that is resistant to pests, have no horns, and will be of top-notch eating quality.
Similarly, at Yawuru’s Roebuck Plains cattle station near Broome, they are starting to investigate if and how to change out the herd to make the beef more attractive to the domestic market and lessen the station’s reliance on the Indonesian live export market.
Yawuru is also investigating whether to diversify part of the station into irrigated agriculture, and has started studies to establish the station’s carbon footprint with a view to making it carbon neutral.
Aboriginal Pastoral Academy, which has produced its first 11 graduates, who are now working at stations across the Pilbara and Kimberley. The number of applicants for this year’s program has tripled.
The Kimberley was also one of the regions most exposed to WA’s contentious new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act, with both Aboriginal groups and pastoralists alike having expressed concerns about the regime that came into force in July but was put up for review by the state government in August.
Chris Towne is the manager of Gogo Station, just outside Fitzroy Crossing. For years before the new rules came into place, Mr Towne would regularly consult with local Indigenous elders to ensure areas of cultural significance were not disturbed. But he feared the new rules risked opening up potential exploitation by Indigenous groups that could use the regime as a means of raising revenue.
“Ninety-nine per cent of pastoralists want to do the right thing, but the government did it the wrong way and pushed it across to make a statement,” he said.
“They made a rash decision that meant that as soon as you got a bloody shovel, you were too nervous to dig a hole unless you got approval for it.”
The industry, and the Kimberley generally, also remains vulnerable to the region’s comparatively undeveloped infrastructure.
The January floods destroyed the Fitzroy Crossing bridge, severing the only road artery between the Kimberley’s east and west. The outage meant that the only way to get from one side of the Fitzroy River to the other by road was via an enormous detour through the Northern Territory and South Australia, across WA’s southern coast and back north across the length of the state.
Gogo station, on the east side of the Fitzroy, was cut off from its usual port of Broome and instead had to truck its cattle an extra 1000km to Darwin for export.
A temporary low-level crossing is back in place, connecting the two halves of the Kimberley again, and a new bridge expected to be far more capable of withstanding such massive floods is well into construction. But the new bridge will not be ready until the middle of 2024 at the earliest, meaning Kimberley residents will be reliant on a barge or helicopters to cross the river when the waters rise again during the upcoming wet season.
The Kimberley’s infrastructure issues do not start and end at Fitzroy Crossing either.
The Great Northern Highway, which stretches from Broome through to Kununurra, still has numerous single-lane bridges. All trans-Kimberley traffic, including caravaners and massive road trains, have to negotiate those narrow crossings on a road that is part of the national Highway 1 that encircles the country. The single-lane crossings have long been a source of frustration in the Kimberley.
WA has begun working on upgrading some of the single-lane crossings near Kununurra, and WA treasurer and infrastructure minister Rita Saffioti told The Australian the state was looking into the potential to replace the remainder.
“They’re big projects, but we’ve got three that are under way now and we’re looking to secure further funding for the other bridges,” she said. “We have to look at how we can continue to improve the resilience of infrastructure, so we are looking at the entire Kimberley.”
The sensitivities surrounding any large-scale development in the Kimberley won’t go away. But there are growing hopes that the region can embrace some of its opportunities while also preserving the traits that make it special.
“The Kimberley should be a museum for everything that people like about the Kimberley, it should actually be allowed to be a successful place that people want to live in and can create businesses and lifestyle for themselves,” Sheffield’s Bruce Griffin says.
“It’s a balancing act.”