Indigenous Forestry Unlocks North Australia’s $300m Future

A new report, published by FWPA, highlights the potential for indigenous forestry to serve the Asia-Pacific region.

Mon 11 Mar 24


Indigenous-led forestry could be key to unlocking Northern Australia’s potential, with East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory having at least 3 million hectares of “globally important biodiversity and ecosystem potential” that is “suitable for commercial wood production.”

That is according to a new report prepared by Forest Wood Products Australia (FWPA), with support from the University of Sunshine Coast, the Northern Territory Government’s Department of Tourism, Industry and Trade, the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) Salisbury Forest Research Centre, and the Developing East Arnhem Land (DEAL) indigenous-led company.

Published on the FWPA website, the research provides, for the first time, a model for indigenous-led regional development through native forestry, which could be applied to the broader Northern Australian region.

Members of the FWPA Board and Executive Management travelled to the Tiwi Islands. (Photo Credit: Supplied)
Members of the FWPA Board and Executive Management travelled to the Tiwi Islands late last year. (Photo Credit: Supplied)

The findings come after Wood Central reported in September that key members of the FWPA board and executive management visited the East Arnhem Lands, with the region critical for servicing Australia’s fibre needs and the greater Asia Pacific region.

For the University of Sunshine Coast’s Adjunct Professor Mark Annandale, the project demonstrates the potential for timber and non-timber-based forest products, including payment for ecosystem services that could underpin Indigenous-led commercial forestry in the region.

“The project successfully raised regional stakeholder awareness of sustainable native forestry and created expanded interest in this industry and its potential to support Indigenous livelihoods and regional development,” Associate Professor Annandale said.

“This project has generated significant momentum further to advance Indigenous-led community forestry development in East Arnhem,” he said.

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Areas assessed as being potentially available and suitable for commercial wood production in northern
Australia. (Source: ABARES (2019, data provided for the CRCNA as part of a report prepared in 2020)

The research comes after the university – which earlier this month joined the $100m Australian Forest and Wood Innovation (AFWI) Research Centre – worked with Timber Queensland, the Cooperative Research Centre for Northern Australia (CRCNA), Industry Edge and the Northern Territory and Queensland State Governments on two important projects, demonstrating the commercial viability of forestry in Northern Australia.

That included a Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia (CRCNA), published on the Timber Queensland website, which aimed to “identify the growth potential for northern Australia’s forestry and forestry products industry.”

The report, according to Timber Queensland CEO, Mick Stephens, identified that the Northern Australian forestry and forest products industry “could potentially treble its production value to up to $300 million per annum and create 600 new jobs over the next five to ten years.”

However, according to the University of Sunshine Coast Project Manager, Dr John Meadows, the challenge is to seize on the momentum by cultivating the trade of timber and non-timber products – which could involve substituting imported timbers for homegrown NT timbers.

Gumatj sawmill hardwood truss being used for local housing fotor 2024031211544
Hardwood trusses, supplied by the Gumatj sawmill, are now used in local building and construction. (Photo Credit: Supplied by Timber Queensland)

“The project team is grasping the momentum,” Dr Meadows said, “and is now working with the Birany Birany community, the Gumatj Corporation, and other collaborative partners to develop a new follow-on project to test the commercial viability of Indigenous community forestry in the region.”

That involves extensive on-the-job (paid) workplace development, which the researchers said was essential for capacity building. According to the report, “the project team realised early on that the opportunity to deliver training would be limited,” before adding that “challenges with Traditional Owners language, literacy, numeracy and digital (LLND) capacity; and also the lack of suitable Registered Training Organisation providers,” means that “the capacity to deliver accredited forestry-focused activities or skillsets does not currently exist within the East Arnhem region.”

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The report identified the importance of on-the-job and RTO training. Here, the Northern Territory Government’s Project Manager, Dallas Anson, welcomed workshop attendees in July 2023 on Birany Birany Homelands in East Arnhem Land (Photo Credit: Supplied)

“To help address this shortfall and other identified training challenges, project team members from the Northern Territory Government, in collaboration with Charles Darwin University, Gumatj Corporation, Tiwi Plantations Corporation, Midway Ltd and the Forestry Industry Association of the Northern Territory, have finalised a Northern Territory forestry training program proposal (which is before the Federal government as part of a workforce grant).”

The report comes weeks after the Tasmanian industry backed a radical proposal that could see 85% of the land potentially harvested returned to Traditional Owners.

“It was an idea that had some reasonable interest and support and was worthy of taking further,” according to Tasmanian Forest Products Association Chair Shawn Britton, who added, “Resource security is always an issue. The industry will advocate and back a government that will give the ­industry and its people secure resource outcomes.”

According to former Forestry Tasmanian Managing Director Bob Gordon, “the concept is worth exploring,” which, based on his experience working with Indigenous communities in East Arnhem Land, could address a shortage of specialty timbers and involve Aboriginal people in land management.


  • Jason Ross

    Jason Ross, publisher, is a 15-year professional in building and construction, connecting with more than 400 specifiers. A Gottstein Fellowship recipient, he is passionate about growing the market for wood-based information. Jason is Wood Central's in-house emcee and is available for corporate host and MC services.


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