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The Real Cost of Closing Remote Communities, by Brian F. Codding, Douglas W. Bird and Rebecca Bliege Bird

Doing the sums on the contribution made by traditional Aboriginal economies

Western Australia has been in the midst of an economic boom fuelled by industries based on resource extraction, a boom that may now be busting. Alongside this giant, a quieter economic engine based on resource extraction chugs along: the customary sector of local Aboriginal economies. While the former is largely responsible for Australia’s recent economic prosperity, the latter either goes unnoticed or is dismissed as a ‘lifestyle choice’. However, only one of these economic sectors is truly viable in the long term. Mining operations wreak environmental havoc to extract and process non-renewable resources; traditional Aboriginal economies provide valuable ecosystems services in the process of sustainably harvesting renewable resources. Here we examine these parallel economic sectors as they operate within the remote Aboriginal community of Parnngurr in the Martu lands, held under exclusive native title determination. Martu call this region their home, with vast estates spanning east from the Pilbara to the Percival Lakes and south from the Kimberley to around Lake Disappointment.

Today, Martu operate across their lands making a living through a hybrid economy that links market, government and customary sectors. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the median weekly income in 2011 for an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person over fifteen years of age was $362. Martu in Parnngurr can do better: by working for the community (mostly through Community Development Employment Projects) or in the Martu Ranger program supported by Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa, or by producing paintings with Martumili Artists Cooperative, an individual could receive approximately $500 per week. Additionally, individuals frequently supplement their income by hunting and gathering wild foods: on average, each adult in Parnngurr spends 23 per cent of their days foraging, but many hunt or gather every other day. The average foraging event lasts about 2½ hours, over which an individual can expect to acquire between 2500 kilocalories and 3500 kilocalories. This can be converted to an approximate dollar amount based on the average costs of food from the community store, which equals about 200 kilocalories per Australian dollar. Those that forage for 2½ hours three or four days a week add an equivalent of $45 or $60 per week. This may not seem like a significant contribution, but it equals about a 10 per cent raise in salary and ends up contributing between 20 per cent and 50 per cent of the total calories consumed per capita in the community. If Martu gave up foraging to rely on government or wage labour in the remote communities, not only would they be poorer but also they would trade off up to half of their calories that come from fresh, healthy bush foods.

Now, individuals could choose to leave the community altogether and pursue training and work in one of the regional mining operations or related industries. From Parnngurr, the closest regional center is the town of Newman, the site of BHP Billiton’s massive iron-ore mining operation and one of the nationally identified high-growth mining towns that also happens to have more than 10 per cent Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander population. There are also several other mining operations encompassed within Martu Native Title lands, including Telfer (owned by Newcrest Mining) and Kintyre (operated by Cameco Mining), both with some employment opportunities for Martu. Those who choose to pursue work for the mines can increase their income to around $1000 per week, but this comes at significant costs, both in time to train for such work and in the opportunities lost directly through mining employment. At the most basic level, people in the remote communities who choose to seek training and employment in mining must give up significant familial and ritual obligations, severing ties to the land and people to whom they are inexorably connected. They would trade family for daily encounters with non-Aboriginal co-workers who are often less than sensitive to their alternative backgrounds and are at times even outright hostile. But perhaps the greatest cost is one that is not so obviously seen: this forager turned miner has de-coupled her or his relationship with the land. This may cost the Australian Commonwealth significantly more than expected.

Martu foraging centers on a number of key resource types, one of the most important being sand monitor lizards. In the process of hunting for sand monitor lizards over the winter months, Martu light small fires to clear ground cover that allows foragers to more easily spot their dens, a practice which results in significant increases in foraging efficiency and biodiversity. Simply by being smaller and more frequent than lightning-caused wildfires, Martu hunting fires reshuffle local vegetation mosaics to more fine-grained scales that benefit local fauna, including hill kangaroos and the very lizards Martu are hunting. Moreover, by reducing fuel loads and fragmenting vegetation, these hunting fires buffer the land against climate-driven cycles of catastrophic wildfires. In doing so, these hunting fires provide a valuable ecosystems service.

The Western Australian government implements an extensive prescribed burning program aimed at maintaining biodiversity, removing built-up fuels and rehabilitating fire-adapted vegetation. Veronique Florec and colleagues have estimated that prescribed fires cost approximately $80 per hectare, with other estimates running as low as $30 per hectare. In the process of hunting, two remote Martu communities, Parnngurr and Punmu, burned an average of 36,000 hectares (or 7 per cent of their foraging estate, which includes Western Australia’s largest and most remote national park, Karlamilyi) per year from 1999 to 2010. If the Western Australian government alone were to supply the benefits of prescribed fire in Martu country, it would cost between $1.08 million and $2.88 million per year. This means that the value of the ecosystems services provided by each Martu community ranges between $0.5 million and $1.4 million per year. By fragmenting vegetation across the landscape, Martu fires meet the same goals stated in government mandates to promote regional ecological integrity and biodiversity, and to reduce the risk of large wildfires that threaten life and property. In Martu country, these benefits are realized by the way that customary burning practices offset conservation costs across the native-title land and Karlamilyi National Park, as well as in the protection of infrastructure that includes mining operations.

Of course, this ecosystems service does not come free. Beyond the incentives individual Martu have to add to their income by foraging, their ability to live in these remote communities stems partly from government subsidies that fund the operations of the community. Figuring out the annual operating cost of each community is far from simple. As a starting point, recent figures show that the Commonwealth government spends $45 million per year to operate Western Australia’s 274 remote communities, but the Western Australian government suggests that this is only enough money to support 124 communities. These figures suggest that the average operating costs run between $160,000 and $360,000 per community per year. While not insignificant, these costs are more than recouped by the ecosystems service benefits gained by simply allowing Martu to live and hunt across their traditional estates. Even if burning were the only benefit provided by these remote communities, the government would pay a few hundred thousand dollars per year for the equivalent of about a million dollars in ecosystems services. This raises the question, who is subsidising whom? This simple point is missed by many members of state and Commonwealth governments who would otherwise close these communities completely.

These parallel extractive industries (foraging and mining) operating in Western Australia provide different opportunities for local individuals and different costs and benefits for the wider public. Remote community members do better economically than the national Indigenous average by engaging in a hybrid economy that includes the foraging within the customary economic sector, but they do not make as much money as they could if they joined local mining operations. However, by forsaking the potential gains earned by mining, Martu are able to maintain connections to their family and the land, which results in significant ecosystems service contributions. These benefits, provisioned by Martu and enjoyed across private and public sectors, far outweigh the costs of federal support to maintain remote communities. If the goal is to promote long-term sustainable livelihoods, policy makers would be well advised to consider the overall costs and benefits of these different but overlapping economic sectors to determine where to best allocate public funds.

Brian Codding is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and affiliate of the Global Change and Sustainability Center at the University of Utah. His research examines the dynamic interactions between humans and their environments. 

Douglas Bird is a Senior Research Scientist at Stanford University. For much of the last twenty-five years he has been working on understanding factors that influence natural resource use in remote Indigenous communities.

Rebecca Bliege Bird writes widely about gendered work and landscape ecology in Aboriginal Australia. She is an Associate Professor in Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment and Anthropology.


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R. Bliege Bird, D. W. Bird, B. F. Codding, C. H. Parker and J. H. Jones, ‘The “Fire Stick Farming” Hypothesis: Australian Aboriginal Foraging Strategies, Biodiversity and Anthropogenic Fire Mosaics’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences no. 105, 2008.

R. Bliege Bird, B. F. Codding, P. G. Kauhanen and D. W. Bird, ‘Aboriginal Hunting Buffers Climate-Driven Fire-Size Variability in Australia’s Spinifex Grasslands’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences no. 109, 2012.

R. Bliege Bird, N. Tayor, B.F. Codding, D. W. Bird, ‘Niche Construction and Dreaming Logic: Aboriginal Patch Mosaic Burning and Varanid Lizards (Varanus gouldii) in Australia’, Proceedings of the Royal Society, B. no. 280, 2013.

B. F. Codding, R. Bliege Bird, P. G. Kauhanen and D. W. Bird, ‘Conservation or Co-evolution? Intermediate Levels of Aboriginal Burning and Hunting Have Positive Effects on Kangaroo Populations in Western Australia’, Human Ecology no. 42, 2014.

B. F. Codding, R. Bliege Bird, D. W. Bird and D. W. Zeanah, ‘Alternative Aboriginal Economies: Martu Livelihoods in the 21st Century’, in Brian F. Codding and Karen Kramer (eds), Why Forage? Hunters and Gatherers in the 21st Century, Santa Fe, New Mexico, SAR Press, forthcoming 2015.

V. Florec, D. Pannell, M. Burton, J. Kelso, D. Mellor and G. Milne, ‘Economic Analysis of Bushfire Management Programs: A Western Australian Perspective’, Bushfire CRC and AFAC Annual Conference, 2012 <>