L-R. Neville Merritt a board member of the Gilgandra LALC and Chairperson of the Aboriginal Reference Group for the Central West Catchment Management Authority with local horticultural trainee Adam Louie and Thomas Payne from the Central West Catchment Management Authority.
LALC LAND: The Gilgandra Aboriginal community has teamed up with a government authority to return a significant parcel of land back to its former glory. But how they got there is a remarkable story of white and black Australians working together. CHRIS GRAHAM reports.
In its 30 year history, the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act has delivered a modest amount of land back to its owners – less than 0.1 percent of the total NSW land mass.
It’s a fact known only too well out west at the Gilgandra Local Aboriginal Land Council.
The LALC has 39 properties in the town itself, but save for a few small blocks out of town, that was the sum total of the LALC’s land holding, unresolved land claims notwithstanding.
That was until 2000, when the LALC was gifted a significant piece of land on the edge of town. How the land came to be returned is quite unique in the history of NSW country towns.
As the town of Gilgandra grew throughout the 1900s, Aboriginal people remained as fringe dwellers on the edge of the community.
The community lived on the banks of the Castlereagh river at a place called Tin City. The reason for the name is obvious – it was a collection of ramshackle tin humpies.
But a major flood in 1955 forced the community to move.
Eventually, many ended up living on an 81-acre property called The Pines, still on the edge of town, but safer from floods.
At its peak, up to 40 Aboriginal families lived at The Pines, again in ramshackle tin humpies spread across the property.
What’s so unique about The Pines is that the land was actually owned by a local white family – the Hargraves.
Remarkably, they not only allowed the Aboriginal community to live on the land, but they also helped support them, and provided local men and women with work at their dairy.
This was throughout an era when country towns in NSW were renowned for their racism towards Aboriginal people, rather than their generosity.
Local men Wayne Bamblett and James Merritt finally put in a native title claim over The Pines in the late 1990s.
That claim remained unresolved for several years, but before the last of the Hargraves brothers passed away, they gifted the land back to the Gilgandra LALC in 2000, via the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act.
Neville Merritt is a Board member of the Gilgandra LALC and Chairperson of the Aboriginal Reference Group for the Central West Catchment Management Authority.
He grew up at The Pines and recalls the kindness of the Hargraves families.
“They were real good people. You couldn’t get better people. They treated us as human beings, not as blacks,” says Neville.
“We used to go there and do little jobs to get milk. I used to look after his cows and get a bit of money.”
The Hargraves even refused an offer to purchase the land from the Gilgandra Shire Council.
“The Shire tried to buy it off them but they wouldn’t sell. All Pat Hargraves asked from us is that when we pulled the fence down, we rolled up the wire because he wanted to keep it,” says Neville.
“I think he handed it back because he had a passion for Aboriginal people.”
Now that The Pines is back in the hands of the Aboriginal community, the Gilgandra LALC has big plans for its future.
Veronica Smith is the Chairperson of the Gilgandra LALC.
“For years the Shire wouldn’t let us build or do anything at The Pines. It was classed as industrial,” says Veronica.
“Last year, they did a rezoning of the town. So we put in an application to them so we could build on it.
“They granted us permission for one building – they didn’t want to make it a mission again.”
But one building is all the Gilgandra LALC needs, because they have plans to put The Pines back on the map as thriving part of the Gilgandra Aboriginal community.
“Our intentions are to put a big cultural centre up there. It can be an attraction for people coming from out of town,” says Veronica.
“We want to include a hall so people in the town can have their own functions and things up there; BBQ areas; a place to show our artworks.
“The schools are very interested in excursions, and the high school is already very involved with us now.”
While the plans for the Cultural Centre bubble away in the background, the LALC is looking to restore as much of the natural habitat of The Pines as possible.
And that’s where a partnership with the Central West Catchment Management Authority (CMA) comes in.
Gilgandra LALC secured a grant through the NSW Environmental Trust and with the help of the Central West CMA, they’re starting to transform The Pines back to its former glory.
The term of the Environmental Trust grant is three years, although the bulk of funds will be spent in the first year.
Part of the project involves completing a Property Vegetation Plan. Thomas Payne from the Central West CMA says Gilgandra LALC wasn’t compelled to complete the plan, but “chose to show that they’re playing by the rules”.
There are two main goals with the project – rehabilitation and restoration of the bushland, but also capacity building for Gilgandra LALC members so that they can participate in restoring The Pines.
It’s even led to local employment – the Central West CMA and the Gilgandra LALC have combined to take on a trainee, a young local Aboriginal man born and raised in Gilgandra.
Adam Louie works with the CMA and the LALC as a horticultural trainee.
He’s employed through Access Group Training and is studying at TAFE to complete a Certificate III in Horticulture. He’ll also complete a Conservation Land Management Certificate III.
Adam spends a week at TAFE and then a week in the CMA office.
“Every day is different. There’s a bit of field work, and I like the fact that I’m out learning about plants and trees,” says Adam.
“It’s good to be out in the bush. But I also enjoy being in the office on the computer or reading out of a book.”
And obviously, much of his work involves helping the LALC to complete the Vegetation Plan.
“You can imagine the area would have been grazed by cattle. It hasn’t been actively managed for some time, so there’s a lot of woody weeds such as Tiger Pear and African Box Thorn,” says Thomas Payne.
“We’re hoping by doing a burn in certain areas of The Pines that we’ll get germination of the seed bank of shrubs – things like wattles which typically come back after a fire.
“Obviously the more diverse native vegetation you have, the more diverse native animals you’ll have there as well.”
And on that front, Adam is already on the case, scouring The Pines to determine what native fauna already call the land home.
“We were out looking for (animal) scats and we came across echindas, kangaroos, possums, the Red Caped Robin,” he says.
Adam is hopeful of a career in land management.
“I like the variety, but I’ll go wherever it takes me.”
• The Gilgandra LALC is planning an open day for the entire Gilgandra community later this month. Tracker will bring you news about The Pines development as it progresses.