Through the smoke, the silhouettes of a dozen painted Tiwi Islander men dance forward in deliberate, traditional steps to present a message stick to two Japanese businessmen.
The message is clear: the remote Northern Territory community is ready to do business.
It’s a slogan the NT government has been trumpeting for 18 months, and on Monday in Wurrumiyanga on Bathurst Island, about 80km north of Darwin, several hundred community members witnessed the pay-off, as a memorandum of understanding was signed with Mitsui & Co that will see up to $200 million flow to the Tiwi over the next five years.
The multinational company is Australia’s third largest woodchip exporter, and the deal will enable NT woodchip to be sold to customers in Japan, India and China, and 100 local jobs created.
“This is a day that belongs to Tiwi and others who have believed in our strength to manage our land and to create our own resource upon these islands, and to give us jobs and opportunities that (are) truly our own,” chairman of the Tiwi Land Council, Gibson Farmer Illortaminni, told the community.
“We’re able now to contribute to the security and wellbeing of our people.”
NT Chief Minister Adam Giles said the Tiwi people had spent more than $9 million of their own money on the management of the plantation, which they took on in 2009, and said the partnership will give them some return on that investment.
The Tiwi-owned Tiwi Plantations Corporation manages 30,000 hectares of acacia mangium on neighbouring Melville Island, and will export 3000 hectares a year from a new port there from April.
The Tiwi have a vision to create a private economy, general manager Roger Smith said.
“It’s a commitment to create jobs for their children and grandchildren and income for their communities,” he said.
The MOU is the first step to bolster Tiwi economic confidence, Mr Giles said, and the government is looking into opportunities for further expansion of the fishing, mining and tourism industries in the area.
“Tiwi people are taking control of their own lives … (you) should be proud of the way things are moving forward,” he told the community.
“I want to see others follow in Tiwi footsteps right around the Territory.”
The NT government has been pursuing stronger trade ties with Japan, culminating in two visits by the chief minister last year.
“This is the first investment by Mitsui in the Northern Territory and it happens to be on Aboriginal country with the Tiwi people; that’s a great, outstanding success,” he told reporters.
“A stimulation in economic development, a growth in jobs, and starts that transition from welfare to work – that’s what we all want to see.”
Mr Farmer, who began working in forestry at the age of 17 about 40 years ago, said it was crucial for young Tiwi Islanders to recognise they had a viable future at home and stressed the importance of a move away from welfare dependency.
“We’ve got to get our young people off Centrelink, because there’s jobs out there for our people,” he said.