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A new sentence for growing in the wild

May 16 2003
SMH

Australian native plants are poised for export glory, once they get out of jail. Alan Harman reports.

Prisoners are a forward-looking bunch, eagerly eyeing their release date, but some Junee jail inmates are gazing 30,000 years into the past to cultivate an almost-forgotten gathering system.

In a venture involving scientists and Aborigines, the jail has been growing native Australian food plants with the aim of turning bush tucker from a cottage industry into a huge domestic and export money-maker while providing prisoners with an income when they have served their time.

The privately managed prison at Junee - with about 120 Aborigines in its inmate population of 750 - is taking part in the research with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation to develop the ancient crops.

The Junee prison operates the 1.5-hectare native food site on its 100-hectare farm that gives about 35 inmates practical training in agriculture as well as supplying part of the menu for the prison population. Recently, that practical experience included handling the worst drought since European settlement of the east coast in 1788.

The bush produces a vast range of native foods that for thousands of years have been staples in the Aboriginal diet. Already about 100 individual species with marketing potential have been identified. They carry such exotic names as muntry, bush tomato, lemon aspen, mountain pepper, desert lime and elegant wattle and are growing on a well-kept site just outside the perimeter fence.

Few Australians know these plants or their crops. Although they are native to Australia they have been all but ignored as a food source by new chums since Europeans started arriving. Most of the little amount of native food that is harvested commercially is sold in Europe, rather than in Australia.

At present the small market for the products is met by collecting them in the wild - a system not sustainable for organised marketing and a limit on the industry's development.

The prison site is one of eight around Australia, covering a range of climatic regions and soil types, being used by the CSIRO and native produce groups to find the ideal growing conditions for cultivated native foods.

Agronomists predict the native food business has the potential to be worth $100 million annually and the Junee project is part of a Federal Government drive to help Aboriginal communities develop greater economic independence. Australasian Correctional Management (ACM), the local subsidiary of the American prison operator Wackenhut Corrections Corp, has committed $50,000 to the project.

The CSIRO's project leader, Maarten Ryder, warns if the native food industry is not developed other countries will seize the day, just as they did with the commercialisation of flowers once unique to Australia. "South Africa, Israel and Columbia now export more Australian native flowers than Australia does," Ryder says.

The program manager at the Junee centre, Richard Parnell, is negotiating to have Aboriginal inmates take a 20-week accredited course in native foods. Most Australian prison rehabilitation programs have little relevance to Aborigines or Torres Strait Islanders and ACM sees the native food plant program as an opportunity. "I think it is fantastic to get a program that is culturally specific," says Parnell.

He foresees a time when the centre will host open days and invite Aboriginal leaders to visit and see the native foods program. They, in turn, could take the knowledge gained back to their communities.

An ACM consultant, Phil Goodman, says the prison needs to create a profitable native foods business. "It needs to be run on a commercial basis, not just as a classroom," he says. "If we don't have a business, we don't have a program."

To reinforce the native food industry's potential, a CSIRO researcher, Yvonne Latham, who monitors the collection of plant growth data and site maintenance, also offers a taste of the future with such items as muffins flavoured with fruit from native plants.

The prison's development plan for native plants will include a move away from marketing the products as bush tucker.

Researchers say the average Australian consumer equates bush tucker with wriggling worms and bugs. From a marketing point of view, they say it it is best to package the whole concept in terms of Australian native cuisine or native ingredients.

"I think there is a curious thing in Australia where we tend not to value what's right here on our doorstep," Ryder says. "At the moment it is an emerging industry. There is a growing demand for native food products and a lot of these are wild-harvested at the moment.

"People are going out and picking or taking from the wild but this will not be sustainable in the long term if the market keeps increasing."

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