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Traditional Owners on Groote Eylandt are taking control of their own destinies by establishing a justice group, opening a manganese mine, developing an aquaculture venture, building a boarding school and taking over management of housing.

Senior Traditional Owner Tony Wurramarrba, chair of the Anindilyakwa Land Council, says: “This is our sovereign land.

“Local decision-making is just the start of the journey to full, formally recognised and legally binding self-governance.”

The land council today set up a Community Justice Group to develop an alternative to prison.

The strategy includes plans for a bush camp for offenders in the isolated, uninhabited far north of the main island.

“These are not bad kids,” says Mr Wurramarrba. “They are kids who need our support and guidance.

“We want our young people to stay on country for rehabilitation, not be sent to the mainland for prison.”

The camp will employ professional staff and be overseen by the Justice Advisory Group, which includes islanders who have been to prison.

At-risk youth will be taught the discipline of work and be immersed in their traditional culture. 

Anindilyakwa Land Council, through its Royalty Development team, is developing the manganese mine on the small Akwamburrkba island.

A measured resource from a $7 million exploration program showed that the mine could operate for up to 15 years.

“This is a game-changer,” says Mr Wurramarrba. “This will allow us to continue to protect our culture and support our community forever.”

The aquaculture venture will farm high-end seafood, such as cobia, crayfish, oysters and trepang.

Both initiatives are part of a comprehensive economic strategy aimed at earning income after royalties stop when the giant South32-owned manganese operation ceases production in 2030.

Economists say Groote’s Future Fund has to grow from $200 million today to $550 million so the interest can be used to maintain important social programs.

Traditional Owners also plan to build a boarding school on Bickerton Island.

“This will help kids to stand in both worlds for their future,” says Mr Wurramarrba.

Only 20 percent of Groote children enrolled in school actually attend – and many, if not most, children aren’t even enrolled.

The independent school will hold up to 50 students from age eight and have a bilingual curriculum.

Students will board with house parents Monday to Friday – a model used with great success at the college on the Tiwi Islands – and go home at weekends if they wish.

A survey of three quarters of Groote parents found that 80 percent would send their children to the new school.

The land council is applying to the Aboriginals Benefit Account for funding and hopes to have the school built within two years.

Mr Wurramarrba says the NT Education Department is strongly supportive of the initiative.

Fifty Groote children are already living with house parents in Queensland and going to local schools.

The 14 clans represented by Anindilyakwa Land Council are also working towards taking full control of housing, township land and health services, and setting up their own local government council.