Winda-Mara, an Aboriginal community-controlled organisation planning for community and country

Words by Jackie Yowell 

My husband Steve Rothfield and I were fortunate to be included recently in a group visit to the ‘Budj Bim Cultural Landscape’ in south-west Victoria. We were shown around this rich cultural and environmental area by the local Aboriginal community organisation, Winda-Mara, a partner organisation of Woor-Dungin*. Our group of 11 included staff, volunteers and grant-makers from Australian Communities Foundation and Woor-Dungin.

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape presents evidence of one of the world’s largest and oldest aquaculture systems. It is located on the lava flow that resulted from a volcanic eruption of Budj Bim (Mt Eccles) some 30,000 years ago and is of exceptional significance to the Gunditjmara people. Their forebears used the abundant local volcanic rock to construct fish traps, weirs and ponds to manage water flows from nearby Lake Condah for the systematic trapping and farming of eels, and recent research has dated some constructions back an amazing 6,600 years.

Budj Bim is already on Australia’s National Heritage List, and Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners took the lead in successfully nominating it for World Heritage, with the support of the Victorian and Australian governments. There is much hope that, within a year, it will be listed as World Heritage.

Wind-Mara Aboriginal Corporation ably serves local Aboriginal communities in and around the region of Heywood, Hamilton and Portland. Its services range across health and well-being, heritage and culture, early childhood, guardianship, family care, housing, to education, training, employment, land and asset management, and economic development. CEO Michael Bell is an exceptional, widely respected leader, who has been pinnacle in the recent Criminal Record Discrimination Project.

Michael and his staff generously shared with us some of their ideas, plans, challenges and aspirations – around the board table as well as over congenial meals and bus tours. The jam-packed agenda was orchestrated by Winda-Mara’s Sherree Chaudhary, a graduate of Woor-Dungin’s Maarni program (which develops skills in women considered emerging leaders within their organisations and the wider community). Sherree is among several Winda-Mara staff who demonstrate that Winda-Mara’s strategy of nurturing community members to step up into leadership roles really works effectively.

Guided by Winda-Mara rangers, we explored the Tyrendarra Indigenous Protected Area that they manage, walking in the footsteps of their ancestors who built the complex aqua-culture constructions and stone habitations which sustained them for millennia.  Winda-Mara drives a number of culture and heritage initiatives, many in partnership with Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation. We also visited a rural property, Koorelah, returned by the Indigenous Land Corporation to the Gunditjmara as a run-down, weed-infested, pastoral property, but after four years of hard work by the rangers, it has been restored for new purpose.  Having control of their traditional lands offers Indigenous communities much potential for enterprise, employment and greater economic independence.

There is little doubt about Winda-Mara’s determination for self-determination.  They are deeply committed to their positive role in community development, as well as in the restoration of pride in history, culture and identity – factors crucial to Indigenous well-being and motivation in so many social and environmental contexts.

In keeping with good philanthropic practice and in return for Winda-Mara’s generosity in hosting the visit, the grant-makers asked Winda-Mara to identify how their work could most usefully be supported in the short term. Michael and his staff responded that their priority was assistance with the important work of completing their new 5-year Strategic Plan, whose four key aspects are: Country, Community, Culture and Organisation. With much community consultation, they have made a start, but want to translate their vision into detailed practicable operational plans.  A later stage will be accessing specific training needs to enable elected managerial staff to fulfil the strategic objectives in their area. A proposal outlining the first stage – the new Strategic Plan – is currently being prepared.  Two ACF sub-funds have already pledged support, and I do hope others at ACF will also join in supporting the work of this truly impressive organisation.

*Many ACF members already know of Woor-Dungin and support its work partnering Indigenous community-controlled organisations with philanthropy and pro bono service providers to enable  access to the resources and support needed.

Images / Steve Rothfield