Well I’ve said goodbye to the ‘Scottish mob’ an apparent term of affection for a group of friendly folk out here in Western Australia. The emotional farewell was at Broome Airport as they set off on their 2 day journey home and I started five days of leave and a follow up on a couple of the visits made in the past week.
It has been a remarkable week by any ones standards. We made visits to various aboriginal led social enterprises in the Broome area followed by a 4hr trip south (2 hrs along dirt tracks) to Cape Laveque for an over night stay at Kooljaman a community owned wilderness retreat. From there we visited the nearby Bardi community and learnt about their craft and aquaculture social enterprise businesses. We then headed back to Kooljaman for dinner with some 30 or so community leaders from the area.
The master plan was to pop into Lambadina on the way back to Broome. Lambadina is a small aboriginal community of some 65 folk tucked away on a remote stretch of coastline. Our short visit become a nights stop over as bush fires closed the routes out of the peninsular. This small community was remarkable – surviving off the sea, a small eco tourism business and the sale of crafts. There was a small bakery, shop and what has to be one of the most spectacular stretches of unspoilt beach in the world. Adding to the beauty of the expanse of white sand was a foreboding dark sky filled with smoke from the nearby fires – with occasional blackened leaves falling from the sky.
Despite our unintended stopover the community rustled up some fresh mud crab and silver mullet, which was cooked over an open fire. Accommodation for most of us was dormitory style with an occasional visit from bright green tree frogs. Particularly special was the sheer number of fruit bats in the surrounding trees, apparently displaced by fire and choosing to chatter away all night at such a level that sleep wasn’t really an option.
We were advised that five single engine aircraft were on stand-by to airlift us from the beach should the bush fires not subside. Fortunately however, the winds dropped in the night. So, at 6am, we made a dash out of the bush making it safely back to Broome after driving through smouldering bush for some 4 hrs.
Throughout our visit to the Kimberly Region we met community leaders and chatted about the challenges of living in such remote locations, community politics, national politics and land rights.
The most remarkable thing for me and one shared by my fellow Shetlander on the trip Jacqui Watt (not sure if I can call myself a Shetlander), was the strong comparisons between Kimberly and Shetland. The Kimberly Region is huge and may not be an island. But the distance to other settlements makes logistic challenges fairly similar to Shetland. The health service (we visited an aboriginal health clinic) has similar challenges regards supporting families who are separated due to access to health provision, as Shetland prepares for the wild winter months Kimberly is shutting down the hatches ready for the wet season, a period of very strong winds and extreme heat.
But most interesting is the discovery of gas off the South Western Australian coast. Broome community leaders are currently negotiating with oil and gas companies to secure the best community deal from the estimated trillion tons of gas of their shores. There is hot debate regards traditional land rights and protection of the environment versus significant economic regeneration albeit not a sustainable one. The population size of the area is similar to Shetland, rich in cultural heritage both in terms of languages, artefacts, arts and culture. There is a thriving music, visual arts and textile scene.
The communities we visited were highly enterprising. Many running successful social enterprises that reach some of the most remote and disadvantaged communities within Australia. We visited Goolarri Media, a Broome based community run TV and Radio service that broadcasts across the Kimberly Region and sells content to national networks. This social enterprise provides opportunities for young people to gain film making and broadcasting skills in a location that some might expect not to find such facilities. It was very exciting to see the impact such a service can have on a whole community. The sense of ownership, involvement and community wellbeing born out of a community run radio station linking communities across 5000 square miles was tangible.
As to the tangible outcomes of my trip? They are yet to be fully realised but realised they will be, given time and reflection. Some outcomes may well include artist exchanges, ideas around academic research sites examining creative industries in rural areas, links regards gas exploration and the impacts of sudden wealth on a community and the shear amount of newly gained knowledge on the practice and operation of social enterprises.
However, my first thoughts on the outcomes of this study trip look towards the special relationships that have up built between the ‘Scottish mob’. Our twenty strong party was made up of high level/ high achieving social enterprise professionals across a broad range of sectors. I am now part of a highly valuable professional network. A network that I can call upon to support my work and they can call upon to support theirs. I have already invited to members of this new network to Shetland. Two people who run successful arts based social enterprises. At a time when Shetland Arts seeks to diversify its funding base, reduce dependency on the Charitable Trust (who provide just under 50% of our funding) and ensure Mareel operates to generate a surplus to support arts development activity opposed to displace funds away from this core activity, any help and expertise is welcome – indeed I now have access to the best in Scotland if not the UK. In essence this is all about developing and running a successful social enterprise.
A full report on the trip will be available within the next few months. In the meantime, I plan to reflect on my trip, spend a few days paddling in the Indian ocean and brace myself for a return to a Shetland winter. I’m back in the office from 26 October and looking forward to seeing progress on the Mareel site and hearing the news on how the first Mirrie Dancers illumination is going.