Creating jobs, lowering power bills and making their town proud. It all comes down

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There’s a handful of blokes milling around the shed door in the morning light, preparing to start their day’s work.

For most of the men, it’s the first time they’ve earned a weekly wage.

The prospect of saving up for new clothes and four-wheel drives lured them here, but it’s the knowledge their labour will help their remote community that keeps them rolling up each day.

The men are also enjoying themselves. They saunter into the shed, sharing a laugh, and switch on some music.

As they banter, steam rises from their morning coffees and floats through the shed. Specks of earthy sawdust perfume the benches and tubs.

Eight Aboriginal men standing with 1.6 m high solar panel, two holding chainsaws, others with earphones and logs
Martin Cox, Kyron Fatt, Ashley Binell, Neville Bryant, Franklin Bryant, Jacob Peters, John Bridley and Iwrin Mngee.(Supplied: Andrew Alderson)

This group of young Yalata Anangu men are working to help cut power bills for every home in their town on South Australia’s far west coast.

Yalata is one of 15 remote Aboriginal communities being charged for their electricity for the first time, under the South Australian government’s Remote Area Energy Supply (RAES) scheme.

From early next year, Yalata households will be billed for electricity to recover some of the scheme’s $6 million total annual energy costs.

Aboriginal man in blue hoody, holding chainsaw in front of trailer of sawn wood.
Martin Cox enjoys working on country.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

The community has come up with a way to help reduce energy costs by starting a business to cut and package firewood that it sold nationally through an outside company called Long Burn Firewood.

The profits will be used to purchase solar panels for all the houses in Yalata to offset the new energy costs.

Grey haired man in tinted glasses and puffer vest had and shoulders
David White says the firewood business is a silver lining to the electricity bills.(Supplied: Andrew Alderson)

Yalata Anangu Aboriginal Lands chief executive David White said the community decided to turn the imminent bills into a positive by starting a firewood business.

“There was a lot of negativity coming out [for example,] ‘Gee, we have to pay for power now’ and around the table we started to discuss what positives could we find out of this, if there were any,” Mr White said.

Unemployment is high in Yalata. Only 40 of its 350 residents, or 11 per cent, have jobs.

There are also plenty of dead western myall trees, Acacia papyrocarpa, scattered in the mallee forests of the 4,580 square kilometres of Yalata land.

Mr White said initially it was a struggle to find willing workers but five months into the program they’re seeing the business change lives.

“We didn’t see [the younger men] around much and they were generally sitting around playing computer games,” he said.

Collage of outdoor saw cutting wood, stump tree rings, green and yellow plant
The Yalata wood yard. (ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

It began with a small group and it grew from there.

“Then five [employees] turned to 10, turned to 15. These people started telling other people,” Mr White said.

The woodcutting provides an opportunity to be out on their land, as well as in the packing shed.

“We made up our own templates for the wood packaging,” Mr White said.

“There’s a certain limit and weight the wood has to be so the guys were involved from the ground floor up.

“These young fellas built the business on their own — it was very exciting for them.”

Mr White said there was great camaraderie.

“It’s like a footy team in there. They joke around but they’re very serious when they’re handling the equipment — there’s lots of fun and laughter.”

Proud community

Smiley bearded man with hand leaning on tree in field of low grass.
William Wilton says the business is making the men and their community proud.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

Team coordinator William Wilton said the young men enjoyed getting out on their land.

“For a lot of these fellas it’s their first job … out of school too so it’s a big step,” Mr Wilton said.

“It’s good for the community, it makes them proud and makes the community proud.”

Working had provided other benefits for the men.

“They’ve got a lot more confidence, it makes them happy and gives them money in their bank to be able to buy new clothes, and things,” Mr Wilton said.

“A lot of them talk about saving up to buy a Toyota for going out travelling and going fishing and going hunting, so it’s given them meaning in life.

“The community is so proud of them.”

One employee has moved on to employment at a nearby mine.

Indigenous man holding chainsaw, sitting up high on pile of wood in high-sided cage trailer.
Neville Bryant atop the day’s wood pieces.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

Peaceful on country

Ashley Binell, 30, who has had his chainsaw qualifications for about five years, was the first to sign up to work.

“It’s peaceful — the fellas love it and when we come out here it’s nice to have a bit of a walk around and tell stories about the land,” Mr Binell said.

Indigenous man in orange top with beanie holding a log up in each hand in front of two men in background
Ashley Binell enjoys the work.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

“The wood that we cut is [one of] the hardest … in Australia that we’ve got,” he said. 

“Sometimes our chainsaws get blunt and we have to sharpen them, a bit of maintenance.

“It’s all dead wood — before I start cutting I’m always checking to make sure there are no birds and live animals amongst them.

“Most of our wood has been sold around Australia and the money that we make is giving back to the community.”

Giving baby trees a head start

The community is also working to revegetate western myalls.

Man in high vis, hand leaning on fence, hat and sunnies on head, in front of low scrub and ocean in background
Andrew Alderson says rangers are trying to rehabilitate their land with young western myalls.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Brooke Neindorf)

Yalata Anangu Aboriginal Lands head ranger Andrew Alderson said it was a very slow-growing tree, and could live up to 500 years.

“The trees we’re cutting down might have been standing dead up to 80 to 100 years,” Mr Alderson said.

“It makes a fantastic firewood, it’s very clean burning and burns hot and it’s a good resource for our fellas to try and make a bit of an income for the community.

“The ranger program is trying to rehabilitate the site with new trees because the recruitment of young baby trees in this species is very difficult.

“It happens once every 20 to 30 years so we want to give it a bit of a head start.”

Indigenous man waters seedlings in a tub using a green watering can.
Yalata Anangu ranger Isiah Bridley waters the western myall seedlings.(Supplied: Andrew Alderson)

They collect seeds from healthy trees and soak them in hot water to encourage germination.

“It will take a couple of years before we can get them in the ground. They’re a very slow-growing tree so it takes a lot of love and care,” Mr Alderson said.

“We want to encourage the kids to take care of the country themselves and one day manage the Yalata community by themselves.”

Read More: Creating jobs, lowering power bills and making their town proud. It all comes down

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