Rayleen Brown was perturbed that Aboriginal women who scour the desert for days in search of bush tomatoes were paid a pittance for their gruelling work.

The desert fruit has nourished Indigenous people for millennia – raw, dried or rolled into tangy, sticky balls. But as chefs and artisan producers cottoned on to bush foods and the industry took off, the women who picked bush tomatoes were not seeing the benefits. ‘‘There’s not enough protection around these plants. A lot of the women... really don’t know a lot about what happens to it later, ’Ms Brown said.

‘‘There have been some sharks around who did not pay [Aboriginal people] enough. I heard about the price that was being paid and thought it was absolutely not right.’’ Ms Brown, an Indigenous woman who runs an Alice Springs catering company, is one of many advocates calling for proper recognition and financial rewards for the original custodians of bush foods as the industry expands and its export potential


Finger lime, warrigal greens, lemon myrtle, quandong and other natives now feature on menus across Australia, and hipsterism has seen a rise in ‘‘urban foraging’’ of bush food. Even Dick Smith produces Bush Foods Breakfast, a cereal with wattle seeds, strawberry eucalypt leaves and rosella flowers.

Ms Brown pays the women up to $40 a kilo for bush tomatoes, which she uses in chutneys, jams and paste.

She also educates customers about the people who care for the plant, and consider it a totem. She says the same cannot be said of non-Indigenous farmers, who have begun growing bush tomatoes but ‘‘don’t have any idea about where the seeds have come from or what it actually means’’.

University of New England postdoctoral research fellow Kylie Lingard said there was little legislative support for the rights of Indigenous people to own and manage their traditional resources. Indigenous property rights may offer some protection when bush foods were harvested from the wild, but were easily circumvented when the plants were grown commercially on private land, she said.

Copyright laws did not protect Aboriginal recipes from being turned into food products and securing exclusive rights to develop a bush food variety was difficult. The result is ‘‘a loss of connection between Aboriginal people’s relationship with the food and the person who is developing it’’. She cited macadamia nuts and oil, which had been developed ‘‘without any regard to the interests of Aboriginal people ... as if it’s a common good, a free-for-all.’’

Ben Neil oversees Charcoal Lane, a social enterprise venture run by Mission Australia. The Gertrude Street restaurant serves bush foods in the heart of trendy Fitzroy, while also training Indigenous students in hospitality.

The menu includes chargrilled emu fillet and chocolate and wattle seed pudding—native ingredients that make the restaurant a ‘‘celebration of Aboriginal culture’’, according to Mr Neil. When the chef’s tasting plate is served, it is customary for an Indigenous trainee to take it to the table, introduce him or herself as a proud Aboriginal person and talk about their tribe or community.

‘‘It’s not only incredibly powerful for the diners but you see the impact in that young person, ’Mr Neil said. IP Australia, which administers intellectual property rights, said the federal government was committed to ensuring the system ‘‘empowered’’ Indigenous people.

The Dream Shield program promotes the value of protecting Indigenous intellectual property, and the government has been ‘‘actively pursuing negotiations on Indigenous knowledge at the international level’’ through the United Nations.

The government also backs moves to require patent applicants to disclose How they obtained biological material or Indigenous knowledge.

As published in Sunday Age, Melbourne on 20 December 2015.

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