Cairns Airport, in the north of Australia’s state of Queensland, is home to several endangered birds and plants, including the tiny double eyed fig parrot, a beach stone curlew and an ash plant whose habitat is the site’s 300 hectares of stunning mangroves.

Conserving these species is one of the environmental goals of the airport’s managing body, North Queensland Airports (NQA).

Richard Barker, NQA chief executive officer, said that the airport operator secured a sustainability-linked loan coordinated by Commonwealth Bank to help embed environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals in the company’s operational and financial priorities. Acknowledging that long-term success requires an investment in good environmental practice, Barker outlines how the adoption of these goals has prompted new initiatives.

“We are doing some work in construction activity here and we aim to increase the participation of Indigenous people through direct employment and by spending within the Indigenous community.”

“The really unique piece is we have some specific biodiversity targets we're looking to achieve involving the protection of some endangered species on the land in which the airport operates.”

First Nations peoples are already playing a key role in helping NQA advance its ESG goals, Barker said. The Dawul Wuru Aboriginal Corporation Yirrganydji Land and Sea Ranger program, a local First Nations group, has guided NQA’s baseline biodiversity audit and helped identify the species to focus on for preservation. The Dawul Wuru Aboriginal Corporation will also work with the business to support and foster populations.

Barker says a key advantage of sustainability-linked loans is the way they incentivise organisations to meet sustainability targets by rewarding success with lower funding costs. This makes the sustainability program more affordable and means NQA can employ some of the First Nations land and sea rangers and other local groups, he said.

“The bank is directly contributing alongside us in the preservation of not only an amazing piece of land and endangered species but in creating employment within the Indigenous community,” he said.

This aspect of the loan, the first of its kind in Australia, aligns with the aims of the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) held in Montreal in December 2022. The conference focused on creating and adopting a global biodiversity framework to conserve threatened flora and fauna, protecting and recognising First Nations peoples as stewards of the natural environment and developing financial products to foster sustainable finance and investment.

NQA’s involvement of First Nations people in the planning and delivery of the biodiversity targets they have set illustrates the path forward for businesses seeking to collaborate with First Nations communities on biodiversity conservation and showcases a more broad-based approach to indigenous engagement, said Bláthnaid Byrne, Commonwealth Bank’s director of sustainable finance and ESG.

“With the focus on nature and biodiversity, there's a strong recognition in the value of First Nations people being the traditional caretakers and custodians of the land,” Byrne added.

Byrne notes that there is a drive among corporate Australia to find out how they can collaborate with First Nations’ organisations, with more than 1100 organisations already working with Reconciliation Australia to create a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) – and more set to follow suit.

A strong Reconciliation Action Plan is one that’s tailored around an organisation’s business operations, Byrne said, which ensures companies collaborate with Indigenous people in a way that aligns with the organisation’s needs and capabilities.

For instance, a RAP might involve creating employment targets for First Nations people, or drawing on Indigenous knowledge and expertise to better manage the environment and biodiversity.

In NQA’s case, the airport operator is pursuing improved outcomes for First Nations peoples as part of its sustainable finance program, Byrne said.

“NQA is looking at First Nations engagement through employee targets with their capital works suppliers as well as in the planning and delivery of the biodiversity goals they have set,” Byrne said.

Companies are able to receive further support from The Australian National University’s Gandaywarra: First Nations Innovation Hub, which was created to build partnerships and collaborations between First Nations businesses and communities, academia, industry, government and end-users.

Gandaywarra was founded by Michelle Jasper, who says the hub will support innovation and collaboration, and activate a pipeline of strong, long-term partnerships and capabilities.

"Gandaywarra is truly innovative in its aspiration to do things differently within the ANU but also the broader economic ecosystem, by embedding traditional knowledge and practice into research translation, application and commercialisation," says Jasper. 

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