Banking on nature: inside a world-first conservation reserve | Bank Australia: Protecting our future

Taking action on climate change and protecting endangered species are probably not the first two things that spring to mind when people think of banks. But this is exactly what prompted Bank Australia to embark on a world-first sustainability project for a banking institution when it established its Conservation Reserve.

In 2008, Bank Australia purchased the first of five properties – a parcel of farmland with recovering woodlands in the West Wimmera region of Victoria with a two-fold vision: to restore and conserve threatened plant and animal species, and to offset some of the impact that banking and its services have on the environment.

Today the reserve is a thriving and diverse landscape that provides refuge to hundreds of plant and animal species.

Today the reserve is a thriving and diverse landscape that provides refuge to hundreds of plant and animal species.

“The Conservation Reserve was in response to our customers’ needs for us to help address the issues of climate change,” explains Rowan Dowland, Chief Strategy Officer of Bank Australia and one of the prime drivers of the revolutionary project.

“We thought there had to be a way to offset the environmental impact of our products and operations and build an asset for customers at the same time.”

There was – buying an ecologically important property that is protected forever with a conservation covenant and seeing that it thrives into the future. And so the Bank Australia Conservation Reserve was born.

“Helping to protect and restore the biodiversity of these properties and to protect and increase populations of threatened species is a very tangible example of how a bank can bring about positive environmental change both now and into the future,” Dowland says.

If you give nature a chance, it’s amazing how resilient it is.

“I walked onto an overgrazed sheep paddock back in 2008 wondering what this property could possibly become, and I walk onto that same property now and it’s a growing forest with an abundance of wildlife. It’s quite phenomenal to see the extent of change that has occurred.”

From an initial parcel of farmland with some existing woodlands, the reserve has since grown to almost 1000 hectares. When a Bank Australia customer borrows money to build a new house, the equivalent amount of land is allocated for protection or conservation in the reserve.

Given that conservation is not their area of expertise, Bank Australia partnered with two of the country’s leading conservation groups – Trust for Nature and Greening Australia – to bring the project to life and to continue to manage and regenerate the land on a day-to-day-basis.

Trust for Nature has been involved since the inception. The group’s strategic projects manager, Marnie Lassen, explains that the partnership sees Trust for Nature working in conjunction with Greening Australia (who came on board in 2016), funded by Bank Australia, to address wildlife conservation, climate change resilience and community engagement at the reserve with over 680 community volunteers planting over 70,000 native seedlings.

“When you’re talking about nature, the benefits are tremendous,” she says. “Bank Australia has single handedly ensured that almost 1,000 hectares of precious habitat is safe forever. Nobody is allowed to ever cut down those rare woodlands, or injure the wildlife living in them, because they’re legally protected by a Trust for Nature covenant.”

There are three locations that make up the Conversation Reserve in the Wimmera region of Western Victoria: Minimay, which itself has three properties within it, Ozenkadnook and Booroopki

There are three locations that make up the Conversation Reserve in the Wimmera region of Western Victoria: Minimay, which itself has three properties within it, Ozenkadnook and Booroopki

The land and environment

The Wimmera region was chosen for a number of reasons. The Conservation Reserve is located within the Habitat 141 corridor, which is a large landscape conservation project that seeks to protect and revegetate stretches of land between major national parks and nature reserves over 700km across South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria.

“The bank didn’t want the reserve to be just anywhere; it wanted to make sure that it was in a place where it could really make a difference,” Lassen says. “It chose this property because the reserve has one of the largest remaining stands of buloke woodlands in the Wimmera – a rare and important habitat that provides food and homes for the nationally endangered South-Eastern Red-Tailed Black-Cockatoo.”

The traditional custodians of the land are the Wotjobaluk, Jardwadjali, Jaadwa, Wergaia and Jupagulk people, and engaging with them is fundamentally important to the project.

“We recognise the long cultural history of the land that the reserve is located on, and work with the Barengi Gadjin Land Council to ensure that our management actions there respect cultural traditions and provide opportunities for local indigenous people to work on country,” Lassen says. “The bank is also working with the Barengi Gadjin Land Council to document the considerable indigenous heritage on the reserve.”

Native to south-eastern Australia, the Growling Grass Frog was once widespread but has now disappeared from most of its former range across Victoria

Animals and plants

The region is home to the natural habitats of Victoria’s most iconic and endangered bird, the South-Eastern Red-Tailed Black-Cockatoo. But it’s not just the black cockatoo that calls the reserve home. The area also provides a refuge for threatened flora and fauna including the rare buloke woodland, the Brown Treecreeper, Eastern Snake-necked Turtle and the Growling Grass Frog.

In fact, more than 270 animal and bird species live in the reserve, including 13 threatened animals and birds, and 237 plant species, 11 of which are also threatened.

“It’s quite a unique piece of land,” says Jessica Gardner, Wimmera Ecologist for Greening Australia. “The land itself is very significant for its biodiversity values. And one of the most important things we can do for biodiversity in the face of climate change is allow species to be able to move through the landscape so that they have more of a chance of being able to adapt to changing conditions. It’s a pretty special place and is well worth protecting.”

Corporate responsibility

Dowland says corporate responsibility is “fundamentally important”, not just for banks, but for all businesses. “When we made this first investment we were very much on our own, championing the role of business in terms of creating a more sustainable planet,” he says. “It’s pleasing now to see other businesses recognising that they have a responsibility in society beyond simply existing for the purposes of maximising profit.

“As governments are under increasing pressure, we think that the role of business is changing and that we have a very important part to play in creating a more sustainable environment, and to be able to strengthen society and help tackle the key contemporary social and environmental issues.”

Gardner agrees: “It’s so important that Bank Australia is a leader in this area. We are hoping it sets an example for other businesses to follow suit because there’s a critical need to address conservation issues, both in protected areas and on private land, to try to make our landscapes as resilient as possible to avoid further biodiversity loss.”

Indeed, Bank Australia has a 10-year plan, backed by scientific research, on how to manage the reserve over the next decade. Their vision for the reserve is to provide an environment where wildlife will flourish, resilient carbon stores can grow, and culture is celebrated.

“We will continue to invest in the existing properties and as the business grows we will continue to acquire property,” Dowland says. “We are in this for the long term.”

To learn more about how responsible banking is helping to protect habitats for threatened plant and animal species, take a virtual tour of the Conversation Reserve or visit the Bank Australia website.

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