Rowan Foley

2 April 2014 – Managing director of the Aboriginal Carbon Fund Rowan Foley says the fund has attracted support from major corporates such as  NAB, Westpac and CommBank, which seconded CommSec stockbroker Allister Logan to work in the funds business development area.

The fund, which is also working with Monash University, CSIRO and the Fair Carbon project, in January held a Fair Carbon workshop in Melbourne, opened by Professor Tim Flannery, with speakers including Westpac’s Emma Herd and Net Balance’s Neil Salisbury.

But, according to Mr Foley, a barrier to greater connections is the corporate world’s overall lack of experience in doing business with Aboriginal communities, and the need to understand that building relationships is first and foremost. Willow Aliento reports

Caltex has engaged with the Indigenous Land Corporation to purchase some of the carbon credits required to offset its emissions, as part of its participation in the Carbon Disclosure Project and as a company that has openly stated it accepts the science behind climate change.

According to Mr Foley, this is an example of the type of triple-bottom line carbon trading the fund has been formed to facilitate.

It’s an approach that has already attracted the attention of three of Australia’s leading banks. NAB is in preliminary discussions to purchase credits, Westpac is participating in AbCF carbon trading workshops and the Commonwealth Bank is lending business development expertise through an employee secondment.

The AbCF is a not-for-profit organisation that establishes carbon trading relationships between companies wanting to purchase carbon credits and Aboriginal traditional custodians who are undertaking carbon farming activities on land under Indigenous management.

The AbCF was formed in 2011, and has dedicated considerable resources to capacity-building and engagement with the frameworks and methodologies for the CFI. The board includes David Ross, director of the Central Land Council; Allan Cooney, former station leader at Casey for the Australian Antarctic Division; and mining consultant Tracker Tilmouth.

Currently, the fund has a number of active carbon farming projects that were in a position to sell carbon credits. The Fish River project in the Northern Territory is an example of a savannah ecosystem project that uses a traditional indigenous low-temperature mosaic burning technique to reduce the carbon emissions produced from bushfire prevention burns.

The credits Caltex purchased have come from this project, which is also looking to expand into a new savannah enrichment methodology developed by the fund.

Speaking with The Fifth Estate from his office in Alice Springs, Mr Foley explained that the new methodology involved the replanting of bush tucker species such as Gubinge trees (also known as Kakadu plum), which traditional owners would in the past have maintained in the local landscape. These trees and other tucker species have become locally extinct due to the wide-acre burning techniques used under non-Indigenous land management regimes.

When the new enrichment methodology is adopted, the savannah burning projects will reduce carbon by maintaining a selective, low-heat fire regime, and the permanent planting of trees will sequester carbon. The trees will also provide a further benefit for traditional owners as a food source and marketable bush tucker product.

Mr Foley observed that the landscape left by high-intensity burning regimes was predominantly eucalypts and acacias, “which as a food source are great if you are a koala, but not great for people”.

Working with traditional owner groups including the Kimberley Land Council, North Queensland Land Council and Cape York Traditional Owners, the fund has been able to lay the groundwork for a wide range of CFI activities, including abatement projects, regeneration and rehabilitation projects, protection of existing vegetation and alterations to stock timing and intensity. The key to activating the projects will be investment in the form of more companies purchasing carbon credits via the fund from the various communities involved.

Mr Foley said working with the fund offered companies a range of co-benefits in addition to carbon credits, including environmental, social and cultural benefits such as the regeneration of country and providing employment for traditional owners.

Ironically, according to Mr Foley it is the legacy of past degradation that makes for some of the best carbon farming potential.

“The more knocked around your country is, the better it is for carbon farming. We’re really after the country that is degraded,” he said.

“It’s not about the country that’s [currently productive], it’s about the other country you want to bring back.”

A member of the Wondunna clan of the Badtjala people, traditional owners of Fraser Island in Queensland, Mr Foley brings considerable experience in managing country responsibly and brokering relationships to his role with the fund.

His previous work has included Park Manager at Uluru, the first land management officer for the Kimberley Land Council, and representing indigenous interests as part of the team who negotiated with the federal government during the CFI development phase from 2010-2011. An outcome of these negotiations was the creation of the $22 million Indigenous Carbon Farming Fund.

While the ICFF is no longer available to seed projects or support their ongoing development, Mr Foley believes carbon farming itself is a logical industry for Aboriginal people, many of whom are “land rich and dirt poor”.

“It’s one of the few industries that fits the culture of traditional owners,” Mr Foley said. “It enables them to maintain traditional sites, be on country, care for country, create jobs and make an income.

“We did have the ICFF [under Labor], which supported a lot of traditional owners to get projects off the ground.”

While the mantra of “axe the tax” as a policy may have derailed the carbon pricing and trade mechanisms set up under Labor, Mr Foley regards this as a “policy blip”.

“Putting a price on carbon will take place,” he said. “It’s happening in the US, Europe and China – it is the way the world is moving.”

He pointed out that internationally banks were increasingly putting a price on carbon, and demanding of their corporate clients that a carbon price be factored into the accounting for any project proposal.

“In terms of risk management, it’s stratospherically smarter [for companies] to hedge their bets and have an established relationship with a source of carbon [credits]. That means less risk [long-term],” Mr Foley said.

In Australia, Westpac, NAB and the Commonwealth Bank have all shown an interest in the AbCF offer, with early discussions underway with NAB for carbon trading. The Commonwealth Bank has supported the fund with the secondment of a CommSec stockbroker and Commonwealth Bank employee Allister Logan to undertake business development activities and build corporate partnerships.

The third current employee of the fund is lawyer Jeremy Dore, who helped with the development of the Carbon Farming Initiative as part of the federal government’s legislation team from 2009-2013, with a specific focus around Aboriginal land and Native Title.

One of the things Mr Foley says companies need to keep in mind when undertaking carbon trading with Aboriginal communities is this is a style of doing business that is built on relationships.

“It is not the western style of doing business, [the parties] need to get to know each other,” Mr Foley said.

When asked what might be the barriers on the part of companies to engagement with Aboriginal carbon trading, he cited corporate Australia’s overall lack of experience in doing business with Aboriginal communities as the major factor.

“We build the bridges that enable the business to take place,” Mr Foley said.

The fund is also working closely with Monash University, the CSIRO and the Fair Carbon project to expand research into carbon farming methodologies, and is a full member of the Carbon Market Institute. In January, the fund held a Fair Carbon workshop in Melbourne which was opened by Professor Tim Flannery, with speakers including Westpac‘s Emma Herd and Net Balance’s Neil Salisbury.

The number of potential Indigenous carbon farming projects open for companies to invest in and trade with trading continues to expand, with the fund currently in negotiations with a group of Victorian traditional owners to develop linkages.