There’s a thriving platypus family in the middle of the bustling hinterland town of Nambour that is helping to transform the way communities interact with their environment.

The platypuses may be unaware of it, but they are important players in one of the citizen science projects run by ECOllaboration, a Sunshine Coast-based not-for-profit environmental organisation headed by CEO Jacqui Atique, who was the winner of the 2023 Sunshine Coast Business Women’s Network Sustainable Business Woman of the Year award.

Jacqui is not only a leading aquatic ecologist and businesswoman whose team works with government, businesses, and other stakeholders to implement and manage major environmental projects, but she is a passionate environmental advocate who believes that change happens from the ground up.

Enter the platypus family — as well as frog monitoring and mangrove monitoring projects. These are the citizen science programs that make ECOllaboration unique in the environmental management space.

These programs engage local volunteers from within communities to collect data from across various dedicated sites on the Sunshine Coast. The results are analysed and used to measure the health of the ecosystem and the success of ECOllaboration’s ecological restoration efforts.

The community-based programs are just one arm of the company’s work and are funded by commercial natural restoration projects for organisations such as the Sunshine Coast Council and Seqwater.

ECOllaboration’s footprint is spreading across south-east Queensland. A branch has recently opened on the Gold Coast, and the company also works with councils in Brisbane, Logan, the Scenic Rim and the Lockyer Valley, with a 10-year strategic plan to cover the whole of Queensland.

Jacqui’s passion for engaging communities to make meaningful change stems from her belief that “one person can change many”, a motto that has underpinned her career and has driven her to engage with locals, corporations and government departments across the country.

Her positivity about the future of the planet is contagious. Although climate change is at the forefront of her mind, she nevertheless has a firm belief that individuals can actually make a difference.

“The climate really is not in our favour at the moment, but I’m very, very much an optimist,” she tells salt.

“I think people react better to positive messages than they do to those of doom and gloom.

“That [negative] messaging needs to be reversed so people can see that they can actually make a difference and have a positive impact. Things like the platypus are just the best
way to get kids involved, and we have to get that next generation involved.

“You can imagine how excited a child gets, or even an adult for that matter, when they see a platypus up close. It really has an impact on people. So, it’s a great way for us to get people aware of the issues that are in our local waterways when you put the focus on something that is cute and fluffy. Environmental stewardship is the best way to describe it.”

Another soon-to-be-launched project Jacqui is spearheading is Carbon Catchments, an offset program that involves planting trees on local land. This is aimed at local businesses that may not be large enough to invest in major schemes and that can see exactly where the trees they are helping to fund are planted.

As hard to believe as it may be, Jacqui has not always worked in the environmental space. Originally from Tasmania, she was working in the travel industry and had her first child, a son, who tragically died when he was just a baby.

It was 20 years ago when this tragedy brought her to the Sunshine Coast for a break. She found herself wandering around Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo.

“I was just overwhelmed, not by the animals or the displays, but just by messages of conservation and what he was doing as one person to make people think of conservation differently.

“I was working in travel up to that point and hadn’t really found my calling. I thought I wanted to work in travel, but then when I had Lachlan, my first child, my perspective changed.

“Coming to Australia Zoo made me think; I’d been contemplating what my future was, then it just hit me like a ball in the face, and I haven’t looked back.

“I was even enrolled in my Bachelor of Environmental Science before I’d even got on the plane. That was just this epiphany for me.”

As all true callings go, however, Jacqui had to overcome many challenges to reach the point she is at now in her career. Tenacity, it turns out, is one of her strongest attributes.

She completed her science degree and further study in communications, had three more children, moved interstate a couple of times, and worked in several minimum-wage jobs.

She points out that although she is now the CEO of a 100-person organisation, that achievement has not come without dedication and hard work, and seizing opportunities when they arise.

Her advice to others?

“Never give up,” she says.

And it is with that same determination that Jacqui is taking the message about the importance of environmental stewardship across the state.

Meanwhile, in the creeks and waterways of our communities, the platypuses and frogs — along with the myriad of other contributors to the ecosystem — remain under the watchful eyes of a growing number of people who are hearing that message.

“The future for this planet is getting people wanting to protect their own patch, whether that be the creek out the back of their house, the beach in front of their house, the dunes their house sits on, the piece of forest that their house backs onto. Whatever it might be, where they live is what they tend to want to protect,” she says.

“We just literally do that one child at a time, one person at a time, one school at a time, with that vision of continually providing positive messages, and trying to make people think that yes, like Steve [Irwin] did, one person can change many.”