debt for nature

So I’ve talked a bunch about loving sustainable development and liking it when interesting things happen. There’s also a lot of controversy built up in sustainable development because of the problems in dealing with poverty, population, and international relations. One thing people talk about is conditional aid. I even talk about conditional aid when thinking about US China relations. It’s a hard line to draw because it looks a lot like neocolonialism.

Neocolonialism is a sort of attempt at indirect control, usually by a richer country. We live in a post-colonial world where the ramifications of the colonial era are borne out in multiple cases of war. It’s easy to see why many parties are concerned with debt relief that seems like control in that sense, but there’s the desire to try and get across some ethical ideals or values in a way that is beneficial to a country in need in order to encourage action.

Debt for nature is one example of this kind of indirect control. The first programs of its kind started in the 1980s, pioneered by NGOs and later adopted by governments. In the United States this has manifested in the Tropical Forest Conservation Act (1988) and there are motions on the table to extend coverage to coral reef protection efforts as well. “Debt for nature swaps were first established in the 1980s in the attempt of solving two problems with one agreement: 1) minimize the negative effect debt has on developing nations 2) minimize the environmental destruction that developing nations frequently cause,” (wisegeek).

As an example, the Nature Conservancy has brokered a deal between the US and Guatemala to forgive $24 million in debt, and that money will be redirected to forest conservation programs over the next 15 years, (Nature Conservancy).

Will Grant, on BBC’s One Planet, had a piece on Jan 3 about debt for nature swaps. The program focused on Costa Rica. This was a large scale project brokered by the Nature Conservancy, and scientific data was used to address which sites would receive funds. Essentially, this is an example of the best way this kind of program could run with a combination of economic, scientific, and political will (Elliott). The BBC program gave a great multifaceted account of the pros and cons of such a program, how it is an attempt to address sustainability, and how its implementation can and has been flawed.

Critics are concerned about how money is used. One farmer lost 1/3 of his land and received no compensation, so the concern is that the poorest suffer. If money doesn’t get to where it needs to go, debt is forgiven but the conservation doesn’t happen. Who is the investor, what are their interests? One example is that Conservation International works hard to get these kind of debt for nature deals, however the main funders of this organization are big business and may have a less ethical outlook than one might hope. They may also have a vested interest in getting into these countries for other business needs. Again, the neocolonialism argument surfaces.

The cost of conservation is unevenly distributed. While major funding comes from upper level resources (governments, philanthropists, NGOs, other private donors), which can help purchase land or set up organization for caretaking, there is also the massive costs taken on by the local community. This isn’t so much money that they are paying out of pocket, but money that they can’t make by nature of not having the land resources to make that money. Here’s some examples: in Madagascar between two parks villagers pay an opportunity cost of $39 and $125 per household per year, and in some areas that cost can reach up to $191 that people are unable to earn each year, which altogether is an average of around 10% of household income (Balmford & Whitten, 2003). If you tried to tell most of my neighbors to take a 10% hit in their income for the environment, I don’t think you’d get a lot of happy smiles.

These folks in Madagascar don’t have a choice, and considering the standard of living is far different than what we have here in Boston, it’s easy to argue whether it’s even ethical to request that. We’re talking about communities scraping out a living on the edge of nowhere. This is true around the tropical rainforests of the world, which is what these financing programs seek to protect. Debt exchange is a good opening gesture, but doesn’t begin to talk about real balances on a level that deals with the people most directly involved with interacting with these ecosystems. Even this opening gesture doesn’t have the best accountability scheme, and fixing the kinks should be seriously well thought out before we rack up too many multi-million dollar projects that don’t quite hit the mark.

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