Gabon’s recent debt-for-nature swap is the first in Africa. The Gabonese government bought back almost $500 million (£392m) of foreign debt using a loan from the Bank of America and pledged about $75 million (£59m) for marine conservation over the next 15 years.
The Nature Conservancy, which began working in Gabon in 2013 with a focus on freshwater, facilitated the deal, as it has done with others over recent years. Earlier this year, Ecuador completed the world’s largest debt-for-nature deal, a transaction that allowed the nation to exchange $1.6 billion of dollar denominated bonds for a new $656 million loan tied to protecting habitats of the Galapagos Islands.
“It’s the first big deal in Africa, and the first time a big American bank has got involved,” Paul Steele, chief economist at the UK’s International Institute for Environment and Development, told Positive News. “It’s not some little, niche product anymore – it’s going mainstream. We have an environment and nature crisis, and we have a debt crisis – we can resolve both with one tool.”
Debt-for-nature, a form of debt relief for developing countries, can involve reducing interest rates or even writing off debt entirely in exchange for nations committing themselves to investing the savings in local environmental measures.
The Nature Conservancy video
Much of Gabon remains wild and remote. Wedged between the Congo Basin and the Atlantic Ocean, Gabon is sparsely populated, with more than four-fifths of its population living in urban areas and 88% covered with trees. Its inland and coastal forests are so vast, they sequester more carbon dioxide each year than the amount produced by 30 million cars.
It has the largest expanse of marine reserves in Africa, stretching over 53,000 sq km (20,460 sq miles), and its 75,000 kilometers of braided river networks and wetlands, fed by around two meters of annual rainfall, support vast populations of birds, manatees, and reptiles.
Gabon is committed to being a model to others in Africa and around the world. “It is very crucial for the world to acknowledge the importance of biodiversity,” says Stanislas Stephen Mouba, director general for environmental protection in the Ministry of Environment of Gabon. It is important for both the economy and for people, he says.
The discovery of oil in the 1970s led to rapid development with minimal local environmental impact. But as its oil reserves run out, leaders are also looking for new, more sustainable ways to provide jobs. The country’s current unemployment rate is 21.5%, and the population skews young, with about 800,000 young Gabonese set to enter the workforce over the next decade.
In 2010, Gabon banned the export of whole-log timber and required timber companies to harvest in 25-year cycles to allow for regeneration in between.“Gabon has made an extraordinary choice,” said Lee White, Gabon’s Minister of Water, Forests, the Sea, and Environment, in a video by The Nature Conservancy. “We see [it] as a way to maintain the equilibrium between exploitation and preservation.”
The country is employing a range of political and financing mechanisms under a project finance for permanence approach, supported through the Enduring Earth partnership. PFPs secure long-term investment in conservation initiatives by tying sustained funding to tangible, measurable goals encompassing both social and environmental benefits. Projects are collaboratively designed, locally-led, nationally supported, sustainably funded, and highly accountable.
During the COP15 meeting in Montreal last December, the Government of Gabon and The Nature Conservancy agreed to collaborate on a broad conservation effort that will allow the country to meet its commitment to protecting 30% of lands, ocean and freshwater by 2030. Gabon was the first nation to make this triple commitment.
The PFP is expected to protect more than 24,000 square kilometers of forestland, more than 8,000 square kilometers of ocean and 4,800 km of rivers. Improved forest management is expected to contribute the equivalent of 30 million tons of carbon mitigation annually.
“Gabon is leading the world in its efforts to reflect all natural systems in its biodiversity conservation, and along with the nation’s accomplishments in addressing climate change, this PFP will further cement Gabon’s leading position building an economy based on sustainable nature-based enterprises,” said Marie-Claire Paiz, country director for The Nature Conservancy in Gabon.
Inspiring the World Through Action. The Nature Conservancy, Jul. 28, 2022
Gabon restructures debt through Nature Conservancy to fund marine conservation project -report. Carbon Pulse, May 12, 2023
Green Gabon: The West African nation leading the world in biodiversity protection. Global Landscapes Forum, Jul. 26, 2023
Gabon and Mongolia Commit to Protect 380,000 Square Kilometers of New Land, Ocean, and Freshwater Areas. Enduring Earth, Dec. 15, 2022
Cover image: VIGNA christian, Wikimedia