Debt for nature: Does it make sense to pay poor countries to preserve nature

samfloy~2 May 2020 /Random

The past few weeks my girlfriend and I have been watching Our Planet (David Attenborough series) which has led to discussions about different ways of preventing environmental degradation so shows like it don’t soon get transferred to the history channel. 

I won’t pretend to be an expert, but one interesting mechanism from Googling around the topic seems to be Debt-for-Nature Swaps (DNS).

Money for trees

A debt-for-nature swap is a financial transactions in which a portion of a developing nation’s foreign debt is forgiven in exchange for local investments in environmental conservation measures.

The organisations who (effectively) front the cash are those who want to see conservation happen (i.e. conservation NGOs with a mandate/ fund to protect the earth).

The UN have an interesting report on the pros/ cons of the approach here: https://www.sdfinance.undp.org/content/sdfinance/en/home/solutions/debt-for-nature-swaps.html

The tragedy of mini oysters

In theory, I like the idea of those with financial wealth paying to maintain assets like forests and corals that locally may not be preserved as is.

However, I worry about the implementation. 

As an example, I think to a Kenyan coastal town I visited last year. Kilifi has a bay where oysters grow, however they are all pretty small. This is because local fishermen would rather harvest them now (for, say, 20p) rather than waiting for them to grow and sell for £1. Over time, the overfishing means stocks get depleted and oysters get smaller and smaller.

This shares some characteristics with the tragedy of the commons.

Were a debt-for-nature swap to be implemented, it would almost certainly come down from the top. Practically the Kilifi bay may become off limits for any fishing in order to let the oyster populations flourish.

As a result, fishermen would lose an income and, in desperation may be tempted to contravene restrictions resulting in tension from “the top” and those in the community.

Somewhere with value

This idea of a top down policy not benefiting those affected seems to be the root of a lot of “elitism backlash”.

In New Zealand, there’s a relatable story about farmers rebelling against a well-meaning government initiative to plant more trees. When the land is used for agriculture it provides employment and sustains a local community. If it’s sanctioned (or given tax breaks) to become a forest, the need for employment almost completely disappears, meaning people leave the area and the local economy shuts down.

Typically those who live near to nature have more attachment to “somewhere” than “anywhere” and so asking them to up and leave might not be as easy as a well-meaning wonk might hope.

As such, it seems one route out of the conundrum would be to replace the local benefits that the natural resource provides, without degrading it.

The best I could come up with was to prioritise the construction of large outsourcing offices to be in areas where income typically depends on nature (rather than in cities). 

But basically, I’m stumped.

If you have any thoughts, answers on a postcard please…


In other news…

With all the chat about bleach injections I ended up down a Wiki-hole trying to understand the back story of Donald Trump. Basically, what was he actually doing before he became president.

To save sharing the 47 tabs I had open, this article was, in my opinion, the best summation of the non-obvious things.


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