Incentivising Nature Conservation in a Time of Pandemic – Some Options for Africa

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In this post, Dr Walters Nsoh discusses Nature Conservation in a Time of Pandemic

Dr Walters Nsoh

Dr Walters Nsoh

For decades, the law on biodiversity conservation has been largely dominated by the state designating protected sites and species and then imposing restrictions on activities that might harm these. This system has been perceived by some as being inflexible, whilst arguably paying not enough attention to biodiversity in the wider environment which, in practice, is given little consideration in the planning and other regulatory systems.

In recent years and in many jurisdictions, a wider range of tools is being employed to support biodiversity, and the the law has been developing to support these. For example, Part 6 of the Environment Act 2021, introduces ‘biodiversity net gain’ as a condition in the planning system and lays the framework for some kind of trade in ‘biodiversity credits’. Part 7 introduces ‘conservation covenants’ as part of the regulatory tools to support nature conservation, following the work of the Law Commission in England and Wales on this subject back in 2014. All these legislative changes followed the commitment made in the UK Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan to explore ‘new and innovative funding and delivery mechanisms as part of a new environmental land management system’. Most of these rely more heavily on private initiative and funding than does the law to date.

The use of these innovative market-based approaches such as biodiversity offsetting, payment for ecosystem services, conservation covenants and more in nature conservation are explored in my book The Privatisation of Biodiversity? – New Approaches to Conservation Law (Edward Elgar Publishing 2016). My recent article, Achieving Groundwater Governance: Ostrom’s Design Principles and Payments for Ecosystem Services Approaches, which is published as Open Access in Transnational Environmental Law also examines how market-based approaches such as payments for ecosystem services (PES) fit with some of the governance models that could be used to protect and enhance groundwater as a common pool resource.

At a time when the resources available to the public conservation bodies are likely to be restricted due to the economic challenges imposed following the Covid-19 pandemic, a greater emphasis on such private initiative and funding is going to be of particular significance. But there is also the possibility of extending these private initiatives further to include institutional arrangements that are a matter of private law rather than public regulation, especially in the the case of many African countries, where the regulatory space is still dorminated by the state and which are facing the tripple challenge of degrading fragile habitats, climate change, with the indebtedness and limited access to credit.

 Debt-for-Nature Swap

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), more than 20 low-income African countries were in debt distress or at risk of debt distress in autumn 2021. Not only are these countries having to borrow more to mitigate the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic, servicing the debt is also becoming an issue, with the Economist estimating that debt repayment costs are rising fast for many African countries who could face trouble by 2024. Despite promising signs of a continuing global economic recovery in 2022, a report by Chatham House revels that the African debt situation remains worrying. At the same, and despite decades of action, the data shows that nature is still declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history, with growing awareness of the many consequences of this decline for resource-rich African countries. Accordingly, there have been renewed calls to address the triple crisis of debt distress, biodiversity loss and climate change through debt-for-nature swaps.

The swap mechanism is not new. It was first introduced in response to the international debt crisis in the 1980s. A similar debt crisis followed the 2008 financial crash and we are again facing the risk of a drop in government and external funding for nature conservation projects triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. There is an opportunity to review how we tackle the debt and nature emergencies together, to reduce poverty and ensure an inclusive and sustainable post-COVID recovery in Africa.

A debt-for-nature swap is an agreement that reduces a developing country’s debt stock or service in exchange for a commitment to protect nature from the debtor-government. It is a voluntary transaction whereby the donor(s) cancels the debt owned by a developing country’s government. The savings from the reduced debt service are invested in climate sustainability and nature conservation projects.

There are three main types of debt-for-nature swaps: bilateral, commercial and private to private debt swaps that provide better global support, change business-as-usual practices and provide innovative financing in ways that benefit both nature and economies. They all have their advantages and disadvantages and provide various opportunities but also may cause different risks. There is experience of all the main types of debt-for-nature swaps, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean. Such overseas experience is useful but must be utilised cautiously in Africa since the mechanism operates against a very different physical and legal background. Recent projects by the IIED and the African Development Bank have sought to assess the feasibility and relevance of debt-for-nature swaps in Africa. However, much work needs to be done to develop enduring frameworks that address debt sustainability, climate sustainability and nature conservation in Africa.

 Concluding remarks

Initiatives such as the ones discussed here, that rely heavily on private initiative and funding than the previous law, have potential in the field of nature conservation. This is especially the case for African countries where the regulatory space is still dorminated by the state and that face the triple challenge of indebtedness, climate change and degrading habitats. There are major challenges in designing effective and enduring frameworks, but concern that we do not have a perfect solution should not stop us doing things which can be an improvement on the current position.


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