How do you protect the world’s last large source of arable land, minerals and fossil fuels while supporting a population projected to more than double in 40 years?
It’s a question countries across the African continent are answering as they balance explosive growth with protecting the natural world — the wildlife, forests and fresh water that underpin their economies.
Michael O’Brien-Onyeka, who leads Conservation International’s Africa field division, has a suggestion for the continent’s decision-makers: Redirect some of your debt to the United States into conserving nature. In an article for Thomas Reuters Foundation News published earlier this week, O’Brien-Onyeka outlined the potential for African nations of a debt-for-nature swap attained through the Tropical Forest Conservation Reauthorization Act (TCFA) — the most important conservation law you’ve never heard of.
Conservation International was the first to employ a debt-for-nature swap in a project in Bolivia, which helped to protect 1.6 million hectares (4 million acres) of tropical rainforest and 13 endangered species living within that rainforest.
For countries that meet the criteria, TFCA enables them to cut their debt to the United States and funnel those savings into conservation activities including establishing nature reserves and protecting watersheds. And despite TFCA’s name, it also includes coral reefs, presenting additional prospects for conservation financing for the continent’s 38 coastal states.
Historically, countries in Asia and Latin America have been the primary beneficiaries of the program. To date, Botswana is the only African nation to use it, reducing its debt by more than US$ 8 million and using that money to restore the biologically significant Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park.
The potential for the rest of Africa is monumental, O’Brien-Onyeka explained, especially as countries undertake the AFR100 Initiative and work to restore 100 million hectares of land by 2030: “Africa needs all the resources it can get to better protect its forests, which play a significant role in the continent’s socio-economic development.”
Sophie Bertazzo is a senior editor at Conservation International.