The Seychelles will be able to exchange their debt for two large national parks in a new initiative backed by investors and charities, including Hollywood golden boy and environmental crusader Leonardo DiCaprio. This is a world first and could pave the way for similar schemes in the future.
“The Seychelles is positioning itself as a world leader in ocean governance,” said the country’s environment minister, Didier Dogley, reports The Guardian.
“But we are not doing this because we have such a great ego but because we truly believe these initiatives will create prosperity for our people, conserve critical biodiversity and build resilience against climate change.”
Their $22-million debt has been bought up at a discount by an NGO called The Nature Conservancy (TNC). In return, the government will introduce two nature reserves, which combined will cover 210,000 square kilometers (81,000 square miles) of marine environment. To put it into perspective, that is roughly the same size as the country of Belarus or the state of Kansas.
The plan is to double the protection zone by 2021. If this goes ahead, it will cover 30 percent of the Seychelles' waters, which make up 99 percent of the tiny island country's territory.
"This effort will help the people of Seychelles protect their ocean for future generations, and will serve as a model for future marine conservation projects worldwide," DiCaprio said, reports BBC News. His charity, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, has contributed $1 million to the project.
Coral reefs make up just 1 percent of the world's surface area, yet manage to house 25 percent of the Earth's ocean wildlife. Sadly, a lethal combination of climate change and overfishing are working to destroy this crucial habitat. The Seychelles, like many tropical islands, is witnessing a devastating chain of events, including coastal erosion, ocean acidification, extreme weather, and coral bleaching.
All this is putting the nation's flora and fauna – which includes the humpback whale, manta ray, spinner dolphin, and tiger shark – at great risk. It also threatens the economic security of people living there who rely on tourism and fishing to survive. Roughly 43 percent of the islands' population is employed in one of these two industries.
We'll have to wait and see if the government can withstand pressures from the fossil fuel industry, the military, and local fishermen, but in the meantime, we can expect to see similar arrangements set up elsewhere.
Rob Weary from TNC told The Guardian he expects to oversee debt swaps in a number of Caribbean countries including Grenada, which could finalize a $60-million deal later this year.