Today, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the world’s leading conservation organization, announced an innovative US$364 million financial transaction with the Government of Belize that will enable the country to reduce its debt burden and generate an estimated US$180M for marine conservation, in support of Belize’s commitment to protect 30% of its ocean, strengthen governance frameworks for domestic and high sea fisheries, and establish a regulatory framework for coastal blue carbon projects. This is especially meaningful to the people of Belize as the country’s tourist-based economy continues to suffer from the impacts of COVID-19.
Representing the world’s largest debt restructuring for marine conservation to-date, the deal announced today is part of TNC’s “Blue Bonds for Ocean Conservation” program, an ambitious plan to drastically scale-up durable ocean conservation around the world. This conservation model is an innovative strategy to work with governments to restructure a portion of their sovereign debt, securing long-term sustainable financing for the management of valuable natural resources. This approach helps governments unlock funds at scale to deliver on their conservation goals and support the well-being of their communities and economies. In Belize, this project will provide crucial support for the country and its people by restructuring US$553 million of the country’s debt, generating approximately US$4 million per year in support of marine protection and tripling Belize’s budget for ocean conservation programs over the next two decades.
“This deal is huge for Belize, especially during a tremendously difficult time for our economy, but its impact extends far beyond us as well,” said Prime Minister John Briceño. “Blue Bonds will help us support the vibrant marine life that reside here, and maintain the rich biodiversity that is crucial for the health of our ecosystem and the planet. We are proud to be pioneers in this work, and to lead the way for other countries to join us as we conserve our oceans for Belize and beyond.”
“Our waters are rich in resources, and our citizens rely on the health of our underwater ecosystems for sustenance, livelihoods and protection from storm surges and flooding,” said Andre Perez, the Minister of Blue Economy. “The Blue Bonds project will ensure that we can continue to be good stewards of our ocean, and in turn keep our people and our economy healthy."
Despite the ocean contributing an estimated US$3 trillion per year to the global GDP, marine conservation is continually one of the most often overlooked and underfunded of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, posing both a serious economic risk and a missed economic opportunity. That is, until now. With a plan to work with countries across the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America and Asia-Pacific regions in the coming years, TNC aims to use these debt transactions to help ensure the new protection of up to 1.5 million square miles (4 million km2) of the world’s most biodiversity-critical ocean habitats – a 15% increase in the amount of protected ocean than currently exists.
“Conservation-driven debt conversions can give our partners a chance to jumpstart their economies and exponentially increase their conservation efforts,” said Jennifer Morris, CEO, The Nature Conservancy. “In Belize this will generate millions each year for the country to reinvest in conservation efforts that support the health of their marine life and of their people. The Nature Conservancy is happy to help Belize protect its valuable natural capital while reducing its debt burden, and we applaud the country’s leadership in demonstrating that this strategy can be an important solution for financing conservation around the world.”
How Does the Blue Bonds Project Work?
At the heart of this project is a deal: Belize has formally committed to several important conservation goals, such as protecting approximately 30% of its ocean, including coral reefs, mangroves and fish spawning sites. In support of that commitment, TNC worked with the Government of Belize, Credit Suisse, and the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation to fund a new US$364 million loan to Belize. Credit Suisse acted as the sole structuring bank and arranger of the financing, while DFC is providing political risk insurance to support the transaction and allow it to achieve an investment grade rating. The new loan enables Belize to repurchase and retire existing external commercial debt, create significant annual cash flows for conservation through 2040, and establish an endowment to fund conservation thereafter.
Using our scientific expertise, TNC will facilitate a participatory, stakeholder-driven Marine Spatial Plan (MSP) on behalf of the government. The marine protected areas are developed through the planning processes, with input from stakeholders such as local communities, including fishing associations, tourism businesses, and government officials. Local engagement is critical to ensure that the plan sustainably supports the local economy while protecting habitat. TNC will also help establish a new independent conservation fund, which ensures that funds are available to help the government follow through on its commitments and that eligible blue economy projects put forth by the community receive funding.
Experience has proved that these debt conversions work: TNC’s 2016 transaction with the Republic of Seychelles allowed the country to generate up to US$430,000 per year to marine conservation and protect 410,000 square kilometers of ocean — an area twice the size of Great Britain.
This debt conversion approach can be especially buoying to countries whose economies rely heavily on fishing and tourism. In Belize, tourism contributes 41% to the national GDP and employs 13% of the workforce. Tourism — especially nature-based tourism — is one of the largest sectors of the Belizean economy; coral reefs alone generate some US$81 million in annual tourism expenditures. The sector was heavily impacted by COVID-19: The country experienced an 85.5% decrease in overnight visitors in January 2021 as compared to January 2020.
What this means for Belize
The transaction announced today restructures US$553 million of the country’s debt, leading to an overall debt reduction of approximately US$250 million, more than US$200 million in debt service savings, and an estimated US$180 million in funding for conservation over the next 20 years. This includes approximately US$4 million per year in new cash flow for conservation, and capitalizing an endowment fund that is estimated to grow to over US$90 million by 2041. The endowment will continue to fund marine protected area management and conservation projects focused on coral reefs, fisheries and more, beyond the term of the transaction.
Nearly half of the people in Belize live in coastal communities, and they depend on marine life like lobster, conch, and fish for food. Marine-based ecotourism supports their families, and the coral reef and mangroves provide protection from coastal storm damage. Commercial fisheries contribute US$30 million to Belize’s GDP and directly employ around 2,500 people.
“Nature is crucial for Belize’s economy and people, and we are proud to be partnering with the first country in Latin America to tackle these challenges using the Blue Bonds for Conservation model,” said Julie Robinson, The Nature Conservancy’s Belize Program Director. “This deal will be transformative for our nation and its people, allow Belize to significantly reduce its external debt while reinvesting in a wide range of critical projects and programs: restore coral reef and mangrove ecosystems, improve marine fisheries and coastal zone policies, invest in sustainable fisheries, aquaculture and tourism, enhance social and environmental resilience to climate change impacts in coastal communities, and more.”
Adopting the Blue Bonds for Conservation model in Belize to unlock sustainable funding for marine conservation supports the blue economy, and protects and improves management of the ocean and coasts – benefiting both people and the planet.
The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in more than 70 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.