Curious sea turtles and plump dugongs glide confidently through the clear ocean waters. On land, giant tortoises slowly tear leaves off low-hanging branches to make their lunch. Above, bleach-white fairy terns hover angelically against a perfect blue background of sky.
The small island nation of Seychelles, which sits about 1,600 kilometers off the coast of East Africa, is truly an ecological paradise. But, as the world changes, so too will the challenges faced by its endangered and endemic species, as well as the country’s 100,000 residents who depend on their marine resources.
On Feb. 21, 2018, Seychelles announced two new Marine Protected Areas covering 210,000 square kilometers (81,000 square miles) created as part of the ground-breaking debt-for-conservation deal designed by The Nature Conservancy. As part of the debt conversion, Seychelles committed to increasing its marine protection from just 0.04 percent of its Exclusive Economic Zone to a full 30 percent. These first designations — an area the size of Great Britain — represents just the first half of the 410,000 square kilometers that will be protected by 2022.
The areas now fully protected — restricting almost all human activities — include 74,400 square kilometers (29,000 square miles) of waters around the remote islands of the Aldabra Group. The archipelago includes the world’s second-largest raised coral atoll — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — that, like Galapagos, is a window into evolutionary processes in an ecosystem barely touched by human activity. It is home to the most endangered animal in the western Indian Ocean — the dugong — and 100,000 rare giant tortoises that breed only here.
The second Marine Protected Area covers 136,000 square kilometers (52,000 square miles) of deep waters stretching between the Amirantes Group and Fortune Bank, a swath of Seychelles' central ocean that includes areas important to both the tourism and fishing industries. Here, some economic activities are allowed but under strict new conditions.
Sea turtle in Seychelles. © Hagai Zvulun
As a country that’s 99 percent ocean, Seychelles and its citizens depend on a healthy, thriving marine ecosystem. Jobs in the fishing and tourism industries employ 43 percent of the country's workforce. Seychellois have one of the highest levels of fish consumption per capita in the world.
This reliance on marine resources makes Seychelles and other oceanic nations among the most vulnerable to climate change. By demarcating large areas to be both protected and properly managed, Seychelles is now better prepared for the unknown effects of warming and rising waters, ocean acidification, and increased and illegal fishing.
Without these Marine Protected Areas, activities like oil and gas exploration, deep-sea mining, dredging, and controversial fishing techniques could take place in one of the planet’s most biodiverse oceans with little or no restriction or direction.
Mackrel fishermen in Seychelles fish along the shore with small boats and siene nets, trapping fish against the beach and hauling the catch up onto the sand. © Jason Houston
Trading Debt for Nature
Seychelles’ commitment to increase the protected area of its ocean from 0.04 percent to 30 percent came out of a groundbreaking debt refinancing it designed with TNC and key stakeholders in 2015. Seychelles was able to pay off an outstanding sovereign debt with $21 million TNC raised. The transaction, structured by TNC’s conservation investing unit, NatureVest, means a portion of Seychelles' debt repayments will now fund innovative marine protection and climate adaptation projects.
The debt swap was made possible by private funders, including the China Global Conservation Fund of The Nature Conservancy, The Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust, Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, Lyda Hill Foundation, Oak Foundation, Oceans 5, Turnbull Burnstein Family Charitable Fund, and Waitt Foundation. Collaborators on the initiative include the governments of Belgium, France, Italy, the Republic of South Africa, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, United Nations Development Program, Global Environment Facility, and Global Island Partnership.
Long nose hawkfish in Seychelles. © Hagai Zvulun
Looking at the Big Picture
Critical to the success and completion of this deal was creating a Marine Spatial Plan (MSP). The government of Seychelles leads this initiative with planning, science, and facilitation managed by The Nature Conservancy with the GOS-UNDP-GEF Program Coordinating Unit.
The MSP is designed to protect Seychelles’ ecological assets at the same time as allowing its “Blue Economy” — businesses that rely on ocean resources — to continue in a sustainable manner for generations to come. The MSP covers all 1.4 million square kilometers of Seychelles’ territory and is the second-largest area of ocean in the world to be covered by such a plan.
These decisions were not made lightly: More than 100 stakeholders were consulted during the preparation of Phase 1 of the MSP, and their views on which activities should be allowed, and where, form the backbone of the plan. The planning process included 24 committee meetings, nine public workshops, and 60 consultations with marine sectors, local experts, and agencies over the course of several years.
This incredible achievement in Seychelles is a great model for how TNC can use science, innovative financing, and multi-stakeholder negotiations to sustain blue economies and protect high-priority marine habitats in the Western Indian Ocean. By replicating and leveraging our success here, we can move forward with plans to deliver ocean planning and protection at national and regional scales and become a model for the world.
In 2010, the Conservancy launched its impact capital strategy with support from the Robertson Foundation which continues today, and built a global network with subsequent support from the Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust. In early 2014, with founding sponsorship from JPMorgan Chase & Co., the Conservancy launched NatureVest as a concerted effort to change the way we invest in nature. JPMorgan Chase provides strategic input to NatureVest research, investor outreach, market analysis and structuring conservation investments.