Bhutan’s Bold Conservation Plan
The Himalayan nation is launching an innovative project to safeguard 5 million acres of protected land.
Bold ideas sometimes come from unexpected places. While the wealthiest nations of the world have made important commitments and invested in solutions to climate change, the people of Bhutan – a small nation bordering India and China – may have offered the boldest approach of all: pledging to remain carbon-neutral for all time.
Now, the royal government of Bhutan is backing up that commitment with action. In doing so, the Himalayan nation is advancing an innovative approach for financing conservation that could serve as a model for the rest of the world.
Right now, the world has designated as protected more than 15 percent of the land on our planet. This lays the foundation not just for preserving species and landscapes, but also for helping mitigate climate change because of the role that forests play in storing carbon. But protection on paper does not afford real protection. Real protection comes from a park with clear borders, community involvement, rangers, scientists, maps of fragile resources, educational signage and numerous other factors. All of which cost money.
A 2004 report provides a rough sense of the scale of the financial challenge we face in meeting the climate and conservation goals that make our planet more healthy, productive and livable. The study, published in the journal Bio-Science, estimated that keeping the world’s parks intact in developing countries would have required an annual budget of $2.5 billion. The problem is that only $800 million was available, leaving a $1.7 billion annual gap.
For a small nation like Bhutan, closing this gap represents a near overwhelming challenge. Nearly three-fourths of the country remains under forest cover, and 51 percent of Bhutan remains designated as protected – a magnificent accomplishment, but a costly one as well if it is going to last.
On Nov. 11, representatives from the royal government of Bhutan, World Wildlife Fund, the Green Climate Fund, Global Environment Facility and private funders gathered to celebrate Bhutan for Life. Bhutan for Life will secure $43 million to capitalize a performance-based fund to safeguard Bhutan’s 5 million-acre network of protected areas until the nation’s government can take on the full cost.
Through Bhutan for Life – the first such project in Asia – the royal government of Bhutan provided prospective investors with a plan for properly managing its protected lands: conducting forest inventories, patrolling and enforce- ment, not to mention training communities in creating nature-based enterprises. In response to the funding gap – about $4 million annually – to support those activities, investors from around the world pooled their contributions to create a “bridge fund.” As that fund gradually draws down over the course of 14 years, the Bhutanese government will increase its own spending until it assumes the full of cost of conservation.
To ensure that no investor is put at risk for financing an idea that fails to reach its goal, this initiative only goes into effect when there are enough commitments to achieve the total financial target. Then and only then, all the funds are deposited in a simultaneous, single closing – a common model on Wall Street, but largely new to the conservation world.
This project represents an essential part of the broader fight against climate change. Bhutan’s forests serve as a vast carbon sink, absorbing carbon dioxide emitted from Bhutan and from other nations. Bhutan itself is actually carbon negative, with those forests absorbing nearly three times more carbon dioxide than the nation emits each year.
Additionally, the forests allow water to infiltrate into soils – lowering peak flood levels and maintaining more flow into the dry season. Further, forest cover reduces landslides and other forms of erosion from Bhutan’s steep mountainsides. These water and erosion benefits help maintain the resiliency of communities and ecosystems against climate change impacts, and provide real value to existing hydropower stations, an important source of revenue for the country.
We believe Bhutan for Life will work because we have seen it in action before. In 2010, the government of Costa Rica closed a $57 million deal to permanently finance the proper management of nearly 5.7 million acres of terrestrial and marine protected areas. In 2014, the government of Brazil closed a $215 million deal to permanently finance the proper management of a 150 million-acre network of protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon. The deal, known as ARPA for Life, was the largest tropical rainforest conservation project in history, and could help Brazil avoid at least 1.4 billion tons of carbon emissions by 2050.
The government of Peru and World Wildlife Fund are now using the same model to finance long-term protection of 41 million acres of the Peruvian Amazon. And a similar plan, Herencia Colombia, is envisioned as a potential integral part of that country’s peace plan, securing their Amazon forests and creating jobs for rural communities at the same time.
This is just the beginning. Through an initiative called Earth for Life, we aim to expand the model across the globe. Leaders looking to secure fresh water for their communities, a healthy natural resource base that supports local livelihoods and forests that lock away harmful carbon pollution, now have a solution and a road map. They can count on us as allies as they chart their own bold path forward.