Bhutan’s Bold Con­ser­va­tion Plan

The Hi­malayan na­tion is launch­ing an in­no­va­tive project to safe­guard 5 mil­lion acres of pro­tected land.

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - By Carter Roberts and Tsh­er­ing Tob­gay

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.

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