Ecuador looks to make environmental virtue pay

By Elias L. Benarroch

Puerto Ayora, Ecuador, Nov 15 (EFE).- The Ecuadorian government is exploring the possibility of persuading international creditors to reduce the country’s $45 billion external sovereign debt in exchange for Quito’s commitment to additional environmental protection measures in the Galapagos Islands.

The plan, announced by President Guillermo Lasso during the just-concluded United Nations COP-26 climate summit in Glasgow, envisions expanding the Galapagos maritime preserve from 133,000 sq km (51,352 sq mi) to retire $1.1 billion in debt.

“This would be humanity’s largest debt-for-conservation swap,” Environment Minister Gustavo Manrique told Efe.

People who live and work in the South American archipelago designated by UNESCO in 1978 as a World Heritage Site have welcomed the idea after seeing the Covid-19 pandemic cripple tourism, which accounts for 90 percent of employment in the Galapagos.

As yet, however, the government has not offered a detailed proposal explaining exactly how the initiative would work.

Tarsicio Granizo, a former environment minister who now leads the Ecuador chapter of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said that the Andean nation pursued a successful debt-for-conservation strategy in the 1980s.

“For many years those (environmental) funds supported the management of protected areas, so there is experience and in the world,” he told Efe. “It’s not a new mechanism.”

Ecuador’s total sovereign debt stands at $63 billion, equivalent to more than 62 percent of gross domestic product, and the amount of interest and principal due over the next five years is roughly $30 billion.

In 2007, then-President Rafael Correa asked the international community to contribute $3.6 billion so Ecuador could afford to forgo developing a reserve of 1 billion barrels of oil under Yasuni National Park, a biosphere reserve in the Amazon.

The sum requested was half of the revenue Ecuador stood to gain from pumping and selling the oil at then-current prices. But Quito gave up on the venture in 2013 after donors pledged only $200 million.

The present government in Quito is hoping for a different outcome, pointing to signs of a reinvigorated global commitment to the environment following COP-26.

When he took office in May, Lasso proclaimed an “ecological transition,” but then proceeded to set a goal of doubling oil exploration efforts and reactivating the mining industry.

In a recent interview with Efe, the president said he had to balance the environment with economic concerns, pointing out that “seven in every 10 Ecuadorians” are without formal employment.

His announcement of the expanded Galapagos reserve at COP-26 was intended as a gesture of good faith.

The government is ready to take additional steps on the environment provided those measures can be “monetized,” Manrique said.

“Today, Ecuador has a very important framework of culture and public policy, a culture of conservation, and we have the new currency that the planet needs to survive,” the minister said. “The US is rich in dollars and we are rich in biodiversity.”

In the Galapagos, the government’s approach takes the form of increased spending on preserving the unique environment to ensure that the archipelago 1,000 km (600 mi) from the Ecuadorian mainland does not become another Cancun.

“We are a national park and everything is focused on conservation, with animals and species you won’t find in any other part of the world. If we don’t protect it we will lose this special part of the Galapagos Islands,” said Ana Moya, director of a resort that caters to eco-tourists. EFE elb/dr

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