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Seychelles Marine Protection

The Seychelles made a deal that trades environmental protection for debt relief


Deep blue waters, miles of white sandy beaches, rich marine life and lush, thick forests.

If there was a place on earth close to our traditional idea of paradise, that would be the Seychelles.

Fewer than 100 thousand people live on these Indian Ocean islands.

Land mass makes up only one percent of the nation's vast ocean territory.

The archipelago consisting of 115 granitic and coral islands has been isolated from continental land masses for millions of years.

On its Aldabra atoll, the second biggest coral atoll in the world and a UNESCO world heritage site, endemic life has evolved undisturbed.

The remote atoll is home to the world's largest population of giant tortoises, critically endangered dungongs and spawning grounds for a number of rare species.

The Seychellois government has now signed a bill restricting nearly all human activity in the waters around Aldabra.

Seychelles Marine Protection
A diver descends into the water in the Seychelles. The tiny island nation of the Seychelles is announcing a pioneering marine conservation plan as part of a debt swap deal with creditors, designating nearly a third of its ocean waters as protected areas and aiming to ensure its unique biodiversity.

The country's minister of environment, energy and climate change, Didier Dogley, welcomed the bill in a ceremony attended by top marine economists and conservation experts.

The Seychelles Marine Spatial Plan (MSP), the first of its kind worldwide, was created as part of an innovative debt-swap deal with the country's Paris Club creditors.

The ambitious plan places 30 percent of the country's territorial waters under protection, putting it way ahead of the global marine protected area target of 10 percent by 2020.

The deal was brokered by US-based environmental charity, The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

Through its investment arm, NatureVest, TNC bought back a portion of the Seychelles' bilateral sovereign debt.

It blended a loan of $15.2 (m) million US dollars provided by TNC to the Seychellois government and $5 (m) million US dollars in philanthropic donations, including a $1 (m) million US dollar grant by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

The debt was bought back at a discount, reducing it to just over $20 (m) million US dollars, according to the man who negotiated the deal between the Seychellois government and its creditors, Rob Weary.

"It took four years to put this together but what happened was over that time period the Seychelles was the poster child of what you do to come out of the debt crisis. They were running positive budget surpluses, they successfully floated their currency, they reduced their debt to GDP ratio," says Weary, the Senior Director of Product Development for NatureVest.

At the height of its debt crisis in the late 2000s, the Seychelles was one of the world's top debt-ridden countries.

Its sovereign debt peaked at nearly one (bn) billion US dollars, according to the World Bank.

Today, the debt stands at less than half of that, says the Seychelles Finance Ministry.

The agreement ensures that conservation work in the Seychelles can be funded into perpetuity, says Weary.

Seychelles Marine Protection
Snorkelers are seen over a reef in the Seychelles.

"In a nutshell, the Seychelles managed to convert part of its debt through a debt swap loan agreement facilitated by the Nature Conservancy. And this debt restructuring enabled for a certain amount to be repaid into a trust fund to fund conservation related projects and activities," explains the Project Manager for the Marine Spatial Plan, Helena Sims.
The Marine Spatial Plan, the "policy architecture" as Weary refers to it, is split into two phases.

Phase One went into effect on Wednesday (21 February) evening with the signing of the law.

It places over 74,000 square kilometres (28,500 square miles) of ocean waters of the highest biodiversity under protection, by restricting all extraction or extractive uses such as fishing and petroleum exploration.

The second phase will be completed by 2021.

It will involve the management of a further 136,000 square kilometres where human activity will be allowed but restricted to sustainable practices.

"The marine spatial plan is trying to balance protection and ecology with social and economic use. The idea is to displace as minimum as possible our existing users. On the opposite, we want to help to develop sustainable use of the marine resources," says Sims.

Flavien Joubert, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Seychelles National Parks Authority, welcomes the new plan.

The limited protected areas in the Seychelles Economic zone so far led to ineffective protection of certain endangered species, such as turtles and sharks, he says.

"Well, the major threats are from the people themselves. They do create pressure by trying to extract the resources that we have, like fishing, as I mentioned. Certain species are targeted," he says.

"But also, on the other side, we have threats that are beyond our control. Like climate for example, which is having a big impact on the marine environment and which is having negative impact on certain species like corals. And we have to come in and intervene on those instances."

Rising water temperatures and climate change are major threats to the oceanic nation's marine biodiversity.

Two major coral bleaching events in the past two decades have led to a massive loss of coral, leaving the sea floor carpeted with a layer of white skeletons.

But some feel that the new deal will severely restrict their ability to make a living from the ocean.

Many fishermen involved in associations accept that the long-term effects of the MSP will benefit the economy and their industry.

Yet some fear the short-term impact will be crippling to their livelihoods.

"This is our living, you know, catch fish, sell, get our life (make our living). If you protect everywhere, where (will) we go fishing?" says fisherman Elvis Simon Dingwall.

Dingwall has been a fisherman on the Mahe plateau for the past 20 years and says many areas are now depleted of fish stocks.

The 48-year-old local thinks restricting artisanal fishermen from accessing other areas will negatively impact their livelihoods.

He echoes other fishermen who are angry that they have to bear the brunt of the government's past economic failures.

"The small Seychelles to have big debts like that. And the main economy is tourism, then the second is fishing. We don't know how debt has come and now we fishermen are going to pay for all these things that have happened, you know?" he says.

The head of the Seychelles state-owned oil and gas exploration entity has also had doubts.

Patrick Joseph of PetroSeychelles said the organisation was initially resistant to the plan, but with close involvement in its design consultations, they are now cautiously optimistic.

It is uncertain what activities will and will not be allowed in the MSP's second phase, to be rolled out by 2021.

From a geological point of view, Joseph says, all the ingredients are there to suggest that there are substantial hydrocarbon reserves in the Seychelles economic area.

"We feel Seychelles has a small population, yes, and we could have world class reserves of hydrocarbon. And provided this is done properly, we choose the right companies and we do a proper impact assessment before we drill, I feel like the country will definitely benefit from oil and gas resources," he says. "We know there are environmental issues, but we feel like we can sort of get through those and, using technology, using out understanding of the industry achieve economic growth through our resources."

The Seychellois government is already reaping the benefits of the confidence the adoption of the MSP has inspired in its creditors.

In another pioneering feat, the Seychelles are finalizing the details of a Blue Bond by the World Bank that will finance a transition to sustainable fisheries.

The $20 (m) million US dollar package will include a $15 (m) million US dollar bond, which will contribute to achieving the country's Blue Economy strategy.

Benoit Bosquet, Practice Manager for Environment and Natural Resources at the World Bank, says the Seychelles has an opportunity to show the world how to manage its sea resources sustainably.

"So the Seychelles are called a Small Island State. In reality, they are a Large Ocean Nation. They have a very small landmass, but a huge exclusive economic zone," he says. "And the Seychelles is leading the way in terms of how it is going to manage its ocean territory, it's seascape as we call it sometimes, in a sustainable fashion."

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