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How one South American country became a lab for conservation

by Ohio Digital News

In retrospect, it seems like a simple plan: Reduce a country’s foreign debt in exchange for nature conservation. 

But in 1987, the “debt-for-nature” swap was a radical and untested idea. And Conservation International, the organization trying to be the first to do it, was similarly untested — having been founded earlier that year. At the time, nature conservation itself still revolved around wildlife. “Climate change” was a fringe term, and the notion of protecting nature for people’s sake had yet to fully take root.

Yet Conservation International pulled off the deal, buying US$ 650,000 of Bolivia’s debt — at a steeply discounted price — in exchange for the government’s promise to establish protected areas in its Amazonian hinterlands. 

Few could have predicted that nearly 40 years later, those areas would remain protected. Debt-for-nature swaps went on to become a mainstay of global conservation. And Bolivia became a laboratory of sorts for the protection of nature, field-testing ideas that would eventually spread around the world. 

“In Bolivia, Conservation International saw an opportunity to shake things up in the conservation world, and they took it,” said Eduardo Forno, who leads Conservation International’s Bolivia office. “It changed the course of environmental protection in the country. Moreover, many of the ideas tested here have been implemented in some of the most remote and challenging places on Earth, where people depend directly on nature for their lives and livelihoods.”

If in the future, humanity solves its climate and biodiversity crises — if it can manage to put nature at the center of, and not second to, development — much of this success will owe to a handful of small but groundbreaking achievements made in this landlocked South American country. 

Madidi National Park, Bolivia. © Alejandro Loayza Grisi

Striking a deal for nature

It was 1984, and Latin America had a big problem. 

Having borrowed heavily in the 1960s and ‘70s to fund industrialization and economic development, Latin American countries were now struggling to repay their debts. The financial crisis that ensued — incomes plummeted as inflation and unemployment soared — lasted through most of the 1980s, known locally as “The Lost Decade.”

In 1984, during the midst of the crisis, ideas for tackling it came from every corner — including from the world of science, when renowned ecologist Thomas Lovejoy, a former Conservation International board member, offered a clever proposition: Let countries write off some of their burdensome debts in return for commitments to protect nature.

The rest is history. Three years later, Conservation International brokered the first such swap, securing the protection of some 1.6 million hectares (4 million acres) of rainforest in the Bolivian Amazon that is home to Indigenous communities, endangered wildlife and more species of birds than all of North America. In absolute terms, the US$ 650,000 — US$ 1.7 million in today’s dollars — wasn’t that much. But the deal’s impacts far outstripped its monetary value. 

“That first deal changed the world in terms of linking debt relief with environmental protection,” Forno said. “The amount of money that flowed to conservation was amazing — but debt-for-nature’s true legacy lies in the many deals that have followed.” 

In the years since the original swap in Bolivia, more than 140 debt-for-nature agreements have been struck globally, freeing up billions in funding for environmental protection. Today’s debt-for-nature swaps dwarf that original deal in size and scope — and are a trusted method for countries to alleviate debt and free up resources to protect nature.

“That first deal was like a seed that was planted,” Forno said. “Prior to that, the traditional model focused on philanthropy or government-funded conservation. But the debt-for-nature concept opened up a new funding mechanism — it gave the environmental community permission to think about financing conservation in a bigger way.”  

As countries look to meet global goals to protect and restore nature, the money generated from debt-for-nature swaps can help address a persistent funding gap. A recent United Nations report found that the world will not reach its climate and biodiversity goals unless financing more than doubles — from the current US$ 154 billion a year to US$ 384 billion a year by 2025.

In the Amazon, a new approach to travel takes shape

Deep in the forests of Bolivia’s Madidi National Park, iconic species like the spectacled bear, jaguar and Andean cock-of-the-rock make their home alongside the San José de Uchupiamonas people, who have stewarded the forest for generations.

Yet despite the area’s remoteness, mining and agriculture threats crept in. To protect the forest and the communities’ way of life, Conservation International and partners created the first Indigenous-run ecolodge — Chalalán Ecolodge — igniting a more inclusive approach to travel that has spread around the globe.

In 1995, the idea for the lodge came amid threats to the community’s territory from mining and agriculture, and the need for sustainable economic activities that would generate income for the community — without compromising nature, said Candido Pastor, who leads Conservation International’s Amazonia program. 

“The San José de Uchupiamonas community created something special in Chalalán — that lodge is like the Ford Model T of ecotourism, one of the earliest attempts to make travel more responsible and improve the well-being of local communities,” Pastor added. “Never before had an ecotourism experience offered such an intimate look into both nature and culture.” 

Chalalán Ecolodge in Madidi National Park. © Alejandro Loayza Grisi

To reach Chalalán, visitors must first catch a plane from La Paz to Rurrenabaque, a small town known as a gateway to the rainforest, for an overnight stay. In the morning, they climb into a dugout canoe for a five-hour ride on the Beni and Tuichi Rivers, where, if alert, they may see giant river otters, turtles and some of the roughly 1,000 species of birds that live within the protected area. Finally, a short hike through the rainforest leads to traditional Tacana cabins on the shores of Chalalán Lake.

By day, visitors explore more than 50 kilometers (31 miles) of trails in the forest. In the evenings, they eat traditional meals, like dunucuabi — fish cooked banana leaves. But the area’s gem is Chalalán Lake itself, which is home to at least five species of monkeys. Pastor once saw a group of capuchin monkeys that had adopted a spider monkey as one of their own. 

“I asked the San José de Uchupiamonas if this was common, and they said yes — it was an example of nature taking care of nature,” Pastor said.

In the years since Chalalán was established, it has provided a blueprint for successful ecotourism. Other lodges with similar models have followed, offering opportunities for local and Indigenous communities to diversify their economies, as well as stave off mining and agricultural operations.

Today, 74 families receive direct economic benefits from Chalalán, while many others who work in sustainable agriculture and sell handicrafts from the forest also earn a living from visitors. 

“Chalalán is not just an experience — it is a movement,” Pastor said. “It is a political and economic defense of Indigenous territory, and a symbol that conservation with people is possible — not just in Bolivia, but across the globe.”

Squirrel monkey, Madidi National Park. © Jonathan Irish

Small towns are a force for nature

There’s no mistaking how most protected areas came about — it’s literally in the name:  “National” parks. “National” reserves. “National” marine sanctuaries.

Yet in Bolivia, a different approach to protected areas has arisen: Municipalities and Indigenous communities have been taking the unprecedented step of setting aside their own lands under their own authority. In the past two decades, Bolivia’s municipalities and Indigenous communities have collectively protected more than 11 million hectares (27 million acres) — an area roughly the size of Cuba — helping the country meet its ambitious goal to protect 30 percent of its land, years ahead of schedule. 

“Little by little, Bolivia’s municipalities and Indigenous communities — some as small as 200 people — are having a big impact on the Amazon,” Forno said.

Alto Beni, Bolivia, one of the municipalities that created a protected area in its territory. ©Luisa Velasco

The approach, spearheaded by Conservation International, was born out of necessity, he added. Bolivia’s last national protected areas were created in the early 2000s, and historically the country has had one of the highest per capita deforestation rates in the world. In response, communities have stepped up to protect their lands from encroaching mining and agricultural threats. 

Why? Because living so close to nature means Amazonian communities rely on it for their livelihoods — and feel the impacts when it’s destroyed, Forno said, referring to increased flooding and deadly mudslides that have been exacerbated by deforestation.

“Often, conservation is framed as limiting development and growth,” he said. “Yet these communities recognize the importance of the forest and are leaders in protecting its incredible resources for future generations.”

By 2030, Forno expects Conservation International to help communities protect an additional 4 million hectares (10 million acres). This strategy requires strong partnerships with Indigenous peoples, local communities and local and national governments, he said. Alongside the national government, Forno’s team has helped establish a network for Bolivian municipalities with protected areas to share knowledge and build partnerships. They also helped develop the first comprehensive atlas of municipal protected areas.

“The collaboration among the communities, environmental organizations and governments is encouraging,” Forno said. “We must continue to be strategic and work together — we cannot fly solo.”

Mary Kate McCoy is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Also, please consider supporting our critical work.

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