Nature News reported in the last issue that Indonesia is promising greater coral reef protection in exchange for forgiveness of portions of its national debt. Congress is expected to approve of the Tropical Forest and Coral Conservation Act, supported by President Bush, providing $75 million over 3 years to pay off debts owed to the US. Is this a good idea? Where is this money coming from? Conservation programs at home here in the USA have been systematically cut by Bush during his reign. Indonesia is not listed as a member nation of the "Coalition of the Willing", so I suspect heavy petting is not involved.
I certainly believe in coral reef conservation as a priority everywhere, but where do we find $75 million to forgive debt owed to us by other nations for a cause thus diminished here at home in the States? I have no training in economics, so correct me if I'm wrong but isn't this a double whammy? We give away $75 million of our tax dollars and forgive $75 million that is our money (plus interest??). So that is a loss of $150 million. Is my math right?
It is sad that a nation has to bribed to conserve its own natural resources. Coral reefs provide many ecosystem services. A United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) report "In the front line: shoreline protection and other ecosystem services from mangroves and coral reefs" (2006: pdf) defined 4 categories of ecosystem services that coral reefs provide:
1) Regulating – e.g. protection of shores from storm surges and waves; prevention of erosion.Without any economic analysis, it should be plain to see that these 4 services are desirable and immediately affect many people from many different angles. Add on shoreline protection and the value only skyrockets:
2) Provisioning – e.g. fisheries, building materials.
3) Cultural – e.g. tourism, spiritual appreciation.
4) Supporting – e.g. cycling of nutrients, fish nursery habitats.
Reefs and mangroves play an important role in shore protection under normal sea conditions and during hurricanes and tropical storms. At least 70-90 per cent of the energy of wind-generated waves is absorbed, depending on how healthy these ecosystems are and their physical and ecological characteristics.So lets understand the estimated cost benefit of such services. This data is cited in the UNEP 2006 report mentioned above but is originally from Cesar 1996 (Cesar, H. 1996. Economic Analysis of Indonesian Coral Reefs. Work in Progress, Environment Department, World Bank: pdf)
"Reefs adjacent to sparsely populated areas where agriculture is the main activity: US$829 per km, based on the value of agricultural production that would be lost if there were no protection. Reefs adjacent to areas of high population densities: US$50,000 per km, based on the cost of replacing housing and roads if coastal protection were lost. Reefs in areas where tourism is the main use: US$1 million per km, based on the cost of maintaining sandy beaches."-Cesar 1996 (cited in UNEP 2006)It is not a trivial amount of money saved or provided as a result of ecosystem services. By increasing protection of coral reef ecosystems in its waters, Indonesia could very well save and earn enough money to pay off its debt while increasing the standard of living for its citizens. I am not naive enough to know think the situation there is that simple, but minimal effort can yield large gains.
The US passed a similar bill 1998 exchanging debt relief for conservation work. Nature News reported that in 2003
"... the US government cancelled $10 million in debt owed by Panama to protect the Chagres National Park. The money is being spent on projects such as park-boundary enforcement to stem illegal farming and training locals as ecotourist guides."Will bribing Indonesia to protect is reefs work? Indonesia has the financial incentive to protect its reefs without any additional rewards. I think this reflects the lack of long-term thinking in politics. Ecosystem services as a concept requires forward thinking, waiting to reap the benefits much like the college mutual funds I started for my children. It doesn't seem like much use now and is of no immediate benefit to anyone, but after 18 years of growth it will ensure the continuing educations of Elliot and Freya so that they may continue to grow as individuals. Ecosystem services works similarly. Putting say, $75 million into protecting wetlands across the USA's coastlines might not seem to have much use in the here and now, but in 18 years when another Category 5 hurricane makes landfall in the south, certain affected individuals will be grateful 70-90% of the wind-driven wave energy ("current consensus" in UNEP 2006) was reduced due to the services these coastal habitats indirectly provide.