by Doménica Montaño (Twitter: @domemontano)
Ecuador kicked off its participation in COP26 with an announcement to which the world responded with enthusiasm: the government would create a new marine reserve on the Galapagos Islands, renowned for their unique biodiversity.
With the expansion, the new reserve will comprise 193,000 km2 of protected ocean, which is one of the most biodiverse spaces in the world. The protected area would be so large it would even exceed the size of continental Ecuador.
However, although this is good news for ocean conservation and the fight against climate change, the moment of truth will come after COP26, when measures are taken to create the reserve, experts say.
President of Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso, explained in Glasgow that the new marine reserve will add 60,000 km2 divided into two areas with different characteristics.
A total of 30.000 km2 will serve exclusively to protect a part of the Cocos Ridge — an area that stretches between Panama and the Galapagos Islands. Cocos, as it is commonly known, is a major migration route for species such as the hammerhead shark, which is critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list.
All the countries along the migration route — Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica and Colombia — committed to creating a cross-border marine “mega reserve”. Some of these nations, such as Costa Rica, have already started a process of public consultation to create the protected area, but are facing some opposition from fishing sectors.
The remaining 30.000 km2 will be located to the northeast of the islands and will be a longline exclusion area. Longline is a common fishing technique which uses a line with hundreds of hooks, and which has a high rate of bycatch, impacting species such as sea lions, sharks, rays and even sea turtles. In the current marine reserve, longline fishing is prohibited by law, and can only be used for scientific study purposes.
Even though the creation of the new reserve was presented at COP26 as an innovative milestone, the proposal to expand the protection of the Galapagos waters is something that conservationists and scientists have been advocating for years.
Since the proposal was presented, no new actions had been taken regarding the new reserve or implementing the swap, until COP26.
In Glasgow, Guillermo Lasso — who only assumed the presidency of Ecuador in May 2021 — not only confirmed the creation of the reserve but also announced that it would be financed through a debt swap.
Financing the reserve through a debt swap is key for its effective functioning, since it is the best way of guaranteeing proper funds, experts said.
According to conservation experts Tarsicio Granizo, director of WWF Ecuador, and Luis Suárez, vice president and executive director of Conservation International Ecuador, making the exchange is essential to avoid the project becoming a paper tiger.
This is a common complaint and has happened before in other protected areas of Ecuador, the conservation experts said.
A debt swap is a mechanism that makes it easier for less developed countries to invest in conservation projects in exchange for reducing their external debt.
A debt-for-nature swap involves one or more private organizations or companies buying a some of the country’s foreign debt bonds, in exchange for that country committing to conservation. In this case, the commitment would be to conserve the new marine reserve.
When the Más Galapagos collective proposed the debt swap, it was stipulated that the purchased debt would be placed in two promissory notes — instruments that grant the right to collect on that debt.
Their idea was to have one promissory note that could earn interest and another for conservation. The conservation note would be converted into blue bonds — to finance ocean protection projects — and would create an “International Galapagos Fund” that would have a trust.
However, the government has not yet detailed how it expects to make the swap. In his presentation at COP26, President Lasso did not elaborate on the volume of debt to be exchanged or on the organization or organizations that would manage the purchase of the bonds.
Yet, in an interview, the Minister of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition, Gustavo Manrique, said that the government had proposed the highest debt-for-nature swapin history.
Although the swap is, according to experts, the best mechanism there is to ensure the protection of the new reserve announced by the president, there are also doubts.
Milton Castillo, former delegate of the Ombudsman’s Office in Galapagos, believes that it is necessary to be very clear about what the exchange entails, who will manage the trust and who will manage the funds.
Castillo says he has seen first-hand the mismanagement of funds allocated to the Galapagos National Park — the entity in charge of managing the current marine reserve — for the preservation of the protected area. As a result, he is concerned that the new funds that come from the swap will not be well managed and that the new reserve will be unprotected.
In 2019, the Marine Conservation Institute designated the current Galapagos Marine Reserve as a Blue Park in recognition of conservation excellence. In addition, President Guillermo Lasso said at COP26 that the National Park it is part of is “the archipelago of volcanic origin in the best state of conservation in the world.”
In spite of this, conservation has not been enough. The waters of Galapagos continue to be prone to illegal fishing by boats with national and international flags, as well as contamination by microplastics. It is even part of a route used by criminal groups for trafficking people, drugs and fuel.
The resources the Galapagos National Park has for its surveillance are insufficient, according to the conservation expert.
On a visit to the park two months ago, a park official confirmed that although substantial effort is made, it still requires “a lot of money” — they did not specify how much — in order to ensure full protection of the marine reserve.
According to the official, who asked for their identity to be kept confidential, ideally they would have boats for fisheries surveillance, more park rangers and more technological input to allow them to constantly monitor the areas that they currently cannot oversee due to the scarcity of resources.
For now, experts say, unless the government explains how the debt-for-nature swap will be carried out, it will be difficult to determine whether the Galapagos, and the more than 3,000 species it is home to, will really be protected by the new reserve.
Moreover, President Guillermo Lasso has not yet signed the official decree ordering the creation of this new protected area. So Ecuadorians and the world should hold off before officially celebrating the president’s speech at COP26.
Doménica Montaño is a journalist from Ecuador who loves to write stories about the environment, climate change, indigenous communities, and human rights. Her favorite story is one she wrote over a year ago about nine girls who sued the Ecuadorian state for violating their rights with the gas flaring systems that are still being used by oil companies in the Amazon. She’s very proud to say that that story was awarded an honorable mention in a human rights journalism competition.