Alternative Financing for the Tourism and Conservation Sector

In the lead up to the COP26 conference in Glasgow, global discussion about biodiversity protection and nature-based solutions for economic growth and development has been on a steep trajectory. Following these discussions, international climate and investment commitments are growing. For example, nine international charitable organizations including the Bezos Fund and Bloomberg Philanthropies recently pledged $5 billion to support conservation of 30% of global protected areas, and importantly, local community stewardship of those areas. 

According to the IUCN-supported database Protected Planet, more than 40% of Zambia’s land (311,773 km2) has been designated as “protected,” which is the second highest proportions of all African countries. Zambia’s main protected areas includes its National Parks, Game Management Areas (GMAs) along with community-managed forests.

In an era where the value of protected land is increasing, Zambia’s efforts to gazette land as protected is something to be applauded. However, natural assets – like all types of assets – need to deliver returns to justify their value. Governments, investors, and communities need to make land-use decisions based on the returns that natural assets can deliver. In Zambia, it is clear that our country’s massive estate of protected area assets is significantly underperforming, and this needs to be addressed.

Using tourism revenue as a simplified basis for comparison can be helpful.  Across Africa, tourism revenues are highly correlated with protected areas that have high biodiversity.  As such, comparing country’s protected areas and tourism revenues can provide some of measure analysis around how productively protected are being deployed.

With more than 300,000 km2 of protected areas across the country, Zambia’s 2019 travel and tourism sector contributed over $1.5 billion to the national GDP, supported 489,000 jobs and enjoyed a visitor spend of over $811 million. 

In comparison, 2019 travel and tourism in Rwanda contributed nearly $1.2 billion to its GDP, supported 378,200 jobs and had a visitor spend of over $635 million.

Though Zambia’s tourism indicators are slightly higher in real terms, Rwanda’s protected area estate is 0.7% the size of Zambia’s protected area estate (2,317 km2 in Rwanda compared 311,773km2 in Zambia). Clearly, more needs to be done to generate better returns from our natural assets. 

For Zambia to extract more benefit from its protected area assets, three things need to occur. First, wider vision within government regarding rural development needs to expand. Second, more protected areas need better conservation management. And third, the links between sustainable economic development and conservation need to be better established. In the context of COP26’s climate financing commitments – and with the right vision and strategy – Zambia’s protected areas could attract far greater investment and lead to transformational economic growth and rural development as a core part of the 8th National Development plan. 

If there were ever a time for Zambia’s vision to meet its potential to be a continental leader in conservation-linked green growth…….it is now. But it will require a new approach. 

The traditional source of funding for Zambia’s protected area management is what is allocated to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) from the Ministry of Tourism’s budget. 2022 budget allocations to DNPW increased from 2021, but in truth, the amount needed for effective management, conservation and value-adding investment that would lead to transformational growth is far beyond what is available from government. As a result, DNPW does what it can with the resources it has, but its efforts are a drop in the bucket compared to need.

Out of both self-interest and good will, Zambia’s tourism industry finances a significant amount of conservation activities across several protected landscapes, but the impact of COVID on the tourism industry has shown that over-reliance on this line of resourcing is risky, and it should not be relied on for major conservation funding anyway.  

As a country, we need a shift in mindset that properly values the protected area assets that belong to us all. And we need to treat them as assets. The current opportunity to tap into the global financing around biodiversity protection is an opportunity that should not be missed. 

Many African countries are increasingly engaging private and non-profit sectors to channel financial and technical resources for long-term investment into their protected areas. Many of these countries are aggressively seeking out – and benefitting from – what are termed “Collaborative Management Partnerships” (CMPs), which allow for joint management of, and investment in, protected areas. Through these CMPs, innovative mechanisms of raising investment and conservation finance are being pursued, which are reversing biodiversity loss, supporting greater development of nature-based tourism and, when done transparently and inclusively, significantly improve wider socio-economic development of rural areas. 

Zambia’s protected areas are incredibly valuable economic, climate and development assets, but as indicated, these assets are performing well below their potential. This underperformance leads to a variety of issues – limited economic contribution of the tourism sector to the overall economy, under-investment from both domestic and foreign investors and controversial land-use debates that too often pave the way for poor long-term decision-making. In part, the arguments for potential large-scale mine operations in Lower Zambezi National Park and the large-scale agricultural development in the Kafinda Game Management Area (GMA) are legitimised because natural assets in Zambia are undervalued. 

In context of COP 26, Zambia is at an important juncture. With the new Ministry of Green Economy, it appears that our new administration intends to position Zambia toward sustainable economic growth through renewable, sustainable, and green investment. Additionally, increasing private sector experience in the Ministry of Tourism indicates the intention to actualize the long-discussed rhetoric of growing the tourism industry into a meaningful contributor to the national economy. Given the billions of dollars of climate and green financing that is being committed through the COP26 conference – and given the massive opportunities for Zambia to productively absorb this financing if the right strategies are in place – these progressive approaches that should be applauded and supported. 

One immediate way that Zambia can move in the right direction is for relevant government Ministries and Departments to make it easier for government to design, negotiate and manage agreements with well-resourced partners to secure, protect, and invest into its national assets through CMPs. The underlying model of CMPs would allow Zambia to leverage other organization’s resources, technical expertise, money and time to develop and generate significantly increased returns from its own natural assets

From an asset management standpoint, CMPs offer a dream opportunity. Imagine an investment expert offering to use their own time and resources to develop YOUR investment portfolio and make you more money. This is exactly the opportunity that Zambia could capitalize upon, but historically Zambia has made it so difficult for potential partners to invest that it has often blocked its own way to success. Making the country as competitive as possible for conservation partners to invest in Zambia should be high on the priority list for the new government, as it would relieve burdens on the national budget, increase technical and resource capacity of relevant government institutions and, ultimately, create stronger private sector and non-profit industries based on natural capital. 

Strategically re-positioning Zambian away from traditional models of protected area management will take real commitment, big vision and new skills development for relevant staff in the government, but it is do-able, the pay-off would be immense, and partners would be more than willing to support these reforms. Imagine if green bonds could be tied to effective protected area management, carbon projects and development of more effective eco-tourism and natural products industries. Such an approach would attract major partners, unlock significant investment financing, and position Zambia as a global model for sustainable economic growth through innovative conservation financing. 

Therefore, critical discussion needs to take place all levels about Zambia’s vision and strategy for increasing the economic, social and developmental returns from its protected natural assets. If we continue with the status quo, Zambia’s protected areas will continue to underperform, continue to degrade, and continue to lose economic and development value…and Zambia will have missed out on major opportunities to raise its profile as a global leader in the biodiversity conservation space. As a country, we simply cannot afford to let this happen. Our natural assets belong to all the people of Zambia, and as a country, we should be benefitting from them more. The opportunity for the government to dramatically shift its approach to protected area management is present, and so we should help ourselves by raising these issues, pushing these discussions ahead, and supporting visionary progress for our own benefit.

Written By: Helga Chibwe Sakala – Sustainable Tourism and Conservation Associate @Prospero Zambia

Email: [email protected]