The Western Hemisphere is home to the greatest bird migration in the world. Twice a year, billions of birds lift up and migrate. This includes birds from every habitat: forests, grasslands, wetlands, coasts…the list goes on. Despite the huge changes humankind has made to bird habitats in the Americas, these billions of birds persist as a miraculous, airborne animal spectacle.
Since its inception in 1994, ABC has been working on migratory bird conservation, partnering across the hemisphere, mapping core habitats, assessing threats, building capacity, developing solutions, and implementing those solutions on the ground. ABC is the global secretariat of the Alliance for Zero Extinction, a technical partner of Latin America's Initiative 20×20, member of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative and Partners in Flight, and a partner of BirdLife International, among others.
Even with all the work ABC and partners have undertaken, it's become very clear that migratory birds are still struggling. According to a 2019 Science paper authored by ABC staff and partners, 2.9 billion birds have been lost since 1970 in North America alone. Deforestation and land-use changes have greatly diminished the amount of breeding, wintering, and migratory stopover habitat available for Neotropical migrants and other birds. For example, Central American countries have lost more than half of their original forest cover, mostly to agriculture. Several of our most populous migratory birds, such as the Wood Thrush, are now in steep decline. If habitat loss trends continue, millions more birds will disappear, and the ability to recover populations of surviving species will become limited, much more difficult, and perhaps impossible.
ABC and partners that form the conservation coalition Partners in Flight evaluated nearly 450 species of land birds to assess which migratory species are most vulnerable. We used this information to identify a target list of 50 priority species in the Americas, including the Cerulean Warbler, Bicknell's Thrush, and Bobolink.
The stage is being set for scaling up our conservation efforts to meet the greater need for migratory birds. In 2017, ABC launched our "BirdScapes" initiative. BirdScapes are landscape-scale areas (100,000 – 2.5 million acres) of breeding, stopover, and wintering habitat where we work, together with our partners, to stabilize populations, reverse declines, and maintain the phenomenon of bird migration.
How can conservationists fund such expansive work? Unfortunately, very few funding sources exist for financing migratory bird conservation, especially in Latin America. Public funding for bird conservation is far too small, especially when compared to the amount of investment that goes to activities that deplete migratory bird habitat. Similarly, although traditional philanthropy and individual donors have funded most of the conservation achieved by ABC and other nonprofit organizations in this sector to date, much more is needed to save the phenomenon of avian migration across the hemisphere.
For ABC, it is clear that private-sector investment is key to scaling up conservation for birds. Such investment would not replace, but rather leverage, scale, and supplement traditional sources of philanthropy and existing government funding. We believe an important way to close this gap between needed funds and existing sources is via private investments in sustainable activities and through actions that advance conservation and have the potential to generate economic and social returns. Such efforts are known as “impact investing.”
Success with impact investing projects will require conservationists to broaden our horizons, and expand our conservation toolkits. ABC has more than 50 conservation partners in Latin America and the Caribbean. Together, we are very experienced in and adept at habitat protection, restoration, and management for birds, but most of our partners are unfamiliar with developing projects that generate and demonstrate economic outputs.
ABC is working to create the capacity to develop investable and scalable conservation projects with our partners that demonstrate the economic case for migratory bird conservation. This will take careful planning and implementation as the local socio-economic context of each country and project locality requires discrete due-diligence and tailored technical assistance.
Guided by science, we are targeting the implementation of investable and scalable conservation projects in priority BirdScapes, such as the Conservation Coast BirdScape of Guatemala (see listing at the end of this blog). Within these targeted landscapes, we are identifying projects that yield positive impacts for birds and that can be financially self-sustaining and generate returns for investors. Successful long-term projects providing both long-term economic and conservation returns could become blueprints that can be adapted to other BirdScapes.
What are some impact investment activities ABC and partners see as most promising? For starters, we see agroforestry — agriculture that incorporates the cultivation and conservation of trees — as among the areas with great potential for yielding a profit for producers and investors, while providing the habitat needed to support healthy populations of migratory birds. Over the past three years, we have begun to pilot a pipeline of projects with the potential to benefit migratory birds and generate market-competitive returns in Bolivia, Guatemala, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. (See examples below.)
We believe that developing bird conservation projects that are financially self-sustaining and that generate returns for investors could be a game-changer for migratory birds. With the proper capital, we can scale up the conservation response necessary to create landscapes in which humans and migratory birds — and many other species — can thrive.
Cardamom and hardwoods agroforestry:
ABC’s investment will restore 60 acres of pastures with cardamom, nearly 30,000 native hardwoods, and a leguminous tree called Gliricidia sepium which will be used both for nitrogen fixation and as a shade tree during the first three years of the plantation. The project is taking place in the Conservation Coast BirdScape and will have a duration of 10 years, with an expected return of $261,700 or a financial return, also known as Internal Rate of Return (IRR), of 16%. The sale of cardamom will generate the revenues of this project and will be reinvested back into the BirdScape. Some of the migratory species that will benefit include the Wood Thrush, Kentucky Warbler, and Worm-eating Warbler.
ABC supported Jocotoco with the acquisition of 115 acres of forest that will be leased to a forestry company to do low-intensity forestry. The low-intensity forestry approach only requires the harvesting of 2 to 4 trees per acre (5-8 trees per hectare) every 20 years, which is very low compared to the hundreds of trees cut in regular forestry practices every 10-15 years. The project is taking place in the Chocó-Canandé BirdScape and will have a duration of 20 years, with an expected return of $63,000 (IRR: 10%) from 2022-2039 that will be reinvested in more conservation in the BirdScape. The sale of timber will generate the revenues of this project. Some of the migratory species that will benefit include the Canada Warbler, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and Blackburnian Warbler.
Feasibility analysis for carbon credits:
ABC supported Calidris with hiring a consultant to conduct a feasibility study to generate and commercialize carbon credits from nearly 140,000 acres of forest conservation in the Colombian Chocó rainforest. The study yielded positive results, so we are now looking for concessional funding to develop a detailed execution process to generate and commercialize carbon credits there. Some of the migratory species that will benefit include the Golden-winged Warbler and the Cerulean Warbler.
Cardamom and fruit trees agroforestry:
Micro-loans to five farmers to restore 12 acres of pastures and monocultures with cardamom, native hardwoods, and fruit trees. These trees will restore bird habitat and connect patches of nearby forest. The project is taking place in the Eastern Andes of Colombia and will have a duration of eight years. It includes four types of monitoring: birds, soil, carbon, and social development. Ecotrópico will pay back 20% (at 0% interest rate) of the funds ABC made available for this project. The sale of cardamom will generate the revenues of this project. Some of the migratory species that will benefit include the Golden-winged Warbler and the Canada Warbler.
Working with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and ABC, Rainforest Chocolate is developing production and management standards to create a Bird-Friendly Cacao certification. The standards are being tested on 25 farms, and if successful, the project will certify the first Bird-Friendly Cacao in the world. Migratory species that will benefit include the Bicknell’s Thrush.
Enhancement of sun-grown coffee plantations:
In-kind micro-loans to 20 farmers will enhance 158 acres of sun-grown coffee plantations with the planting of 10,000 native shade trees that will provide new habitat for birds, which isn’t offered by the existing plants. The project is taking place in the Nicaragua Highlands BirdScape and has a duration of 15 years. Nicafrance will pay back 20% (at 0% interest rate) of the funds ABC made available for this project. The sale of timber will generate the revenues of this project, which will be reinvested in the BirdScape. Some of the migratory species that will benefit include the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Golden-winged Warbler.
At the Barba Azul Reserve in the Bolivian Beni savanna, ABC is working with the NGO Armonía to implement a sustainable cattle-ranching business model to the ensure the financial sustainability of the reserve. Furthermore, cattle—when managed carefully—can be integral to a healthy grassland ecosystem. Based on Bolivian law, lands that are considered suitable for agriculture or production must demonstrate a certain level of production. An investment can be made to purchase cattle and install ranching infrastructure with financial return of (also known as IRR) of up to 16%. The revenues to pay the investment would come from the sale of cattle. Some of the migratory species that will benefit include the Buff-breasted Sandpiper and the Upland Sandpiper.