A 2019 Science paper revealed that North America has lost almost 3 billion birds since 1970. Among the drivers of these declines are deforestation, conversion of grasslands to row crops, and other land-use changes that have greatly diminished habitat for Neotropical migrants and other birds.
Take Central America as an example. Many Central American countries have lost more than half of their original forest cover, mostly to agriculture — contributing to the steep declines now seen in the Wood Thrush and other migratory species that winter there. If habitat loss trends continue, millions more birds will disappear. Recovering populations of surviving species will become more difficult and perhaps impossible.
The miracle of bird migration is at risk. We need to think bigger to save it — and that's where American Bird Conservancy's Impact Investing program comes in.
Traditional migratory bird conservation activities in Latin America and the Caribbean have focused on protecting habitat in nature reserves and enhancing habitat conditions for birds within working lands, such as cattle ranches, timber plantations, and shade crops like coffee and cacao that support many birds. Since migratory birds spread out over vast areas, enhancing habitat within working lands is essential to deliver conservation at a scale commensurate with the needs of birds where nature reserves will not protect enough habitat.
Although we have been able to fund important habitat work on such working lands with traditional government grants and private philanthropy, there is much potential to harness the greater financial resources available from private-sector investment to scale up conservation for birds. Such investment would not replace but would 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.”
ABC is working to create the capacity to develop investable and scalable conservation projects among our network of more than 50 partners in Latin America and the Caribbean that demonstrate such projects can benefit birds, be profitable for local people, and generate financial returns for investors. Guided by science, we are targeting the implementation of investable and scalable conservation projects in vital areas called BirdScapes — 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.
Within these targeted landscapes, such as the Conservation Coast BirdScape of Guatemala, we are identifying projects that yield benefits for birds, can be financially self-sustaining, and generate returns for investors. Successful long-term projects providing both long-term economic and conservation returns could be adapted and replicated to other areas.
Since 2019, ABC and our partners have served as a business incubator, piloting a pipeline of projects that enhance habitat for 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 ten years, with an expected return of $261,700 or a financial return, also known as Internal Rate of Return (IRR), of 16 percent. 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 two to four trees per acre (five to eight trees per hectare) every 20 years, which is very low compared to the hundreds of trees cut in regular forestry practices every ten to 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 percent) from 2022-2039 that will be reinvested in additional conservation activities within this BirdScape. The sale of timber will generate the revenues of this project. We are interested in demonstrating low-intensity forestry as a profitable land use alternative to more intense land uses, such as oil palm cultivation and cattle ranching, that do not provide habitat for most forest birds in this region. Migratory species that will benefit include the Olive-sided Flycatcher, Canada Warbler, and Blackburnian Warbler.
Carbon credits for forest conservation:
ABC supported our partner Calidris with conducting a feasibility study to generate and commercialize carbon credits from nearly 140,000 acres of forest conservation in the Colombian Chocó rainforest. The study demonstrates that conditions exist to develop a REDD+ project, so we are now looking for a loan with below-market or no interest rate to design a detailed work plan to generate and commercialize carbon credits there. Migratory species that will benefit from the conservation of these forests include the Golden-winged Warbler and the Cerulean Warbler.
Cardamom and fruit agroforestry:
This project provides 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 habit and connect patches of nearby forest. The project is taking place in the Eastern Andes of Colombia BirdScape and will have a duration of eight years. It includes four types of monitoring: migratory birds’ presence and abundance, soil nutrients, carbon sequestration, and social development through additional income for families who are involved. The sale of cardamom will generate the revenues of this project. Migratory species that will benefit include the Golden-winged Warbler and 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 from these Bird-Friendly cacao farms include the Bicknell’s Thrush.
Sustainable cattle ranching:
At the Barba Azul Reserve in the Bolivian Beni savanna, ABC is working with our partner Armonía to develop a financial model to understand the costs and revenues of implementing sustainable cattle-ranching to contribute to the financial sustainability of the reserve. Furthermore, cattle — when managed carefully — can be integral to a healthy grassland ecosystem. In the eastern portion of the reserve, cattle grazing will create the shortgrass conditions required by migrating Buff-breasted Sandpipers that stop over here.
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 a financial return (or annual interest) of up to 16 percent. The revenues to pay the investment back would come from the sale of calves born on the reserve as well as older cattle. This project serves as a demonstration of best practices that can be replicated on other neighboring ranches. Habitat conditions maintained at the Barba Azul Reserve will benefit the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Upland Sandpiper, and many other migratory birds.