Towards serious biodiversity policy: foreign debt in the long duree of extractivism


Audrey Irvine-Broque | Jessica Dempsey

Jan-Jun, 2023

A hamstrung multilateral agreement

It was the early morning hours of December 19th, 2022, and government negotiators were still locked in closed-door meetings. Behind those doors was also the document that everyone was here to see: the final draft of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, the crowning achievement of the two-week negotiation, and the many weeks and years of meetings that came before that. Under the shadow of the last round of failed global targets for biodiversity, this framework would renew hope that governments could take action on the extinction crisis. Now China, the president of the conference, and other governments party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) were under pressure to smooth out unresolved issues and announce a unifying document, one that would declare a new agenda for biodiversity—a roadmap to arrest nature’s decline.

In those pre-dawn meetings, a small piece of text was removed from the agreement. It recommended that the CBD Secretariat: “prepare a report on the relationship between public debt, austerity measures and the implementation of the Convention, with a view to removing specific impediments to the implementation of the Convention.” This proposal was meant to advance our understanding of how constraining economic conditions pose significant barriers to governments’ ability to uphold the mandate of the convention: the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources. It mandated no specific course of action on debt and austerity. It simply proposed a study to understand their impact on constraining public action.

Photo_ Luca Galuzzi_ CC BY 2.0

It’s hard to know what happened to this text—how the only mention of sovereign debt in the entire document slipped off the table. Most likely, it was unceremoniously deleted, considered—despite a looming debt crisis for developing countries—irrelevant to the global effort to protect biodiversity. A few hours later, the new draft of the Global Biodiversity Framework was announced, and accepted by all parties. Starkly absent was any mention of how to address one of the key underlying drivers of biodiversity loss: the political economic conditions under which nations are forced to further exploit their ecosystems in order to keep up with growing interest payments to international creditors.

Placing biodiversity loss in the global economy

The deleted text represented the first time that debt was, for a moment at least, mentioned within a draft CBD decision. But it can’t be the last, given that a new round of debt crises threaten to sweep through low- and middle-income countries, with potentially catastrophic consequences for social and environmental stability. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) World Economic Outlook from July 2022 reported that “60 percent of low-income countries were in or at high risk of government debt distress,” [1][1] International Monetary Fund. (2022). World Economic Outlook. International Monetary Fund. Available at: while 136 out of 152 Global South countries are considered critically indebted by the Global Sovereign Debt Monitor as of 2023. [2][2] Global Sovereign Debt Monitor 2023. (2023). Erlassjahr.De. A joint publication by – Entwicklung braucht Entschuldung e.V. and Bischöfliches Hilfswerk MISEREOR e.V. Available at: Indebtedness, on its own, is not a bad thing. Lending allows countries to invest in infrastructure, healthcare, education, and economic diversification, and foreign-lending, in particular, is needed for countries with small domestic lending bases. But, for many structurally-disadvantaged states in the Global South, the highly unequal conditions under which external debt was amassed—and continues to be disciplined—have led to a tailspin of crisis.

A new round of debt crisis looms, threatening to devastate low—and middle—income countries, with potentially catastrophic consequences for social and environmental stability.

What makes this kind of debt so destabilizing? To start, debt for many Global South nations is vastly more expensive than that accessed by countries in the North. A recent report found that “countries in Africa borrow on average at rates that are four times higher than those of the United States and even eight times higher than those of Germany.” [3][3] United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. (2023). A World of Debt. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Available at: This means that countries pay more in debt servicing obligations proportional to the amount of capital they are able to access, leaving them all the more vulnerable to payment increases due to internal and external shocks (e.g., currency devaluations, interest rate hikes, investor flight). And when shocks do happen—think: recent pandemics, heatwaves, and floods—the arduous conditions and repayment terms of these debts undercut the ability of developing countries to direct spending towards public goods and services. The result is that countries are forced into seemingly endless states of austerity in order to keep up with high external debt payments and the demands of international creditors, limiting their economic options for investment and recovery. The headline figure of United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD’s) World of Debt report states that “today, 3.3 billion people live in countries that spend more on interest payments than on education or health,” with these payments “growing faster than other public expenditures.” That is, in many places, repaying just the interest on these loans eats up more public funds than some of the most necessary social spending. Under such conditions, it’s hard to imagine public investment in ecosystem restoration and protection growing to meet the ecological crisis at hand.

With their coffers perpetually drained, social and environmental spending—like for climate adaptation and biodiversity conservation—takes a backseat to attracting investment in sectors that can earn currency quickly and have a high risk tolerance, meaning that extractive sectors, oriented towards producing commodity exports, become paramount to financial stability. Not only do these debt repayments often have short tenors, requiring quick repayment (compared to long term sustainable development investments), but these arduous payments on external debt must often be made in foreign currency (mostly USD), meaning that countries need to generate high reserves of foreign exchange. To access this foreign currency, many Global South countries are driven into export-oriented commodity production, and therefore the increased extraction or conversion of natural resources. This means that intensifying biodiversity loss is often a precondition for access to capital, particularly for countries in the low and middle income categories (though not only these countries). And, given how challenging it is to get out of this cycle of debt, this dependence on commodity exports begets more dependence on commodity exports, driving extractive frontiers further into natural ecosystems.

When crises occur, such as the recent pandemics, heat waves and floods, the arduous terms and repayment schedules of these debts undermine the ability of developing countries to invest in public goods and services.

Debt interest consumes more public resources than some of the most pressing social needs. Under such conditions, it is difficult to imagine increased public investment in ecosystem restoration and protection.

Governments, of course, should not be so easily let off the hook for decisions that put people and the rest of nature in peril, often at the expense of communities who resist and contest these projects. But these constraints, born out of a colonial system, make it challenging for any other alternatives to take hold. Look into any of the commodity sectors that are most relied on to earn foreign exchange, and it becomes clear that ecological appropriation in the Global South extends much further than this current round of debt crises or the last. Activists have long-recognized the more than 500 years of siphoning off of ecological wealth from developing countries to developed countries, in which advanced industrialized countries have used and accumulated wealth from these nations without fair, if any, compensation for their value. These “ecological debts”—a term developed by Latin American activists and circulated among Global South countries since the early 1990s—are not only a fixture of history. A recent study aiming to quantify these imbalances found that over the last 50 years, high-income countries were responsible for 74% of cumulative excess material use, compared to less than 1% for lower-middle-income and low-income countries combined. [4][4] Hickel, J., O’Neill, D. W., Fanning, A. L., & Zoomkawala, H. (2022). National responsibility for ecological breakdown: A fair-shares assessment of resource use, 1970–2017. The Lancet. Planetary Health, 6(4), e342-e349. Available at: While such studies don’t account for the unequal conditions within nations (such as centuries of extraction from Indigenous territories) they indicate long-standing patterns of global inequality that set the stage for today’s unequal ecological and economic relations. Where biodiversity conservation is sometimes considered a niche or hobby issue in the Global North, the plunder of Global South ecologies for consumption in the rich world tells an entirely different story.

Researchers have studied how dramatically these patterns of resource appropriation influence land use change at the global scale, and along North-South lines. One study found that agricultural commodities produced for international markets were estimated to drive around 26% of forest loss in the tropics and sub-tropics between 2005-2013 [5][5] Pendrill, F., Persson, U. M., Godar, J., & Kastner, T. (2019). Deforestation displaced: Trade in forest-risk commodities and the prospects for a global forest transition. Environmental Research Letters, 14(5), 55003. Available at: (where forest loss, especially primary forest loss, is highest; it was also found that this trade contributed to 26–39% of deforestation-related emissions from 2010–2014 [6][6] Pendrill, F., Persson, U. M., Godar, J., Kastner, T., Moran, D., Schmidt, S., & Wood, R. (2019). Agricultural and forestry trade drives large share of tropical deforestation emissions. Global Environmental Change, 56, 1-10. Available at: In Argentina—a major soybean exporter—60% of native forests were converted to farmland between 1987-2009. This followed substantial government intervention—including deregulation and preferential exchange rates for the sector—to expand the soy industry and increase export earnings as a way to manage international debt crises. But this increase in soy exports and conversion to farmland also comes while 40% of Argentina’s population lives below the poverty line, struggling to find enough to eat amidst high prices. [7][7] Buenos Aires Times. (2022). UCA Report Puts Poverty Rate at 43.1%, Buenos Aires Times. Available at: Clearly, land use transformations towards intensified exports produce vulnerability to more than just commodity price cycles.

The brewing debt crisis—combined with large levels of tax evasion, preferential tax treatment for extractive industries, and international investment courts that protect the interests of mobile capital—make it harder and harder for Global South countries to uphold the targets put forth by the CBD. For these reasons, there is growing awareness that debt and tax justice will have to be on that table as a matter of ecological justice. [8][8] Dempsey, J., Irvine-Broque, A., Bigger, P., Christiansen, J., Muchhala, B., Nelson, S., … & DiSilvestro, A. (2022). Biodiversity targets will not be met without debt and tax justice. Nature ecology & evolution, 6(3), 237-239.; Táíwò, O.O., & Bigger, P. (2022). Debt justice for climate reparations. Climate and Community Project. Available at: . Woolfenden, T. (2023). The Debt Fossil Fuel Trap. Debt Justice UK. Available at:

Photo_ Luca Galuzzi_ CC BY 2.0

Yet, at the Montreal negotiations, instead of addressing these major economic inequities like debt, the debate revolved around the “financing gap” for nature. While governments from across the developing world pleaded for rich countries to come to the table and fulfill their “common but differentiated responsibilities”, Northern governments stated again and again that that money simply did not exist; that the only way to achieve conservation objectives would be to raise that money in the form of private investments in biodiversity conservation—a fundamentally unserious strategy for addressing the mounting pressures on global biodiversity given the past failures of this approach, both in terms of scale and impact. [9][9] Biodiversity Capital Research Collective. (2021). Beyond the Gap: Placing Biodiversity Finance in the Global Economy. Third World Network. Retrieved from; Dempsey, J. & Suarez, D. C. (2016). Arrested Development? The Promises and Paradoxes of “Selling Nature to Save It.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 106(3), 653–671. Available at:
Rather than on the minuscule flows of funding earmarked for biodiversity objectives in a highly unequal system, our focus should be on changing the much broader patterns of extractivism, which undermine both sustainable development and sovereignty.

There is a widespread consensus that those who have contributed least to environmental destruction should no longer be forced to maintain extractive relationships for the benefit of the financial sector and Northern countries.

More funding will be needed to reach ambitious biodiversity targets, there is no doubt. But what is most needed is public funding, given that the best outcomes for most natures will not generate a profit. As we have written previously, even the CBD’s own expert report has “affirmed that ‘many biodiversity-positive projects will need to be financed out of public funds, given the fundamental nature of public goods, and an understanding that, while it will be important to increase private sector finance, this alone will never be sufficient for meeting all of the challenges of achieving the post-2020 global biodiversity framework.’ We must therefore work to understand what is currently limiting governments from spending more on the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity” as well as what is driving them to increase spending to further land use change and extraction. [10][10] Dempsey, J. & Irvine-Broque, A. (2022). Addressing debt is critical to halting biodiversity loss. Third World Network. Available at:

Ultimately, stopping ecological collapse requires reforming finance, not just having it. Extractive land use change drives 80 percent of biodiversity loss globally, [11][11] International Resource Panel. (2019). Global Resources Outlook 2019: Natural Resources for the Future We Want. United Nations Environmental Programme. Available at: and the financial sector is implicated in these impacts to the tune of trillions. [12][12] Portfolio Earth. (2020). Bankrolling Extinction: The Banking Sector’s Role in the Global Biodiversity Crisis. Retrieved from Rather than focusing on the tiny streams of finance flowing towards biodiversity goals in a highly unequal system, our attention should be focused on changing these much larger patterns of extractivism, which undercut both sustainable development and sovereignty.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)—akin to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for nature—has also recognized that the status quo approach to environmental conservation is not working. In response to the unprecedented decline in the abundance and diversity of life on Earth, and the limited success of piecemeal or reformist approaches, this body has called for transformative change across technical, social and economic systems. [13][13] Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). (2019). Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (Version 1). doi: 10.5281/ZENODO.3831673 They acknowledge that environmental issues do not get solved in a vacuum—that a serious approach to biodiversity loss is one that recognizes its drivers within the structural constraints of current economic systems.

So far, parties to the Convention have shied away from even studying how this current arrangement of financial power, and the dire straits it has put governments in, would impact their targets for ecosystem health. At the Montreal negotiations, developing country governments advocated that biodiversity follow with the climate COP, taking up the mantle of “loss and damage” as a way to ensure that these crises are managed in line with historic responsibility and present vulnerability. No dice. What will it take for the direction of the Convention—gridlocked as it has been in the “arrested development” of market-based approaches—to come back to the table on distributive justice?

What comes next

The Kunming-Montreal agreement made some important strides, particularly with regard to recognition for Indigenous rights within conservation projects. But in the end, it did little to chip away at the conditions that make extractivism, the mode of accumulation that drives biodiversity loss across the globe, so prevalent. So what should policymakers do in the lead up to the next Conference of Parties? What would it look like to approach the problem of ecological crisis as the systemic, embedded issue that it is?

Plainly, debt forgiveness and cancellation will need to be on the table. Reforms to the institutions that manage these crises are also needed. Outside of the world of biodiversity conservation, proposals are circulating for a new international finance architecture. [14][14] Bigger, P. & Sibaja, F. (2023). “Feasability Pact?” Phenomenal World. Available at: Where the Convention on Biological diversity is concerned, we have listed out recommendations of what should be on the table for the multilateral process. [15][15] Dempsey, J., Nelson, S., Christiansen, J., Irvine-Broque, A., Rojas-Marchini, F., Bigger, P., DiSilvestro, A., Schuldt, A., & Shapiro-Garza, E. (2021). Resource mobilization and the Convention on Biological Diversity: Moving beyond the gap. Third World Network. Available at: While debt-for-nature swaps have garnered attention as a way to address this issue, they are, at best, a stop-gap measure to open up fiscal space. With persistent concerns about their transparency, and limited potential to transform underlying conditions, it will be necessary to see past one-time arrangements and tackle root causes.

There is a widespread understanding that those who have least contributed to environmental destruction should not continue to be forced into extractive relations to the benefit of the financial sector and the Global North. Without changing this context, unequal conditions on access to capital (including sovereign debt conditionalities, incentives to attract foreign investment, and IMF surcharges) will continue to drive extractivism while undermining public investment in sustainable development. It might be tempting to turn away from such daunting structural conflicts, but what comes of these debates will have direct bearing on what kinds of nature thrive, or not, all over the world.