Blue bonds or blue wash?
Belize announced a smart move last Friday.
The international “credit sharks” holding the Superbond, which accounted for about a quarter of the country’s total debt, will resell their holdings at a sharply reduced price of 55 cents on the dollar.
The deal was struck by Nature Conservancy, a 70-year-old Washington-based nonprofit with close ties to major oil, financial, chemical and mining companies. Financial support comes from a Swiss bank, Credit Suisse.
Real-world sharks and other marine animals in the offshore blue seas will also benefit.
The new blue bonds replacing the Superbond will carry a lower interest rate. And there is an additional seven years for the repayment. It sounds like magic.
Belize was in dire need of magic. Earlier this year, the IMF reported its domestic and external debt at 127% of GDP, a quarter more than its total annual economic output. By comparison, T & T’s growing debt amounted to just under 60% of GDP at the end of last year.
Belizean tourism collapsed last year due to Covid. Their tiny oil resources are on the verge of exhaustion. A newly elected government this year slashed salaries for civil servants and teachers by ten percent. And their gang-related murder rate rivals that of T&T.
This is the fourth time that Belize has restructured its external debt. Bondholders and other creditors suffered a discount of 24% on the total value of their debt in 2008, another 29% in 2013 and 20% in 2017. During these three restructurings, they lost more than half of their original money. And now they’ve accepted 55 cents on the dollar on what was left of their money.
In the early 2000s, much of the original debt was collected by the old RBTT and other T&T institutions. The bonds still looked questionable, but investors were reassured they were carrying a government guarantee. Three haircuts and a Blue Bond later, the guarantee wasn’t worth much. The original investors, I think, have long since cut their losses, selling what they could get.
It’s easy to see why Belize is celebrating. But why the “Blue”? And why is Nature Conservancy involved in the accord?
Belize has agreed to pay US $ 23.4 million into a marine conservation endowment account, which will be administered by a branch of Nature Conservancy, with “improved protections for its coastline, reefs and ocean territory as well as the financing of an endowment to support future marine conservation projects ”.
They will then pay an additional US $ 4 million per year. The goal is to accumulate a marine conservation trust fund of $ 100 million by 2040.
Belize has the second longest barrier reef in the world after Australia. Their cornerstone is a tourism industry largely dependent on the marine environment.
Belize already has a good record in marine conservation. Shocked by the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, they have permanently banned oil exploration in their offshore exclusive economic zone since 2017.
This meant turning down potential investors who wanted to investigate promising prospects. Guyana, meanwhile, has discovered nine billion barrels or more since 2015 and started pumping crude two years ago.
In 2010, Belize banned offshore trawl fishing. Last year, they banned gillnets, up to a mile long, that picked up and killed turtles, dolphins and immature fish alongside commercial money.
But what is not clear is how the new marine conservation account will work, or which projects will benefit. Unions welcomed the deal on Wednesday, but demanded that the deal with Nature Conservancy be made public.
Belize’s influential NGO network also likes the deal – who wouldn’t like it? But expresses a “serious concern” about cruise tourism, which is not so favorable to the blues.
Belize has three major cruise ship development projects in the works. One is under construction, the other has an environmental clearance and the other has its environmental applications under consideration.
Two cruise ports are already operational, one in Belize City and the other at Norwegian Cruise Line’s Harvest Caye in the south.
With nearly 9,000 passengers and crew, cruise ships return and depart with grace, spending very little money on shore. I don’t have the figures for Belize, but in the Bahamas the average cruise line spends US $ 79. The average stopover tourist spends US $ 2,065.
Cruise ships are big polluters, big on carbon dioxide and the main contributors to the climate crisis. Most burn heavy fuel oil.
Figures from the two largest cruise lines — Carnival and Royal Caribbean — reported nearly 15 million equivalent tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in 2017. Carbon emissions from cruise ships are not covered by the agreement of Paris on the climate.
Belize’s entire onshore economy produces only 1.1 million tonnes of carbon emissions.
An average cruise emits as much carbon per passenger as an average Belizean produces in three months.
Belize welcomed more than one million cruise passengers in 2019.
Globally, cruise ships carried 20.0 million passengers in 2019, up from 1.4 million in 1980. Encouraging more cruise ports is not the best way to build a blue or green economy.
—Mark Wilson is an international journalist based in Port of Spain
Opinion article published at: https://trinidadexpress.com/opinion/columnists/blue-bonds-or-blue-wash/article_db03a8a8-2247-11ec-b90c-07e693033a9e.html