Professionally, Leo DiCaprio seems to be a patient man. After six Academy Award nominations – starting in 1994 — he finally won Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in 2016.
But his Oscar acceptance speech shows that, as an environmentalist, DiCaprio isn’t willing to wait. He spoke of imminent climate change dangers and called for everyone to support motivated leaders who won’t be swayed by politics or greed. A simple call-to-action wasn’t enough. DiCaprio put his money where his mouth is…again. Since 1998, the Leo DiCaprio Foundation has been awarding grants for and raising public awareness of environmental issues.
In January 2016, DiCaprio received an environmental activism award at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Switzerland. Instead of a simple “Thank you,” he announced $15 million in new sustainability grants. One million of those dollars is part of an innovative program led by the Nature Conservancy to assist the archipelago African country of Seychelles. The Nature Conservancy leads a multi-million dollar debt relief initiative to help the country repay high interest loans. In return, Seychelles’ government will fund marine-protection programs.
Seychelles is a nation of over 100 islands in the Indian Ocean, 1,000 miles off the coast of Africa. Though the country extends more than 800,000 square miles across the ocean, the total land mass is just 176 square miles. Because of this unusual structure, the country’s economy is based on high-end tourism and the fishing industry.
Even so, Seychelles faces financial challenges. In 2013, it was the most indebted country in the world. Its debts amounted to over 150 percent of its gross domestic product. Though the International Monetary Fund provided some relief in 2008, Seychelles continues to struggle. Since its government is also interested in protecting its oceans, the novel debt-relief program will have an expansive impact.
Investment and Impact
The NatureVest arm of the Nature Conservancy negotiated the unique repayment program. It was completed with the cooperation of Seychelles’ Paris Club and South African government creditors. This deal is the first of its kind for both groups. Seychelles’ government receives a $21.4 million low-interest loan. In addition, DiCaprio’s $1 million is part of $5 million of additional funding from several foundations.
A “climate adaptation debt swap” has never before benefited oceans. The program relieves the Seychelles from high-interest loans. Some of the funds that would have gone to creditors will instead go to the Seychelles Conservation and Climate Adaptation Trust. This new local organization will oversee the country’s environmental efforts.
Climate change is a serious issue for Seychelles’ islands. Storms are becoming more intense, the ocean level is increasing and rising water temperatures are bleaching coral reefs. These problems harm fishing and tourism. The trust will oversee efforts to protect coasts, coral reefs and mangroves. Within five years, advances will be made on over 98.9 marine million acres. Since Seychelles is dependent upon the ocean for its economy, conservation efforts won’t mean that humans are banned from the waters. Many initiatives will focus on sustainability.
Before the program started, Seychelles had environmental protection methods in place for about one percent of its waters. Over time, that’ll expand to 30 percent. Once this is achieved, the region will be the second-largest Marine Protected Area in the West Indian Ocean. South Africa’s South Africa’s iSimangaliso Wetland Park is in first place, covering almost 1,500 square miles.
The Future for Seychelles
Seychelles’ conservation/repayment program extends for 20 years. Funds are to be used to address the effects of climate change and develop ocean conservation methods. Some of the money is designated to create and endowment so work can continue beyond the length of the original program.
The “debt for ocean conservation swap” is also a model for other waterfront nations wrestling with both loan difficulties and climate change. Soon after the Seychelles program was underway, approximately 10 other countries began exploring similar initiatives.
More Than Money
For DiCaprio, the $1 million donation to Seychelles is just the tip of the iceberg (I can hear the collective groans). Though he was on Forbes’ 2015 list of 100 highest-paid celebrities, DiCaprio doesn’t sit around counting his gold. Since 2010, the Leo DiCaprio Foundation has awarded over $30 million in grants to conservation programs in over 40 countries. And it’s not just about money. Public awareness is key.
Many within DiCaprio’s giant fan base are drawn toward environmental concerns. The number of his social media and foundation followers has skyrocketed, from a more-than-respectable 500,000 in 2007 to a whopping 25 million eight years later.
Not content with just handing out money and tweeting environmental impact statements, DiCaprio goes to work, too. He sits on the board of environmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council and National Geographic’s Pristine Seas.
This new approach for financing environmental initiatives involves national governments, international financiers and conservation organizations. But it’s also funded by private citizens who, like DiCaprio, are passionate about protecting the one and only world we’ve got.
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