Significant news on the US legislative front (from the Ecological Society of America’s press release):
“The House cleared a bill on October 10 that would let foreign nations pay off some of their debt by protecting coral reefs and tropical forests. The bill, H.R. 2185, passed without objection, putting it in a good position to make it to the President’s desk this year. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved a similar bill, S. 2020, last month. A Senate floor vote has not yet been scheduled. The bill would reauthorize and expand an existing “debt for nature” program that helps countries conserve tropical forests to include coral reefs and marine habitats. The original statute, which expires at the end of this year, has helped conserve 50 million acres of forest in Asia, the Caribbean, Central and South America. The new legislation credits qualified developing countries for each dollar they spend on tropical forest, coral reef or coastal habitat conservation. Eleven countries currently have “debt for nature” forest conservation agreements: Bangladesh, Belize, Botswana, Jamaica, El Salvador, Panama, Peru, Guatemala, Colombia, Paraguay and the Philippines. Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Conservation International match funds to contribute to the program. The groups have invested more than $9.6 million to debt-for-nature swaps and have endorsed the new bill.”
A related news story illustrates how this works in practice: the US has just agreed to forgive $26 million of Costa Rica’s debt in exhange for protecting some of the country’s most threatened tropical forests. Costa Rica’s end of the bargain involves a committment to invest a similar sum in conservation of the forests and their diverse, endangered wildilfe. The US government is contributing ~$12.6 million, while Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy will contribute $1.26 million each. Those funds and the interest they generate will eliminate $26 million in Costa Rica’s debt over the next 16 years, the largest such “debt for nature” swap in the history of the Tropical Forest Conservation Act, passed in 1998 to facilitate such agreements. The deal also requires Costa Rica to cooperate with the USA on drug enforcement and counterterrorism. According to Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.:
“Debt-for-nature agreements are a successful model for government and citizen cooperation and should encourage more public-private partnerships to further the cause of global conservation and environmental protection.”
In addition to being major reservoirs of biodiversity, the trees and soils of tropical forests contain gigantic quantities of carbon. Cutting and burning of those forests contributes 20 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, more than all the world’s cars, trucks, trains and planes combined. Because of this dual significance of tropical forests for biodiversity and the carbon cycle (and by extension, global warming), some have argued that preventing tropical deforestation is the single biggest environmental priority on a global scale. After Costa Rica lost nearly 80% of its forest cover over the last few decades, concerted reclamation of degraded land and planting of trees have reversed that trend, bringing current forest cover to over 50% and making Costa Rica one of the success stories and role models in tropical conservation.
A significant development in this proposed reauthorization of the debt-for-nature legislation is its extension into the oceans, in the interest of conserving coral reefs critically endangered by a variety of threats, not least of them warming temperatures and ocean acidification resulting from greenhouse gas emissions.
There is hope!