By John C. Sawhill. John C. Sawhill, president of The Nature Conservancy, held senior energy positions , and Carter administrations.
The Christian Science Monitor
AS oil drilling moratoria, spotted owl coverage, and forest fire images proliferate in the press these days, one of the most important environmental stories of the year has gone unnoticed. In his recent announcement about reducing Latin American debt, President Bush embarked on a bold path that could result in protecting millions of acres of endangered tropical rain forest and saving countless thousands of living species from extinction.
The president announced his intention to seek legislation that would allow part of the $12 billion owed the US government by Latin American countries to be converted to local currency trust funds to generate income for environmental conservation in those nations. This type of innovative financing for environmental protection has already been successfully tested in the private sector. During the past three years, private environmental groups have spent over $15 million to purchase delinquent debt from banks and other creditors. They then swapped those debt notes for more than $100 million in equivalent local currencies to invest in conservation projects in the developing world - multiplying the investment sixfold.
Commercial creditors have been happy to recoup loans by selling discounted, delinquent debt. Debtor governments welcome the opportunity to pay off part of their debt. The success of the privately-developed debt-for-nature swap bodes well for similar federal efforts. Private debt-trades have reinforced protection on more than 2.5 million acres of Ecuador's critical natural areas, including the Galapagos Islands. They have contributed to a reforestation effort in Costa Rica's Guanacaste province, and have hired and trained dozens of conservation workers throughout the country's natural reserves.
Debt-trading has helped establish computerized Conservation Data Centers in Ecuador and Bolivia, where scientific information can now be gathered and better-informed land use decisions made. Thousands of acres of tropical habitat are acquired for inclusion in protected areas, providing grass-roots environmental education, and building infrastructure for tourism and other projects. …