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Colombia Debt Swap Yields $10 million For Tropical Forest Conservation

World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy back deal with $1.4 million

Bogota, Colombia - Colombia unveiled today a debt-for-nature swap with the United States that will allow it to invest at least $10 million over the next 12 years to protect nearly 11 million acres of its tropical forests. Under the agreement, the U.S. Department of the Treasury will contribute $7 million to the deal, while Conservation International's (CI) Global Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy and (World Wildlife Fund) WWF will contribute an additional $1.4 million.

The funds will go toward canceling part of Colombia's debt to the United States. In exchange, Colombia will invest at least $10 million to protect tropical forests in key areas of the Andes, the Caribbean coast and the Llanos, or plains, along the Orinoco River -- the world's third-largest river in terms of volume. Colombia is one of the five most biologically diverse countries on the planet, harboring one of every 10 species of plants and animals in the world.

Debt-for-nature swaps were established under the Tropical Forest Conservation Act (TFCA) of 1998 to allow nations to reduce their foreign debt burden in exchange for making local-currency investments in conservation work. In the past, Bangladesh, Belize, El Salvador, Panama and Peru have benefited from the TFCA, which is up for reauthorization in this session of Congress.

"This is a great opportunity for Colombia's short, medium and long-term conservation goals," said Mary Louise Higgins, WWF's representative in Colombia. "Thanks to this agreement, the country will have the resources it needs to support local conservation initiatives and guarantee the sustainability of its protected areas."

Under the agreement, Colombia will destine half the funds toward financing local environmental organizations that are working in selected areas. The other half will go toward the Fondo Patrimonial, or Heritage Trust, which the government expects to use to leverage additional loans of up to $40 million that will guarantee the long-term financial sustainability of Colombia's existing protected areas.

"The great variety of plants and animals that are found in Colombia make it one of the most biologically-rich nations on Earth," said Pilar Barrera, The Nature Conservancy's representative in Colombia. "A debt-for-nature swap is one of the most effective economic tools we have to conserve our invaluable biological treasures. The Nature Conservancy is proud to be a part of this extraordinary effort to protect Colombia's tropical forests."

Funds from the debt swap will be focused in three areas key for tropical forest conservation. In the tropical Andes, funds will go toward 1.7 million hectares (apx 4.2 million acres) that are home to some of the nation's last remaining stands of oak. In the Llanos of the Orinoco River basin, the funds will go toward the 1.4 million hectare (3.5 million acre) Tuparro National Park and its buffer zone. A UNESCO Natural Biosphere Reserve since 1979, the park is also home to dozens of unique species including jaguars, river dolphins and the endangered giant armadillo and the critically endangered Orinoco crocodile, which is found only in this part of South America. The Llanos are also a major nesting ground for migrating bird speices from North America. Along the Caribbean coast, conservation efforts will focus on 1.3 million hectares (apx 3.2 million acres), including include the world's highest coastal mountain, the 5,770-meter (18,900-ft) Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Funds from the debt swap will go toward establishing private and public protected areas and reserves, and restoring and maintaining existing protected areas. Funds will also be used for capacity building among researchers, individuals and organizations involved in local conservation. The agreement will be managed by an oversight committee composed of representatives from the governments of Colombia and the United States, as well as the Conservancy, WWF and CI.

"Increasingly, there are indications that we are going to lose our natural heritage if we don't dedicate ourselves to protecting it," said Fabio Arjona, the director of Conservation International in Colombia. "This debt swap is a perfect example of how the conservation community needs to work -- hand-in-hand with government to protect our biological riches. We hope this swap sets an example for other organizations and other nations."