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World Wildlife Fund Applauds Senate Committee Approval of Bill to Support Tropical Forest and Coral Conservation

Washington - World Wildlife Fund officials today offered strong praise for the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in approving S. 2020, a bill that reauthorizes the Tropical Forest Conservation Act (TFCA).

The TFCA offers options for developing countries to relieve debts owed to the United States in exchange for conservation of tropical forests. The bill, which was approved by unanimous consent by the committee earlier this week, expands the program to include coral reefs and associated coastal marine ecosystems, and renames the law the Tropical Forest and Coral Conservation Act to reflect its expanded scope.

"We are pleased at the strong leadership demonstrated by Senator Richard Lugar, who introduced the bill, and Senator Joe Biden, the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, who expeditiously moved the bill through the committee, and we applaud their commitment to helping to preserve our global environment," said Jason Patlis, Vice-President and Managing Director, Government Relations, WWF-US.

A companion bill has met with strong bipartisan support in the House of Representatives. Introduced by Representatives Mark Kirk and Alcee Hastings, H.R. 2185 was approved by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs under the chairmanship of Rep. Tom Lantos. Despite minor differences in the House and Senate versions, WWF officials say they expect the measure to receive congressional approval within the next few months.

To date, there have been a dozen bilateral agreements between the U.S. and various nations under the TFCA, which first went into effect in 1998. These 'debt-for-nature' agreements have generated more than $135 million in long-term commitments for tropical forest conservation in Bangladesh, Belize, Botswana, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and the Philippines. The program also offers a unique opportunity for public-private partnerships--the majority of TFCA agreements have included funds raised by WWF and The Nature Conservancy. Both organizations also provide technical and legal assistance during the negotiations and implementation of the debt swaps.

WWF has a long history of work in both tropical forests and coral conservation.

"The inclusion of corals reefs and related marine areas greatly expands the import and scope of this program," said WWF's Estaban Brenes, of WWF's Conservation Finance Program. "Coral reef ecosystems throughout the world face numerous threats, which in turn threatens the species and livelihoods that depend on them. By expanding the TFCA to include coral reef ecosystems, Congress would be adding a very powerful tool in the toolchest for coral reef conservation."

If Congress approves the bill, WWF officials say it could offer much-needed protection for the Coral Triangle, a large area in Southeast Asia referred to as "the Amazon of the Seas" because of its rich biodiversity. The Coral Triangle covers all or parts of the exclusive economic zones of Indonesia, East Timor, the Philippines, Malaysia (part of Borneo), Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and is the largest and most important coral reef ecosystem in the world.

On September 8, leaders at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit agreed to a new Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries, and Food Security, which aims to bring together six governments in a multilateral partnership to conserve the extraordinary marine life in the region. The proposal was endorsed in the Sydney APEC Leaders' Declaration on Climate Change, Energy Security and Clean Development and President George W. Bush expressed his support for the initiative during the APEC Summit. WWF and The Nature Conservancy have been working collaboratively with regional governments and the U.S. to foster this initiative.

A significant boost to Indonesia's conservation efforts took place in July, when the US government approved Indonesia's participation in the TFCA program. WWF officials say Indonesia is already moving quickly to negotiate an agreement on tropical forest conservation and could also take advantage of the program's expanded scope once the new law is enacted, becoming the first nation to implement coral conservation program under the new TFCA in support of the Coral Triangle Initiative.