How debt-for-nature swaps have protected the world’s tropical forests for 25 years

Tambopata National Reserve Peru

Tropical forests are among Earth’s most important natural treasures. They house most of the world’s biodiversity on land, help mitigate climate change, and provide livelihoods for local communities and Indigenous peoples who’ve called them home for centuries.

Yet too often, protected areas with tropical forests lack sustained funding for successful long-term conservation. One way to bridge the gap has repeatedly proven successful over more than 25 years to balance economic needs with conservation priorities: debt-for-nature swaps.

Congress formally established a new program for debt-for-nature swaps, which allow countries to refinance their debts in exchange for redirecting funds toward conservation, in 1998 with the passage of the Tropical Forest Conservation Act. Lawmakers renamed it the Tropical Forest and Coral Reef Conservation Act (TFCCA) in 2019 to include an expansion of countries with coral reefs and mangroves.

The agreements made through this law in partnership with governments and leading conservation organizations are on pace to invest over $380 million for projects to conserve critical tropical forests and coral reef ecosystems in 14 countries and counting.

Here’s a look at how some of those swaps have helped conserve forests over the past quarter-century and what we can expect for the future of this transformative program.


In June 2002, the US and Peruvian governments, supported by WWF, Conservation International, and The Nature Conservancy, signed a groundbreaking $14 million debt-for-nature swap agreement in exchange for funding dedicated to the preservation of 27.5 million acres of tropical forests.

Efforts from this debt-for-nature swap helped reduce some of the threats to critical forest ecosystems posed by unsustainable logging and agricultural land conversion. For instance, a swap-supported grant undertaken by Pronaturaleza, a Peru-based nongovernmental organization (NGO), provided legal support to stop land poachers engaged in unlawful logging in the Bosque de Pómac Historic Sanctuary.

Two decades after the first collaboration in Peru, WWF partnered again with The Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Conservation International, and the US and Peruvian governments in September 2023 for a debt swap agreement that will reduce Peru's debt payments to the US government by over $20 million over the next 13 years.

The swap unlocks new financing to protect the Peruvian Amazon rain forest – which covers 60 percent of the country. It will also bolster Peru’s Natural Legacy initiative (Patrimonio Natural del Perú), which supports the conservation of some 16 million hectares through the innovative Project Finance for Permanence (PFP) financing approach and the livelihoods of local communities in the region with sustainable natural resource management.


A 2004 debt-for-nature swap supported by WWF, The Nature Conservancy, and Conservation International established an agreement to reduce Colombia's debt to the US by over $10 million for 12 years in exchange for funding local conservation projects to protect tropical forests.

Regions in Colombia benefiting from this swap included forests in the El Tuparro Biosphere Reserve in the Orinoco River Basin, the Serranía de los Yariguíes region in Santander, and the Andean Corridor of Oak Forests.

A major part of protecting these important forest ecosystems is ensuring that local communities have lasting livelihoods. For example, coffee growers in Yariguíes, with support from the National Federation of Coffee Growers (Federación Nacional de Cafeteros), achieved a Rainforest Alliance certification that confirms high sustainability standards.

What’s Next for Debt-for-Nature Swaps

From left to right, Global Environment Facility CEO and Chairperson Carlos Manuel Rodríguez; Department of Treasury Assistant Secretary for International Trade and Development Alexia Latortue; WWF-US President and CEO Carter Roberts; The Nature Conservancy Head of Policy and Public Funding Molly Wallace; USAID Chief Climate Officer and Deputy Assistant Administrator Gillian Caldwell; Conservation International CEO Dr. M. Sanjayan; Department of State Deputy Assistant Secretary of Environment, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs John Thompson

Three leading conservation organizations – WWF, The Nature Conservancy, and Conservation International – gathered leaders from the US Departments of Treasury and State, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), former Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Global Environment Facility CEO and Chairperson Carlos Manuel Rodríguez at an event in Washington, DC on June 25 to commemorate more than a quarter-century of successful debt-for-nature swaps under the law.

WWF-US CEO Carter Roberts opened the event by reflecting on the legacy of Tom Lovejoy, WWF's first chief scientist who touched the work of many organizations and who is credited among others for imagining the concept of debt-for-nature swaps in the 1980s.

“Tom’s advice was always to, ‘think of the whole.’ From the very beginning, the best debt-for-nature swaps did exactly that—considered the whole of each place, from the ecosystem and economy to the local and Indigenous communities and local politics. Debt-for-nature-swaps are more than an innovative financial mechanism, they are a means to keep the whole intact,” Roberts said.

WWF's partners in protecting nature around the globe, The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International, have been essential to these efforts.

“This legislation has paved the way for tremendous innovative conservation funding. In just 25 years, the Tropical Forest Conservation Act has helped to protect 68 million acres of forests and coral reefs that have both local and global significance,” said Jennifer Morris, CEO of The Nature Conservancy. “The vision realized more than two decades ago has endured and continues to achieve important conservation wins. TFCCA also served as inspiration for developing TNC’s model of commercial debt refinancing, which is unlocking private funding to help preserve biodiversity and enhance climate resilience.”

“Since Conservation International facilitated the first debt-for-nature swap in 1987, these instruments have grown into a tremendous force, generating hundreds of millions of dollars for conservation efforts that can withstand the test of time,” said Dr. M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International. “Four decades later, debt-for-nature swaps are more relevant than ever. Sovereign debt continues to swell, and swaps are a tried-and-true way to reduce economic burdens, support local communities, and protect the world’s most valuable ecosystems. It’s encouraging to see the TFCCA evolve to meet the moment, expanding from forest conservation to coral reefs and other key marine habitats.”

From left to right, WWF's Carter Roberts, former Sen. Rob Portman and Global Environment Facility CEO and Chairperson Carlos Manuel Rodríguez

One of the reasons why debt-for-nature swaps have endured is the support across the political spectrum for the environmental and geopolitical benefits.

As Coons said in a video message shown at the event, “This important piece of legislation saved tens of millions of acres of tropical rain forest and mobilized hundreds of millions of dollars around the world.”

Portman, one of the law’s leading proponents in Congress, said the law’s success is in part “because we've kept it not just bipartisan, but nonpartisan, and really focused on the benefits to the taxpayers of the United States.”

Alexia Latortue, Assistant Secretary for International Trade and Development at the Department of Treasury; John Thompson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Environment, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the Department of State; and Gillian Caldwell, Chief Climate Officer and Deputy Assistant Administrator at USAID, identified upcoming opportunities to build on the law’s legacy to scale up inclusive and innovative financing for conservation.

“Treasury is keen to work with the interagency, with the NGOs, and the whole community to codify principles for debt-for-nature swaps so that the next generation can leverage the learnings,” Latortue said.

There may also be potential for utilizing debt-for-nature swaps to expand protections for people and nature.

“There has been a growing conversation about debt for other categories, not just nature. For example, there are so many other pressing needs pertinent to the crisis that's unfolding vis-à-vis climate adaptation,” Caldwell said.

But the fundamental core of successful debt-for-nature swaps will remain the same: What’s good for nature is good for US interests.

“This benefits the planet. This benefits the United States. This benefits US citizens. I think building on that concept is the foundation for a lot of the success we’ve seen here,” Thompson said.