Conservation inspired by debt

Amazon rainforest preserve in northern Brazil

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Doug Krizner: Congress takes up a bill this week to forgive some of the debt owed by developing nations. In exchange, these indebted countries would safeguard some of their natural resources.

These are called "debt-for-nature" swaps, and they're on the rise. Worldwide, they've generated more than a billion dollars for conservation. And it looks like more of them are in the works. From the Americas Desk at WLRN, Marketplace's Dan Grech reports.


Dan Grech: In a debt-for-nature swap, a developing nation gets a break on what it owes the U.S. In exchange, the country agrees to use some of the savings to protect the environment.

Since 1998, the U.S. has negotiated 12 debt-for-nature swaps, mostly in Latin America. Those deals have generated $136 million for conservation -- and saved 50 million acres of tropical forests.

Mark Kirk: This has been one of most successful environmental programs in the history of United States.

That's Representative Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican. He worked on the original debt-for-nature legislation as a congressional aide. Now, he's pushing Congress to expand the program to include coral reefs.

Environmentalists applaud the measure. Carter Roberts is president of the World Wildlife Fund. He says intact ecosystems offer immense benefits to the world economy.

Carter Roberts: You look at coral reefs as the nursery for the world's fisheries that feed a billion people. You look at forests, not just as places where jaguars live, but as part of the solution for combating climate change.

Developing counties now see cash in conservation. Ecuador recently offered not to drill for oil in the Amazon if the international community ponied up the projected revenue from that oil: $3.5 billion over 10 years. So far, there haven't been any takers.

But Columbia University's Geoffrey Peal says Ecuador has a point:

Geoffrey Peal: We're all going to benefit from conservation of this forest. It will mean the probability of a hurricane hitting Lousiana is slightly lower. Sea level will rise just a little bit less. So everybody around the world is gonna gain a bit from this.

Ecuador, however, only earns money from its forests if it drills in them.

Peal: A forest is an asset you can only generate income from if you liquidate it.

There's a growing movement to change that equation.

The Coalition of Rainforest Nations is pushing the U.N. to award carbon credits for forest conservation. That way, there would be more money in conserving forests than in chopping them down.

I'm Dan Grech for Marketplace.

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