U.S. Swaps Guatemalan Debt for Forest Conservation

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala, October 3, 2006 (ENS) - The U.S. government on Monday announced a major debt-for-nature swap that will provide more than $24 million for conservation efforts in Guatemala. The funds will help conserve Guatemala's high altitude cloud forests, rain forests, and coastal mangrove swamps, home to hundreds of species of migratory birds, as well as many rare and endangered species including jaguars, howler monkeys and scarlet macaws.

The agreements with Guatemala represent the largest amount of debt forgiven by the United States under the Tropical Forest Conservation Act.

The 1998 law allows debt owed to the United States to be invested in conservation efforts.

Guatemala is the 10th country to forge an agreement under the program, which will generate more than $125 million over the next 10-25 years to protect tropical forests.

The U.S. government has committed $15 million for the agreement, which also includes $1 million contributions from Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy.

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The deal will help protect Sierra de las Minas National Park, recognized as one of the most biologically diverse mountain ranges in Central America by naming it a Biosphere Reserve in 1993. (Photo by Nicole M. Balloffet courtesy TNC)

The Guatemalan government will commit these funds over the next 15 years to support grants to non-governmental organizations and other groups to protect and restore the country's important tropical forest resources.

"This is how modern conservation works, with partnerships involving all stakeholders to protect crucial ecosystems that sustain life on Earth," said Peter Seligmann, Conservation International chairman and CEO. "We are proud to help the Guatemalan people conserve tropical forests essential to their well-being and the overall health of the planet."

Under the terms of the agreement, signed last month, Guatemala will invest some $24.4 million in local currency over the next 15 years for conservation work in four designated areas.

The money will go to conservation efforts in the Cuchumatanes region, a critical area for endangered amphibians, and in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, home to a culturally-significant forest that is also home to an array of plant and animal species.

The reserve comprises 10 percent of Guatemala's total land area and is a haven for several endangered species such as the jaguar and the scarlet macaw.

The agreement will also fund programs in the Motagua/Polochic System, considered one of the country's most biologically important regions, and in the Western Highlands Volcanic Chain, a critical migratory bird route and home to many plant and animal species unique to Guatemala.

The scope of the deal is astonishing, according to Steve McCormick, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy.

"The areas protected in this agreement lie in the heart of Mayan civilization, and they are home to jaguars, scarlet macaws, harpy eagles, and countless other species," McCormick said.

The agreement specifically designates $19.5 million to finance grants for eligible non-governmental projects over the next 15 years, and the remaining $4.9 million creates a permanent conservation trust fund that will generate interest income for further grants.

Under the agreement, every $1 contributed by the U.S. Treasury, the Conservancy, and CI brings $1.4 worth of conservation on the ground in Guatemala.

The Guatemalan government has struggled to protect its tropical forests, which are under threat from illegal logging, drug trafficking and unsustainable agriculture.