Guatemala and U.S. Enter Into Historic Debt-for-Nature Swap

Environmentalists around the globe are toasting a deal announced last week in which the U.S. government has agreed to forgive $24.4 million in debt from Guatemala to free up the money for use in forest conservation efforts there. Two leading international conservation nonprofits, the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International, were instrumental in putting the “debt-for-nature” together, and each organization also provided $1 million toward Guatemalan conservation initiatives to help sweeten the deal.

Temple of the Jaguar at the Mayan Ruins in Tikal.© Digital Vision

“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,” reports the Nature Conservancy’s president, Steven McCormick. Most of the funds generated by the deal will funnel down to private conservation organizations working on the ground in Guatemala to preserve four of the country’s leading reserves, including tropical and subtropical forests as well as coastal mangrove areas.

Back in 1998, Congress passed the landmark Tropical Forest Conservation Act by which eligible countries—that is, tropical nations with democratically elected governments and suitable economic reform programs in place—can re-route part of the debt they owe to the U.S. to finance tropical forest conservation within their own borders. The new deal with Guatemala is the largest such swap yet under the terms of the eight-year-old legislation. Similar but smaller debt-for-nature swaps engineered by the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International between the U.S. and Belize and Panama respectively have led to successful forest conservation projects in those countries.

“You can’t just come in as the U.S. and say it’s important to protect those forests,” says Claudia McMurray, America’s assistant secretary of state for oceans, environment and science. “You have to give these countries alternatives.”