Week of 10/15/2006

Dear EarthTalk: What are so-called “debt-for-nature swaps” and how do they work?

—Howard W., via e-mail

A debt-for-nature swap is an agreement by which a wealthier, developed nation like the United States forgives debt owed to it by a developing country in exchange for a promise to use some or all of the money instead to preserve critical environmental areas. Typically, such deals are brokered by international non-profit organizations like The Nature Conservancy or Conservation International, which sometimes contribute additional funds to provide grants to local community organizations participating in the projects.

One of the largest debt-for-nature swaps to date occurred just recently, in October 2006, when the U.S. agreed to forgive $24.4 million in debt from Guatemala to free up the money for use in forest conservation efforts there. The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International were instrumental in putting that deal together, and each committed $1 million toward Guatemalan conservation initiatives as well. A similar deal will allow Botswana to repurpose $8.3 million in debt payments owed to the U.S. for conservation and restoration of its tropical forests in the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park regions.

To date, the U.S. has arranged a dozen debt-for-nature swaps (one under President Clinton and the rest under George W. Bush), forgiving $135 million worth of loans for conservation”s sake from not only Guatemala and Botswana, but also Bangladesh, Belize, Colombia, El Salvador, Jamaica, Panama, Paraguay, the Philippines and Peru. Under the terms of the Tropical Forest Conservation Act, enacted in 1998, developing countries with a tropical forest of global or regional significance, a democratically elected government and plans for economic reform are eligible for debt forgiveness from the U.S. as long as they are willing to undertake conservation efforts accordingly. They also must cooperate with the U.S. on international narcotics control measures while neither supporting terrorism nor violating human rights.

While the U.S. has been the leader in encouraging debt-for-nature swaps, other developed countries are starting to get in on the act as well. Germany has forgiven tens of millions of Euros owed it by the governments of Indonesia and Bolivia, among others, for the benefit of the environment. And last June, France joined the fray by forgiving $25 million in debt from Cameroon in the name of protecting still pristine stretches of the Congo River Basin, the world’s second largest tropical forest after the Amazon.

Debt-for-nature deals have not all taken place without some controversy. According to the Uruguay-based World Rainforest Movement (WRM), last September Canada forgave $680,000 in debt from Honduras in exchange for that country”s establishment of tree planting and forest conservation programs. Arranged primarily within a debt-for-nature framework, Canada will actually get credit in the deal toward the greenhouse gas emissions reductions it promised under the international Kyoto Protocol. Says WRM, “The powerful hand of industry is behind this project this allows a major carbon dioxide-producing country to be able to avoid implementing real measures to either reduce carbon emissions at their source or to implement the conservation of its own forests.”

CONTACTS: Conservation International, www.conservation.org; The Nature Conservancy, www.nature.org; World Rainforest Movement, www.wrm.org.uy.

Dear EarthTalk: My grandmother was a home canner, and I’m interested in getting involved myself. Where do I learn about the benefits to my health and to the environment?

—Sylvia Fragiband, Indianapolis, IN

For more than a century, home canning has been a popular way to preserve and enjoy homegrown fruits and vegetables, not to mention fresh-caught seafood and other delicacies. One of the key benefits of home canning is limiting exposure to the chemicals and pesticides used on most commercially available produce and seafood. Also, most commercially prepared spreads and sauces contain added sugar, salt and preservatives which are unnecessary in most diets and can even be harmful for people suffering from health problems like diabetes or hypertension.

Also, by preserving produce when it is at its peak of ripeness, home canners can indulge in flavorful spreads and sauces all year long, even if the backyard harvest is just a distant memory. And according to Jennifer Wilkins, a nutritional scientist in Cornell University”s Life Sciences department, foods at peak ripeness offer superior nutritional advantages, even when preserved. She cites the example of Vitamin C content in tomatoes increasing when the vegetables are allowed to fully ripen on the vine.

Yet another benefit of home canning is self-reliance. “If there is a natural disaster and supplies are short, you will have your own food,” says master gardener and home canner Connie Densmore, who teaches an online course in home canning through the UniversalClass.com website. She adds that home canned foods can last for years without refrigeration (especially useful if the power goes out) while retaining the same taste as the day they were harvested.

Prior to the days of widespread use of food preservatives and refrigeration, home canning was one of only a few ways to safely preserve foods from decay at the hands of naturally occurring microorganisms. The home canning techniques developed in the late 1800s to prevent enzymes, mold, yeast and bacteria from spoiling foods and causing botulism and other illnesses are still effective and in wide use today.

Those looking to learn how to home can should consult the U.S. Department of Agriculture”s “Complete Guide to Home Canning,” available free online. The guide details the principles of home canning as well as how to select, prepare and can a variety of foods. The website HomeCanning.com also offers a wealth of information as well as lots of recipes for canning fruits, vegetables and meats. The site is produced by Jarden Home Brands, one of the leading suppliers of home canning jars and equipment. Some other leading purveyors of home canning supplies include the Canning Pantry and Home Canning Supply and Specialties.

For more hands-on instruction, would-be home canners should check out the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension”s “So Easy to Preserve” video series. Eight shows, each 20 to 35 minutes long, contain the most up-to-date recommendations for home canning, pickling and making jams and jellies.

CONTACTS: Canning Pantry, www.canningpantry.com; Home Canning Supply & Specialties, www.homecanningsupply.com; “So Easy To Preserve,” www.uga.edu/setp; “Complete Guide to Home Canning,” www.uga.edu/nchfp/publications/publications_usda.html.