Landmark Deal Will Protect Rainforests In Belize

by Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, August 3, 2001 (ENS) - The U.S. government, with a significant assist from The Nature Conservancy, has signed a landmark debt for nature swap to reduce by about one-half the debt which Belize owes to the United States. In exchange, the government of Belize has agreed to protect 23,000 acres of vulnerable forest land in Belize's Maya Mountain Marine Corridor, an area that includes 16 miles of pristine Caribbean coastline.

Lying south of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and east of Guatemala, Belize's Maya Mountain Marine Corridor hosts one of the world's richest assemblages of biodiversity. It is home to more than 220 tree species and 350 species of birds. Wildlife that roams the landscape includes the jaguar, ocelot, marguay, Baird's tapir, Morelet's crocodile, scarlet macaw and the endangered West Indian manatee.

Treasury Department under secretary for international affairs John Taylor and Belize's Ambassador to the U.S. Lisa Shoman signed the debt for nature agreement on Thursday. Under the agreement, the U.S. government will provide about $5.5 million authorized under the Tropical Forest Conservation Act (TFCA) for forest conservation in Belize.

This money will be used in part by the Belizean conservation group Toledo Institute of Development and Environment to purchase 8,000 acres of vulnerable forest lands, and to manage about 11,000 acres of forestlands now under control by the Belize government as the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve.

Under a related agreement, The Nature Conservancy will provide $800,000 to the U.S. government to help finance the debt for nature swap. The Nature Conservancy's total contribution to the debt for nature swap is $1.3 million, with $500,000 having been contributed in recent months to help conserve 4,200 acres of the 23,000 acres being protected.

"This is a tremendous accomplishment for the conservation of one of the world's most valuable tropical rainforest ecosystems," said Steve McCormick, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. "I'm very proud that the Conservancy could help Belize -a country that works very hard to protect its natural resources - to reduce about one half of its outstanding debt to the U.S. in exchange for its commitment to invest in additional forest conservation."

"The forests lands being protected are vulnerable to aggressive logging and conversion to citrus farming or shrimp farming in artificial ponds," noted McCormick.

The Nature Conservancy-U.S. government agreement marks the first time that a private organization has become a substantial financial partner with the federal government in a debt for nature swap under the TFCA. The TFCA allows the U.S. government to restructure certain debt owed to it by developing countries with significant tropical forests, in return for a commitment by those countries to undertake meaningful forest conservation measures with the assistance of local conservation organizations.

"This agreement further demonstrates the important role that the Tropical Forest Conservation Act can play in protecting valuable natural resources," said Representative Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who cosponsored the TFCA. "I applaud the efforts made by the Bush Administration and by The Nature Conservancy in helping to make this important agreement a reality."

The combined contributions of the U.S. government and The Nature Conservancy will enable the outright forgiveness of about $1.4 million of Belize's debt to the United States. In return, the government of Belize will issue $7.2 million in local currency obligations payable to the Toledo Institute of Development and Environment (TIDE) and the Belizean conservation groups Programme for Belize (PfB), Belize Audubon Society (BAS), as well as a new foundation being developed by the Protected Areas Conservation Trust (PACT).

These organizations will establish endowment funds to manage the protected lands.

"We are grateful for the trust and support that the people of the United States and our friends with The Nature Conservancy have given to TIDE and the other conservation organizations in Belize," said Wil Maheia, TIDE's executive director. "We are quite proud that Belize is considered by many as 'Mother Nature's best kept secret.' This agreement will help ensure that southern Belize's renowned rainforest will continue to host migratory birds and visitors for generations to come."

The Maya Mountain Marine Corridor (MMMC) contains exemplary tropical rainforests, mangrove forests, coral reefs, and more than 200 off shore cayes. Made up of a constellation of protected areas and government reserves, MMMC boasts upland pine savannas, seven intact watersheds that flow into coastal wetlands and marine waters to an offshore barrier reef, second only to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.

The waters along the coast of the MMMC lie on a wide continental shelf. With offshore winds and little upwelling, the area's fisheries cannot be supported by marine nutrients.

Instead, nutrients from the region's intact rainforests and grasslands flow down the rivers to the coast where they drive primary productivity through extensive mangrove forests and seagrass beds. These, in turn, support fisheries by providing both organic matter and habitat.

The partnership between The Nature Conservancy, and the governments of Belize and the United States, will help protect the Maya Mountain Marine Corridor from development (Photo courtesy The Nature Conservancy)

The agreement continues The Nature Conservancy's record of helping non-governmental organizations and the Belize government to promote environmental protection and responsible ecotourism in Belize.

The $1.3 million Nature Conservancy contribution comes from money raised by the Conservancy's Ohio and Maryland/D.C. Chapters, whose members have for several years supported efforts to conserve vital wintering habitat in Belize for neotropical migratory birds. Many of these birds, including colorful warblers, thrushes and orioles, fly north to nest in U.S. states each summer.

Additional funding was raised from supporters of the Conservancy's innovative Adopt-An-Acre program, which enables interested individuals to directly support tropical forest conservation projects.

"Our involvement in this historic agreement with Belize shows how constructive partnerships between governments and private organizations can be leveraged at very large scales to accomplish impressive conservation results on the ground," said McCormick. "These agreements will help set the stage for additional use of the TFCA and of resources provided by The Nature Conservancy to conserve vital tropical forests around the world."

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