The most important conservation law you’ve never heard of

Essequibo River

Essequibo River, Guyana. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

In January 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the Tropical Forest Conservation Act (TFCA), a reauthorization of a landmark conservation law that lapsed in 2014.

The act, which had bipartisan support, has already saved more than 68 million acres of tropical forest — the equivalent of taking about 12 million cars off the road for one year. Over its 26 years in effect, TFCA generated more than US$ 339 million for tropical forest conservation. Its reauthorization is considered a success for U.S. and foreign governments’ economies, nature and people.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is the Tropical Forest Conservation Act?

It’s a law that redirects countries’ debt to the U.S. into the conservation of forests, wildlife and now — for the first time — coral reefs.

Why coral reefs in a law with “tropical forests” in the name?

Coral reefs were included in the reauthorization at the suggestion of Conservation International, which worked to build support for the act. Coral reefs provide food, livelihoods and protection from storms for just under half of the world’s population, but approximately 75 percent of coral reefs worldwide are threatened.

How does TFCA work?

It uses debt-for-nature swaps, which enable countries to trade their debt to the U.S. for funds to protect nature in their own country. Countries can use the funds for everything from establishing parks or protected areas to researching medicinal uses of tropical forest plants. So far, a total of 14 countries have benefited directly from the law.

Wait, how can you swap debt for nature?

TFCA enables countries to switch out foreign debt for a promise to pay for the protection of a specific area of forest or coral reef. Conservation International was the first to employ a debt-for-nature swap in a project in Bolivia, even before the U.S. government had signed TFCA into law. That first swap helped to protect 1.6 million hectares (4 million acres) of tropical rainforest and 13 endangered species living within that rainforest.

Why was Conservation International involved in getting the law reauthorized?

Since that first deal in Bolivia in 1987, Conservation International has continued to promote debt-for-nature swaps, including under the TFCA, and was one of the driving forces behind TFCA becoming a law in the first place. Since helping to pass TFCA in 1988, Conservation International has helped to secure several swaps, including one in Sumatra in 2014 that swapped US$ 11.2 million in debt toward protecting critically endangered species, including Sumatran rhinos, and their habitat.

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In a time of political polarization, TFCA has bipartisan support. Why?  

This law is “climate leadership,” said M. Sanjayan, CEO of Conservation International. “We all know by now that tropical forests provide the air we breathe and the water we drink — reasons enough to fight for their preservation. But tropical forests are also the best carbon capture and storage technology we have.” In fact, tropical forests can provide at least 30 percent of the action the world needs to take to stop climate change.

The benefits extend to society, as well: Through these debt-for-nature swaps, communities in developing nations are able to reap the benefits of ecotourism, sustainable natural resources and a more stable economy that strengthens civil society. “TFCA has been proven to be a valuable program to protect nature and restructure debt to help both the U.S. and foreign countries’ governments,” explained Dawson Hunter, senior director for U.S. government policy at Conservation International.

Now that it’s officially a law again, what happens next?

“Although the reauthorization act for TFCA was signed into law in January, there’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Romas Garbaliauskas, senior director and legal advisor of conservation finance for Conservation International. “The program authorized US$ 20 million for debt-for-nature swaps, but first that funding has to be secured within the U.S. government. Once that happens, the U.S. will work with countries, such as Indonesia, to come up with ideas for TFCA projects.

“If the country agrees to a debt-for-nature swap, then the U.S. government, beneficiary country and often a non-profit organization, such as Conservation International, work together to develop a specific project,” he said.

One such project, Garbaliauskas says, could be a fund to finance the conservation of coral reefs in Bird’s Head Seascape, a region of West Papua, Indonesia, that is home to the highest marine biodiversity in the world. Then, once the project agreements are negotiated, the project can begin.

But …

The reauthorization act only signed TFCA into law for two years, which means in 2020, it will lapse again. Conservation International is already working to ensure that it will be re-signed in 2020.

Olivia DeSmit is a staff writer for Conservation International. 

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