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TITLE:    House Approves Debt Relief for Tropical Forest Conservation
STATUS:   Copyrighted 1998, contact source for reprint permissions
DATE:     March 19, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Developing countries around the world would be able to reduce debts to the United States by protecting their tropical forests under legislation that passed the House Thursday.

Called "debt-for-nature" swaps, the measure expands a program set up in the Bush administration that allowed Latin American countries to trade debt for investment in the environment.

"This legislation is creative problem-solving at its best," said Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio. "It is a win for the people of the developing nations and a win for the global environment at a relatively low cost."

The bill, which passed 356-61, authorizes $325 million over three years for programs to help developing countries with debts to, for example, the Agency for International Development or the Agriculture Department.

It also offers cost-free "debt buybacks" under which countries could buy back their debt in exchange for spending up to 40 percent of that purchase cost for tropical forest protection.

Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, the author of the legislation, said half the world's tropical forests have disappeared since 1950 and that every year an additional 30 million to 40 million acres, the size of the state of Ohio, are lost.

"Instead of just writing off those debts as we do now, this bill will ensure that the United States receives something vitally important in return -- tangible conservation efforts in those countries to protect these essential forests."

Seventy-six countries have tropical forests, although half those forests are located in the four countries of Brazil, Indonesia, Peru and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Half of all known species of plants and animals live in tropical forests, which are also storehouses for new medicines and essential to the slowing of global warming.

As a condition for participating in the program, a country must have a government that is democratically elected, keeps a good record in human rights and fighting drugs and has implemented economic reforms.

The bill, which has the support of the administration, must still be considered by the Senate.

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The Rainforest News