Colombia is one of the five most biologically abundant nations on Earth, harboring one of every 10 species
of animals and plants. Its spectacular diversity ranges from the rare Orinoco crocodile to the Victoria Amazonica, a giant water lily large enough to support the weight of a child. This extraordinary reservoir of life is also among the most threatened. Two biodiversity hotspots—the Tropical Andes
and Chocó-Darién-Western Ecuador
—stretch across the Colombian landscape.
Safeguarding this rich environment was the driving force behind a recent debt-for-nature swap involving the United States, Colombia, and three conservation groups—CI, the World Wildlife Fund, and The Nature Conservancy. Authorized by the US Tropical Forest Conservation Act, debt-for-nature swaps allow foreign countries to reduce their US debt burden by agreeing to make local currency investments in conservation.
“We are going to lose our natural heritage if we don’t dedicate ourselves to protecting it,” said Fabio Arjona, the director of Conservation International in Colombia. “This debt swap is a perfect example of how the conservation community needs to work hand-in-hand with government to protect our biological riches.”
The United States contributed $7 million in support of the Colombia swap while CI’s Global Conservation Fund and its partners added another $1.4 million. With additional monies, approximately $10 million will flow into Colombian conservation efforts over the next 12 years. The funds will be primarily directed toward conservation of 11 million acres of tropical forest
Regions to benefit include key biodiversity areas in the Andes
, the Caribbean coast, and the rich plains along the vast Orinoco River in the Amazon
. Wildlife found here includes the endemic and threatened blue-billed curassow, a pheasant-like game bird, and the variegated spider monkey. The swap will also increase protection for the nation’s last remaining stands of oak. These oaks are important wintering grounds for North American bird species such as the cerulean warbler, one of the most threatened migratory species in the United States.
Conservation will not come easy. Colombia’s biodiversity faces myriad threats, from mining and logging
to agricultural activities and the pressures of a rapidly expanding population. Moreover, civil unrest and the pervasive influence of the drug trade create a complex and difficult work environment. “Much of the country has been affected by these problems,” says Arjona. “However, conservation often involves working in areas of conflict. It’s unavoidable. Fortunately, many areas where we will be working are free of strife.”
Half of the $10 million will go into a fund to support local groups operating in the targeted areas. The remaining $5 million will be added to a planned trust that will strengthen the financial sustainability of the nation’s protected areas. Colombia hopes the trust will enable the government to eventually leverage an additional $40 million for park protection.
The debt swap is not an end in itself but an important starting point for a long-term plan to effectively create and sustain protected areas across the country. Says Arjona, “This is critical, given all that is at stake in terms of biodiversity, not only for Colombia, but the world.”