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Ransoming resources

TRADING debt for nature: what a nifty idea. Why hasn't it been thought of before? Many of the most heavily indebted developing countries are also the ones with serious environmental problems - but a great deal of environment that still could be protected.

In July, Conservation International, a United States organization, bought $650,000 of Bolivia's foreign debt for $100,000 - a typical discount price for the secondary market. In return, Bolivia pledges to establish a 3.7 million-acre conservation area.

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The World Wildlife Fund has worked out similar debt-for-nature swaps in Ecuador and Costa Rica. Several other such swaps are being negotiated. Brazil, Peru, and Mexico are among the Latin countries with an abundance of both foreign debt and valuable ecosystems.

Unfortunately, many of the economically pressured developing countries see environmental consciousness as a luxury they can ill afford. And yet their ecosystems are especially diverse; Ecuador, for instance, whose land area is about as great as that of Colorado, has twice the number of bird species as the whole United States. Protecting such biological diversity should be a priority.

Debt-for-nature swaps will not solve these countries' debt problems, but they are certainly a good way to pick up large tracts of tropical forest and other ecologically valuable land on the cheap.

Of course, the conservationists will have to take care that the preserves are actually preserved. Economic pressures for exploitation will remain.

There are other tools for the environmental preservation in the third world. Developed countries can refuse to buy third-world goods produced under environmentally unsound conditions. But the debt-for-nature swap sounds like the kind of deal we hope to hear more about.

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