World's Largest Eagle to Benefit from Debt Swap

MANILA, Phillipines, September 23, 2002 (ENS) - In a new debt-for-nature swap agreement signed here Thursday, the United States will provide $5.5 million to cancel a portion of the Philippines' debt to the United States. In return, the Philippine government will fund tropical forest conservation activities through local non-governmental organizations in the Philippines.

The agreement will facilitate the protection of tropical and coastal forest areas in the Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao regions, and will assist the survival of the endangered Philippine Eagle, the world's largest eagle and national bird of the Philippines, which depends on undisturbed forests.


Philippine eagle (Photo courtesy Don Roberson)
The Phillipine government under President Gloria Arroyo has been cooperative with Washington in the war on terror, a policy that Philippine Finance Secretary Jose Isidro Camacho said in November the United States might reward by helping reschedule the country's more than 50 billion dollars in debt.

A small part of that reward is placement on a list of countries that could avail themselves of a debt-for-nature swap under the U.S. Tropical Forest Conservation Act.

Under the swap, the Philippines will use the $5.5 million to cancel $8.2 million in interest payments to the United States. In return, the Philippines will pay $8.2 million, over 14 years, into a Tropical Forest Fund.


U.S. Under Secretary of the Treasury John Taylor (Photo courtesy U.S. Treasury Dept.)
At the signing ceremony here, U.S. Under Secretary of the Treasury John Taylor said, "The importance of protecting such forests can easily be highlighted in that the very survival of the Philippine eagle, a national symbol of which only approximately 200 remain, is directly tied to these lands."

The fund is administered by a board which will include two representatives from the U.S. government, two representatives from the government of the Philippines, and a majority of five NGO representatives.

The fund will provide grants to local NGOs working in tropical forest conservation. The money will go toward the establishment, restoration and maintenance of parks, protected areas, and reserves, as well as to train scientists, technicians, and managers involved in conservation.

A group of local NGOs has formed the Core Group on the Tropical Forest Conservation Act to organize civil society consultations and provide recommendations to both governments as to potential members of the board, as well as priority conservation areas.

This group has indicated its interest in pursuing a debt swap in the Philippines next year. A third party debt swap provides greater leverage than U.S. government funds alone.

The United States government is open to that possibility, Taylor said. "The interest and enthusiasm of the NGOs that conducted civil society consultations on a regional and national basis, and provided recommendations to both governments already encouraged us."

"As progress on this program is made, the United States would welcome the opportunity to consider a civil society led debt-for-nature swap with the Philippines in the future," he said.


Logging on Mindanao (Photo courtesy Hans Brandeis)
In 1907, the Philippine islands were 70 percent covered by tropical rainforest, but by 1992 the islands had been logged and cleared for agriculture until only eight percent remained. Erosion following the deforestation has washed valuable topsoil off the land, causing siltation of rivers and destroying the native fish populations.

The debt-for-nature swap will enable recovery projects on all three of the main groups of islands - Luzon, to the north, the largest of the Philippine islands, where the capital Manila is located; on the Visayas in the center of the island chain; and on Mindanao, in the south, the second largest island in the Philippines.

It is on Mindanao's Mount Apo, the country's highest peak, where the rare Philippine eagle, the world's largest eagle, survives.

The threat to the eagles from logging on Mount Apo is long-standing. Bird researcher Don Roberson who travelled to Mount Apo in 1990 said, "One could hear chainsaws cutting at the edge of the eagle's forested home from dawn to dusk every day we were there."

Political instability and insurgents who have held tourists for ransom in the back country of Mindanao also have hindered efforts to save the eagle and the forest on which it depends.

The Philippine Eagle Center, located at the lowest foot junction of Mt. Apo in Malagos, Davao City, serves as a sanctuary for the Philippine eagle and other indigenous wildlife. It is a project of the Philippine Eagle Foundation, which is certain to be a part of the attempts to conserve the eagle arising from the newly signed debt-for-nature swap.

"The Philippine Eagle Foundation firmly believes that the fate of the vanishing Philippine Eagle, the health of our environment, and the quality of Philippine life are inextricably linked," the organization says.