Monday, October 09, 2006

Botswana, US sign agreement that will protect leopards, other wildlife

6 October - The governments of Botswana and the United States yesterday evening signed several agreements bound to reduce Botswana's foreign debts in return for more extensive environmental conservation in the country. In particular, Botswana has agreed to enhance protection of the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park, ecosystems seen as vital for the whole Southern African region.

According to release by the US State Department, this is the first ever "debt-for-nature" pact to be concluded with an African country, and it is part of a world-wide programme recently launched by Washington to give its foreign aid policies a greener image. Similar agreements have however already been approved with 11 Latin American and Asian countries, where the emphasis always has been on protecting tropical forests.

With Botswana - mostly a desert country - the debt cancellation is to generate more funds to protect some of the country's oases; the green lounges that are vital to wildlife and ecology for the entire Kalahari basin, far beyond the borders of Botswana. In particular, the agreements are to cover the ecologically fragile Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park regions.

These are semi-forested wetlands, which include zones of closed-canopy tree cover, riverine forests and dry acacia forests. They are home to the fishing owl, leopard, elephant, hippopotamus and many other wildlife species. Populations living in and around these semi-forested areas depend upon them for their livelihood and survival, and a large number of wildlife population migrate to these areas during the dry season each year, being the only sources for water and pasture.

Especially the Okavango Delta, internationally known from countless nature films, is know to very ecologically fragile, and recent surveys have indicated that the delta is drying up. This is attributed to increased grazing, deforesting and a growing pressure from tourism, according to environmentalists. By know, "the Okavango Delta wetland area is currently just over half its maximum size of 20,000 square kilometres," scientists warned in May this year.

According to the Washington government, the new agreements signed in Gaborone yesterday were to "help ensure the sustainability of the forests for future generations," after a threat to them now had been pointed out. The agreements "were made possible through a contribution of nearly US$ 7 million from the US government and will reduce Botswana's debt by more than US$ 8.3 million," Washington points out.

These "debt-for-nature" agreements had been made possible by the US Tropical Forest Conservation Act (TFCA), under which eligible developing countries have the opportunity to reduce concessional debts owed the US while generating funds to conserve domestic forests. In the coming year, the State Department said, more than US$ 135 million will be generated to protect tropical forests in developing countries through the TFCA.

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