Trading Indonesia’s Debt for Sumatran Tigers, Rhinos, and Orangutans

The U.S. is forgiving some of the Southeast Asian nation’s bills so it can use the money to help save the world’s rarest wildlife.

Sumatran tiger cubs. (Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Oct 9, 2014· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The world’s last 100 Sumatran rhinos—as well as rare tigers, elephants, and orangutans—will get extra protection from poachers and loggers, thanks to a deal with the United States government.

Under the Tropical Forest Conservation Act, the U.S. will essentially forgive more than $12 million of Indonesian debt. Instead of repaying that money, Indonesia will spend it over the next seven years on conservation measures on the biodiversity-rich island of Sumatra.

This “debt-for-nature” swap—the third such deal Indonesia has made with the U.S.—was negotiated with the help of the nonprofit Conservation International. The organization will contribute about $560,000 in funding, which partially comes via a donation from the Arcus Foundation. Indonesia’s Kehati, a biodiversity conservation trust fund, is also participating in the deal.

Indonesia will spend the money to enhance the conservation of several existing protected areas, which were established to set aside key habitats for important species.

Until now, most of these protected areas lacked the budget necessary to defend them from threats such as illegal deforestation or wildlife trafficking. “Declaring a protected area does not stop encroachment or poaching of species like tigers,” said Ketut Putra, vice president of Conservation International Indonesia. “Some areas only have three or four patrols in a month. But the poaching and illegal activities occur every single day.”

Although how and in which protected areas the new funding will be spent is still being worked out, the primary focus will be on conserving the Sumatran rhino, the Sumatran tiger, and the Sumatran orangutan—all unique species or subspecies that only exist on the island. Putra said an oversight committee is being established, and a number of strategic activities have already been identified. These include hiring and training park rangers to protect the wildlife.

“We need to create strong support for a comprehensive patrol system,” he said.

Another key area, Putra said, is building awareness of the value of Indonesia’s national parks and protected areas. “The awareness building is very, very important in Indonesia, because most people do not understand the context about protected areas. It’s not just about species. It’s about protecting the livelihood, protecting the services that arise from the environment, and protecting the waters for their own agricultural land.”

Conservation International says the rainforests of Sumatra protect the island’s water supplies for both human consumption and agriculture while minimizing floods and regulating climate on a global scale.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which oversees the Tropical Forest Conservation Act, called the debt-for-nature swap “an investment on behalf of the American people. It helps to protect and sustainably conserve tropical forests that combat the global threat of climate change and protects biodiversity.”

USAID regularly monitors the work being done under these swaps and similar programs and conducts an annual evaluation to ensure their effectiveness. All told, there has been more than $70 million in debt-for-nature swaps with Indonesia. Other deals have been made with Bangladesh, Brazil, the Philippines, and 10 other countries.