- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2001

Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodriguez listened closely when George W. Bush said last year, at Florida International University, that if elected president, he would ask Congress for $100 million to go towards the debt relief of countries that bolster the protection of their rain forests. So when the Costa Rican president recently met with Mr. Bush, a trees-for-debt-relief request was at the top of his list.

Mr. Rodriguez's proposal to have $54 million of Costa Rica's $200 million debt to the United States forgiven could benefit Americans in a number of ways. After all, expansion of rain forests benefits the entire globe. The medicinal elements and greenery found there provide the raw material to cure disease and soak up carbon-based pollution from the atmosphere.

Furthermore, Mr. Rodriguez's request could come to favor the United States more directly. The United States has been trying to promote the idea that under international environmental agreements, total greenhouse gas emissions should be weighed against countries' forest acreage, commonly referred to as carbon sinks, which help counteract the effects of those emissions. And if the United States were to underwrite another country's forest expansion, through direct funding or debt relief, then it would be credited this increase in its carbon sink. Although many world leaders have opposed the concept of a carbon sink credit, and it has not been integrated into the Kyoto Protocol, the proposal may gain momentum if Third World nations help lobby for it.

But there are other, more regional reasons why the debt-for-trees idea is on target. The crushing debt of many developing countries has been a drag on their economic growth. The foreign aid to many Latin American governments has served to ratchet up debt loads while doing little to help these nations overcome poverty. So forgiving Third World debt is an investment in the development of the region, provided multilateral institutions change the way aid is awarded in the future.

So it is unfortunate that Mr. Bush has failed to act on the concept he articulated in Florida last year, and ask Congress for the $100 million in environmentally driven debt relief. More positively, the president has signaled his commitment to debt relief and grants for the developing world. Indeed, Mr. Rodriguez's request, modeled on Mr. Bush's proposal, represents an innovative way of marrying U.S. generosity with global environmental protection and economic pragmatism.

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