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[SAN JOSE] Costa Rica and the United States have signed an agreement to swap US$26 million of Cost Rican debt for funds to protect more than 1,000 acres of tropical forest.

The move will protect biodiversity in the region and help thousands of indigenous people maintain sustainable livelihoods.

The two countries made the agreement this month (October), with Costa Rica agreeing to spend the swapped amount on forest conservation over the next 16 years.

The US will contribute US$12.6 million, with environment protection organisations The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International each providing US$1.26 million.

The agreement is in line with the US Tropical Forest Conservation Act, under which the eligible countries can use their debt payments to finance tropical forest conservation.

"This is the first swap in Costa Rica under the Forest Conservation Act. This is also the largest swap we have ever made," David Henifin, attaché of the US embassy in Costa Rica, told SciDev.Net.

Six areas have been designated for protection, based on a scientific analysis to determine gaps in forest protection, says Zdenka Piskulich, director of The Nature Conservancy in Costa Rica.

The swap will target forest protection in some of Costa Rica's best known biodiversity hotspots, such as Tortuguero, a system of natural waterways near the Caribbean Sea.

The area surrounding the Rincon de la Vieja volcano, home to over 300 species of birds, and the Osa Peninsula, home to 2.5 per cent of the world's animal and plant species, will also benefit, along with ecosystems in the Amistad region, which contains 90 per cent of Costa Rica's known plant species.

Piskulich said in a press release that the funding will also allow indigenous communities, many of whom live in the Amistad region, "to pursue sustainable and economically viable livelihoods, thus improving their lives and sustaining the diverse biological resources on which they depend".

Costa Rica's environment and energy minister, Roberto Dobles, says that they hoped the investment would improve indigenous people's quality of life, allowing them to benefit from tourism.

The money will be part of a national trust under the administration of the Costa Rica-USA Foundation.