United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Global Environment Outlook-1 - The Web version

Chapter 2: Regional Perspectives

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Latin America and the Caribbean

Underlying Causes

[ Social | Economic | Institutional]


The population in Latin America grew from 179 million to 481 million between 1950 and 1995 (UN, 1993). Cuba and a few small Caribbean islands have birth rates below replacement level. Other nations, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Jamaica, and Uruguay, are growing at less then 3 per cent a year (UN, 1995b). The concentration of population growth in urban areas and marginal agricultural lands is the main factor responsible for pressures exerted by human population on the environment.

An important characteristic of the regional population dynamics in LAC is urbanization. By 1995, 78 per cent of the population of South America and more than 70 per cent of the population of LAC as a whole lived in urban areas; by 2020, this figure is expected to increase to well over 80 per cent (UN, 1995a). The region has seven urban centres with populations of more than 5 million. Mexico City and São Paulo are among the five largest cities in the world and will remain so at the end of the century. (See Table 2.9.) Such concentrations of population put incredible stresses on the immediate environment.

The concentration of human activity affects the environment in three major ways: land use and land cover change, the extraction and depletion of natural resources, and the production of wastes such as untreated wastewater (WRI/UNEP/UNDP, 1994). The infrastructure in urban areas is already stretched to the limit and will, in the future, be unable to support further growth in population unless considerable investments in services are made.

The tropical moist forest regions have also experienced a population growth rate higher than the 3 per cent regional average (CEUR, 1988). The population growth rate has had implications with regard to the expansion of agricultural frontiers and the associated deforestation discussed earlier.


The long-term environmental challenges of the region are to a large extent the delayed consequence of the fast economic growth, industrialization, urbanization, agricultural modernization and expansion, and heavy public investments in transportation and energy infrastructure that took place between 1950 and 1982. After the oil crisis of 1973, private foreign financing contributed to the continuation of these trends, adding to a strong consumption boom. This lead to the debt crisis and the consequent adjustment and restructuring process, which included reduction of Government spending, privatization of State companies and services, and liberalization of national and international markets of goods, services, and factors of production. These later developments brought about a decline of internal demand, a fall in the production of non-tradeable goods and services, and an increase in underemployment and unemployment, poverty, and inequality (UNEP, 1996). They also stimulated the expansion of natural-resource-based exports to earn foreign currency leading to deforestation and land degradation (UNEP, 1996).

The economic situation improved during the early 1990s, with most economies reversing the trends of negative growth seen in the 1980s. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by 3.8 per cent in 1991, 3 per cent in 1992, and 3.2 per cent in 1993, while per capita GDP was up by 1.8 per cent, 1.1 per cent, and 1.3 per cent in those same years (ECLAC, 1996). At present, however, the situation is unclear, as most countries have encountered financial difficulties during 1995 and 1996, which have enhanced the spiral of inequity, unemployment, and poverty.

All these developments have had complex and sometimes contradictory consequences for the environment. On the one hand, the economic changes have brought additional international pressure to implement environmental policies, while increased competition and technological modernization may have stimulated a more efficient use of resources and lower emissions. On the other hand, the liberalization of the economies brought less Government investments in infrastructure and reduced spending to prevent or mitigate environmental damage. The reduction of public spending, and the transference of public services to the private sector, in many cases put the preservation of the environment as a second-order priority.

Because the region is almost exclusively a producer of raw materials, the new market-economy model and the globalization of trade have accelerated the tapping of the region's natural resources. Coupled with a generalized deterioration of the relative price of these commodities, this phenomenon has meant an additional pressure on the environment and natural resources of the region.

The rising foreign debt, which led to a net transfer of capital from the region of $200 billion between 1982 and 1989 (LAC CDE, 1992), encouraged overexploitation of natural resources to increase exports and meet pressing short-term needs.

In the Caribbean, where economic health is often determined by the volatile tourism industry, rapid economic cycles and the prolonged recessions in Europe have led to resort failures (sometimes with abandonment of important infrastructure, such as water, sewer, and transport systems). This has weakened both local planning and management capabilities of Government and its willingness to implement control and disaster mitigation actions for developments in critical habitat areas, such as coasts and barrier islands.

The austerity policies of the 1980s and 1990s helped initiate a recovery of many of the region's economies, but they have also contributed to an increase in poverty. The economic restructuring programmes led to cuts in public spending, thereby increasing unemployment. Between 1980 and 1985, real per capita income dropped 14 per cent, pushing a high proportion of the population below the poverty line (Winograd, 1995). Eighteen per cent of the urban population and 49 per cent of the rural population of the region fell below the absolute poverty level between 1980-89 (UNICEF, 1994). And in 1990, 40 per cent of the households did not get the minimum of calories needed for an adequate diet, unemployment and underemployment affected 44 per cent of the labour force, and 68 per cent of the housing could be considered inadequate (LAC CDE, 1992).

The aggravation of poverty in the region had serious implications for the environmental base; extreme poverty compelled people to exploit vulnerable ecosystems through short-term survival strategies or to migrate to the cities to inhabit marginal shelters. The concentration of poverty belts around the large cities of the region, coupled with the current reduction in Government spending, has increased the vulnerability of the population to environmental problems in general, and to hazards of epidemics and health in particular. Forests in particular and natural resources in general bore the brunt of growing social and ecological impoverishment and of reduced investment funds for development in the region.

A complex loop of interactions therefore exists in the region among poverty, population, and environment. The inequity in the distribution of wealth and resources, more than the problem of population growth, is putting strong pressures on the sustainability of the natural resources. The regressive distribution of resources has also meant a concentration in the ownership of land, resulting in more environmental pressure being put on the remaining small properties.


Following the paradigm of sustainable development that <%0>the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) initiated in 1992 at a global scale, many Governments in the region have created specific high-ranking offices at the ministerial level to take care of environmental issues. Examples of this trend include the Ministerio de Desarrollo Sustentable y Medio Ambiente in Bolivia, and the Secretaría de Medio Ambiente, Recursos Naturales y Pesca in Mexico. Although the change towards specific administrative offices for environmental matters is in general positive, it has also meant that environmental awareness and the paradigm of sustainable development remain alienated from the traditional sectors of Government in certain countries.

There has also been a trend towards the decentralization of governmental functions to provinces and municipalities, which meant the transfer of decision-making to lower administrative levels. At times, however, these local Governments have lacked the technical capacity to assume environmental responsibilities.

A number of multilateral agreements with the objective of preserving the environment and promoting sustainable development were signed or reactivated. For example, the Amazon Cooperation Treaty was moved forward, and a permanent secretariat was established; the Central American countries formed the Central American Commission for Sustainable Development; and the Caribbean countries formed the Confederation of Caribbean States.

Also as a result of UNCED, regional Governments have begun to view environmental issues more as a problem of social and economic development, closely related to the problem of poverty and social progress. And some have started to take an active interest in the protection of their natural patrimony through specific organisms created for that purpose, such as the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO) in Mexico and the National Biodiversity Institute (INBIO) in Costa Rica, two organizations devoted to the survey of the biological richness of their respective national ecosystems.

The changes in the regional economies and the shift towards market systems and liberalization have had mixed results on the environmental institutions and policy as well. The reduced Government spending has meant a decrease in State-promoted, large-scale development projects, and this in turn has lessened their impact on the environment. The widespread reduction in governmental spending has, however, also decreased the capacity of the State to establish environmental regulations and has lowered the capacity to enforce them. In other cases, the diminution of the State functions and responsibilities has also meant the elimination or downscaling of regulatory, research, and administrative organisms such as the National Forestry Institute (IFONA) in Argentina. So research on environmental issues and sustainable development problems has declined significantly.

One favourable development in the institutional context has been the rise of environmentally active non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the region. As an example, the number of NGOs in Colombia rose from 26 in 1990 to more than 400 in March 1994 (Winograd, 1995). These groups have had a positive impact at local and regional levels in terms of natural resource management, the appraisal of and respect for native knowledge and cultures, and the implementation of alternative production models. They have also acquired a voice at the international level regarding how projects and funds need to be managed, and have emerged as a strong force in guiding popular participation and producing important changes in development policies and actions (Winograd, 1995).

Another promising endeavour is the creation of national councils for sustainable development or similar initiatives in many countries of the region, including Bolivia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Peru. These councils are often tripartite in nature, being composed of the private sector, government, and NGOs. Such councils allow a more systematic participation of civil society and the private sector.

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