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Latin America and the Caribbean

'The expected triumph of free-market reforms over poverty has yet to be delivered. On the contrary, the number of people below the poverty line had reached 160 million by 1995.'

GEO-2000, page 121

 Some statistics...

*  During the 1980s Central America increased agricultural production by 32 per cent but doubled its consumption of pesticides.

*  The natural forest cover continues to decrease in all countries. A total of 5.8 million hectares a year was lost during 1990-95, resulting in a 3 per cent total loss for the period.

*  Habitat loss is a major threat to biodiversity in this region, which contains 40 per cent of the Earth's plant and animal species; it is estimated that 1 244 vertebrate species are now threatened with extinction.

*  A large decrease in the marine fisheries catch is expected as a result of the 1997-98 El Niño.

*  Many cities have severe air pollution. In São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, air pollution is estimated to cause 4 000 premature deaths a year. Waste disposal is also a major urban problem.


Two major environmental issues stand out in the region. The first is to find solutions to the problems of the urban environment - nearly three-quarters of the population are already urbanized, many in mega-cities where air quality threatens human health and water shortages are common. The second issue is the depletion and destruction of forest resources, especially in the Amazon basin, and the related threat to biodiversity.

The region has the largest reserves of cultivable land in the world but soil degradation is threatening much cultivated land. On the plus side, many countries have substantial potential for curbing their contributions to the build-up of greenhouse gases, given the region's renewable energy sources and the potential of forest conservation and reforestation programmes to provide valuable carbon sinks.

During the past decade, concern for environmental issues has greatly increased, and many new institutions and policies have been put in place. However, these changes have apparently not yet greatly improved environmental management which continues to concentrate on sectoral issues, without integration with economic and social strategies. The lack of financing, technology, personnel and training and, in some cases, large and complex legal frameworks are the most common problems.

 Urban population

Click image to enlarge

Meso-America and South America have highly urban populations. Urbanization levels are expected to reach 85 per cent by the year 2025

Most Latin American economies still rely on the growth of the export sector and on foreign capital inflows, regardless of the consequences to the environment. One feature of such policies is their failure to include environmental costs. Economic development efforts and programmes aimed at fighting poverty continue to be unrelated to environmental policy, due to poor inter-agency coordination and the lack of focus on a broader picture.

An encouraging aspect is the trend towards regional collaboration, particularly on transboundary issues. For example, a Regional Response Mechanism for natural disasters has been established with telecommunication networks that link key agencies so that they can make quick assessments of damage, establish needs and mobilize resources to provide initial relief to affected communities. There is considerable interest in global and regional MEAs, and a high level of ratification. However, the level of implementing new policies to comply with these MEAs is generally low.

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