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Measuring the Environment with the Same Yardstick

By Humberto Márquez*

Environment ministers from Latin America and the Caribbean for the first time agree to standardize their "green" indicators. Concrete information is expected to be available in 2004 for regional management of resources.

PANAMA CITY - Latin America and the Caribbean are the first in the developing South to adopt common measures for natural resources and management, with the hope of attracting funds for conservation and investment from the rich countries of the North.

"It is a matter of having adequate tools to evaluate the region's resources and to take decisions about them," Edgar Gutiérrez, director of the University of Costa Rica's Development Observatory, told Tierramérica.

The academic institution participated in elaborating a proposal to standardize regional environmental indicators in 2004, which was incorporated into the action plan of the 14th Forum of Environment Ministers of Latin America and the Caribbean, which met in the Costa Rican capital last week.

"If you have a resource and don't know how long it will last or when it will run out, you can't make appropriate or opportune decisions," said Gutiérrez.

The effort will be under the mandate of a working group with support from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

Currently, things like water availability or the amount of land covered in forest, or problems like poverty and air pollution are measured differently in each country.

Gutiérrez noted that in Brazil or Costa Rica, areas with at least 80 percent tree coverage are considered forest, while in other countries areas with less than 40 percent coverage are categorized as forest, such as trees planted to give shade to coffee plantations.

Under the latter framework, a country could present as forest an area that is really dedicated to intense agricultural exploitation.

"In Colombia we have reached as many as 170 indicators used in the environmental panorama. Our aim is to find 10 or 15 essential indicators that allow us to monitor accurately our management efforts, and that is why we support the standardized norms," Colombian deputy minister for environment and housing, Juan Pablo Bonilla, told Tierramérica.

But how should this standardization take place?

The meeting of ministers in Panama approved a set of methodologies with 25 categories, including access to water, protected areas, marine biodiversity, forest coverage and environmental health risks.

For example, the indicator for population access to sanitation will be the percentage of people who have sewer services in their homes or in the immediate surroundings, with precise information on the type of installations considered appropriate for this purpose.

But this standardization process could end up as an additional burden for some.

Extremely poor countries like Haiti could see an added weight to chronic problems like poverty -- associated with deforestation for firewood -- in being singled out as over-exploiters of natural resources and inadequate environmental managers in comparison to their neighbors.

"That is looking at it from the pessimistic side," says Gutiérrez.

"The optimistic side is that, under the umbrella of regional integration processes and the oversight of UNEP, the countries struggling most can build the necessary capacity to inventory their resources and make decisions about them," he said.

On the investment and cooperation front -- involving government agencies or multilateral institutions -- there is another reason for optimism.

"For example, Costa Rica's progress in environmental management has led to development agencies turning their attention and resources to neighbors like Honduras and Nicaragua," said the expert.

At the Panama forum the initiative was applauded as a "demonstration of horizontal South-South cooperation," because it entails an agreement inspired within Latin America and the Caribbean, and not merely carrying out a proposal of the industrialized North.

"The adoption of common indicators will help us show the advances we make, how Latin America is marking the way, a road map for applying natural resources towards development, with the criteria of sustainability," Venezuela's environment minister, Ana Osorio, told Tierramérica.

The English-speaking Caribbean also wants a common framework for measuring environmental resources and management.

Marcus Bethel, minister of health and environment in the Bahamas, said a country like his, with 700 islands and the sun, beaches and coastal waters that are key for the tourism industry, having indicators that certify the nation's environmental quality could be a great selling factor.

His colleague from Suriname, Clifford Marica, said that his country, measuring 164,000 square km, has 80 to 90 percent forest coverage and a great abundance of pristine waters, but that environmental indicators could help determine how best to utilize them sustainably.

The common set of indicators is one of the eight points included in the action plan that the ministers adopted in Panama. Others were decisions on the development of alternative energy sources, cooperation for making use of genetic resources, improvements in watershed management and health services access.

The standardization of these measurements merited special mention by UNEP director Klaus Toepfer: "I am pleased with the initiative. It demonstrates the maturity achieved by Latin America and the Caribbean."

* Humberto Márquez is an IPS correspondent.

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