Latin America's Ailing Environment
By Diego Cevallos*
Latin Americans lose as many as 11 years off their lives due to environmental degradation, says a new study by the United Nations Environment Program.
MEXICO CITY - If Latin America and the Caribbean continue on the path to market liberalization without changes in values or structural transformations, by 2032 the environment will be in deep crisis, warns a broad investigation sponsored by UNEP.
This "worst possible" scenario does not seem outrageous because it is based on the projection of variables that already exist today, Kaveh Zahedi, coordinator of the GEO (Global Environment Outlook) Latin America and Caribbean Study 2003, told Tierramérica.
The inhabitants of the region lose as many as 11 years off their lives due to causes related to environmental degradation.
The study, which the regional office of the United Nation Environment Program (UNEP) is presenting this week in Mexico, is the most complete environmental assessment of Latin America and the Caribbean to date.
In the past 30 years, environmental deterioration has worsened, evident in critical areas such as loss of forests and biodiversity, degradation of soil and water supplies, urban pollution, and the effect of all this on the health of the region's population, says the report.
"The current reality is leading us to a worse future," said Zahedi, who is also regional coordinator for the UNEP division for early warning and assessment.
But there is room for hope. If the region were to begin a profound transformation towards sustainable development, which would imply a change in public values, or if at least reforms were made with emphasis on the environment, allowing regulatory intervention in the market, the future could be different, suggests the study.
But in the meantime, and despite the efforts and promises made by governments, there is little encouragement to be found in the environmental map of the region, which is the world leader in the disparity between rich and poor.
GEO is a scientific analysis which proves that environmental deterioration is advancing, "something nobody can deny any longer," said Zahedi.
The study conducted by a group of experts and research centers over the past three years was entrusted to UNEP by Latin America's environmental officials, who meet periodically to discuss related agreements and policies.
The idea of the environment ministers is that GEO will serve to guide their strategies for achieving full sustainable development -- still a distant goal.
According to GEO figures, based on information from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC, a U.N. regional agency), there were 225 million Latin Americans living in poverty in 2003.
From 1990 to 2000, Latin America lost 4.6 percent of its forest cover, that is, 46.7 million hectares.
During that decade, annual deforestation in the region was 0.5 percent, more than double the world average.
For these and other reasons, such as ever-worsening pollution, one-fifth of the regional population is exposed to air contaminants that surpass the recommended limits, especially in the region's mega-cities and the major metropolitan areas, although this problem is also expanding to small and medium sized cities, says the study.
Atmospheric pollution is an ongoing threat to the health of more than 80 million people in the region, and each year causes 2.3 million cases of respiratory insufficiency in children and some 100,000 cases of chronic bronchitis in adults.
Biological diversity is one of Latin America's strong points, but it also faces difficult challenges. The study underscores extinction of species, introduction of exotic flora and fauna, pressures created by habitat loss, fragmentation of ecosystems and trafficking in endangered plant and animal species.
Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Mexico, four of the countries with greatest biodiversity in the region and the world, are home to 75 percent of the western hemisphere's endangered bird species.
Various estimates indicate that South America is the source of 47 percent of the illegally captured wild animals worldwide.
Under current consumption patterns, warns GEO, water will become one of the critical issues that the region will have to confront in the coming decade.
This negative outlook exists despite the fact that Latin America, which represents 15 percent of the world's land mass and eight percent of the global population, holds one third of the Earth's freshwater resources.
The coastlines are also in danger. Thirty-three percent of the seashores of the Mesoamerican subregion -- extending from southern Mexico through Central America -- are seriously threatened by degradation, as is half of the seaboard of South America.
Despite the discouraging panorama in most environmental areas, GEO points to some positive signs, such as the fact that the past 30 years have seen an intensification of "internalization" of the environmental agenda.
Latin America now has new legal and institutional resources to attend to these matters, and the participation of civil society is on the rise, states the report.
Increased transparency and access to information, as well as the deterioration of the environment itself, have helped to raise public awareness about the impacts of today's patterns of production and consumption, and with it, greater citizen participation in the search for solution, it adds.
In Zahedi's opinion, the future could be different because children today, unlike previous generations, have already begun to incorporate concepts of sustainable development and respect for the environment as personal values.
When they grow up and lead the region, the outlook could change and the environment may once again breathe a little easier, said the UNEP official.