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New atlas maps future of the environment in Latin America and Caribbean

Panama City, 14 December 2010 - From deforestation in Guatemala to the effects of mining in Colombia, a new atlas produced by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) uses over 200 striking satellite images to highlight the most pressing environmental issues in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Latin America and the Caribbean - Atlas of our changing environment represents the first effort to analyze changes taking place in the region's environment, combining precise and striking satellite images with analysis based on rigorous data. The Atlas is an indispensable tool in formulating the future actions and public policies needed to achieve more sustainable development in the region.

The images highlight the region's richness and diversity of environments, ecosystems, species and landscapes. They also show, however, that this natural wealth is currently under considerable pressure as a result of the prevailing economic development models - which, while leading to growth, have also produced significant social and environmental changes.

The Atlas is divided into three parts. The first two bring together regional information, while the third outlines relevant environmental issues in each country, analysing 65 specific national cases. The more than 200 satellite images, maps and graphs provide a clear sense of the rapid urbanisation that has taken place, often without adequate planning, in places such as the Metropolitan Area of San Josť (Costa Rica) and San Salvador (El Salvador).

The effects of climate change are evident in satellite images of glaciers in Chilean and Argentine Patagonia. Deforestation can be seen in countries such as Brazil, the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti. The impact of mining is illustrated through pictures of La Guajira (Colombia) and Cerro de Pasco (Peru), while high-resolution images show the impact of the natural disasters that struck Haiti in January 2010. Other environmental problems highlighted by the Atlas include changes in land use, loss of biodiversity and degradation of coastal areas.

The State of the Region's Environment: Principal Findings

  • The growth of cities: The absence of proper urban and land-use planning has created major problems in the cities of the region. Latin American cities are the most compact in the world, have the highest-density urban centres and present major challenges such as waste management and waste water treatment.

  • Land Degradation: Although the region still has areas of lush vegetation, and houses one of the world's foremost reserves of biocapacity, land degradation - including desertification and the erosion of soils and coastlines - is evident throughout the continent. Desertification currently affects more than 600 million hectares in arid, semiarid and subhumid areas in the region.

  • Profound changes in agriculture: Land for agricultural use increased at a rate of 0.13% per year between 2003 and 2005, resulting in the loss of forests and other habitats. This change has been accompanied by an even more profound one: major food crops such as potatoes, cassava, rice and wheat have decreased on a per capita basis, while there has been an increase in crops used for industry, fuel and animal feed.

  • Mining: Of the world's regions, Latin America devotes the largest share (23%) of its budgets to exploration by major mining companies. More than US$10 billion dollars are invested every year in mining activities in the region, with Chile accounting for approximately 20% of the total.

  • Freshwater: The region accounts for more than 30% of all available fresh water on the planet; nearly 40% of the region's water resources are renewable. The pressure exerted by agricultural use has increased steadily since mid-1990; total irrigated area doubled between 1961 and 1990.

  • Glaciers: According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), most of the tropical glaciers in the region will melt between 2020 and 2030. South American glaciers are a vital source of water for domestic, agricultural and industrial use.

  • Coastal development: A large percentage of the region's population and economic activities are concentrated in coastal areas. Tourism, unplanned urban sprawl, urban and industrial waste water, and aquaculture are among the factors responsible for the degradation of coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, wetlands and coral reefs.

  • Forests: Deforestation is widespread and, in some places, rampant. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Latin America and the Caribbean lost approximately 43,500 km2 of forests per year between 2000 and 2005. This corresponds to an annual loss greater than the surface area of Switzerland. The most severe deforestation is occurring in South America, particularly in the Brazilian Amazon, although recent efforts have reduced the annual rate of deforestation in this ecosystem.

  • Natural disasters: The number of people affected by floods, droughts and other hydro-meteorological events has increased in the region since 2000. Between 1995 and 2006, approximately 20 million people were affected by such occurrences - particularly climatic events such as hurricanes.

Latin America and the Caribbean is a region with a rich natural environment. However, this environment has been deteriorating. As shown in the Atlas, the most acute problems facing the region are accelerating urbanization without adequate planning, climate change, deforestation, land use change, loss of biodiversity and degradation of coastal areas.

For more information, please contact:

Montserrat Valeiras, UNEP Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, montserrat.valeiras@unep.org, Tel. +507 305 3114

Bryan Coll, UNEP/Nairobi, bryan.coll@unep.org Tel. +254 20762 3088 or +254 711 203148

The atlas covers environmental changes in 33 countries and many different terrains, including the O'Higgins Glacier in Chile (above)



Further Resources

View online: Latin America and the Caribbean - Atlas of our Changing Environment

UNEP Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean

Vital Climate Change Graphics for Latin America and the Caribbean


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