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UNEP Report on Latin America and the Caribbean Addresses Environmental Degradation
15/ 07/ 2010

UNEP Report on Latin America and the Caribbean Addresses Environmental DegradationLatin America and the Caribbean require comprehensive environmental policies to guarantee the sustainable management of their natural resources

These new policies will be documented in a series of reports entitled "Latin America and the Caribbean: Environment Outlook ? GEO LAC 3".

Panama, 14 July 2010 - In its soon to be released report, "Latin America and the Caribbean: Environment Outlook ? GEO LAC 3", the United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP) is warning that the region needs to take a step forward to sustainably manage its natural resources and effectively counteract the forces that are leading to environmental degradation.

This third report in a series prepared by UNEP on the state of the environment in Latin America and the Caribbean notes that the greatest challenge is to guarantee the development of environmental strategies, the creation of bodies specialized in the establishment of institutional and legal frameworks, and the ratification of international conventions.

The GEO LAC 3 study will also highlight the positive efforts already being carried out, for example, in Brazil to stop Amazonian deforestation, in Uruguay's energy strategy to encourage the incorporation of alternative fuel sources, or payments for environmental services such as those done in Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Nicaragua.

The report points out the urgent necessity of achieving consensus that effectively promotes sustainable development, integrates environmental considerations and the value of ecosystems and environmental services into development policy in the runup to the Rio+20 meeting to be held in Brazil in 2012.

According to the study, some countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have advanced in the transition process towards an environmentally sustainable economy. There are the experiences of Brazil, a world leader in recycling, with a national industry employing nearly 170,000 people, or in the Caribbean Hotel Energy Action Programme which encourages the implementation of energy-efficiency practices in the tourism sector.

Yet, in spite of these advances, the environment in the region does not receive the level of priority it deserves. In addition to the limited existence of comprehensive and cross-cutting environmental policies, the GEO LAC 3 report emphasizes the need to improve action, and coordination between the countries of the region. It also notes the importance of being able to rely on quality data concerning the state of the environment, and to increase the level of investment for achieving environmental and social sustainability, essential for the continued development in the region.

According to the study, greater prosperity and development in the region depends on the joint efforts of national and local governments, citizens and civil society organizations which must work together in a consensual manner to resolve the environmental challenges facing Latin America and the Caribbean.

The growing interest and willingness to tackle environmental themes is evident in the agendas of different sectors ? national and local governments, civil society and business organizations and universities and research institutes ? and offers an opportunity to confront environmental degradation and establish the basis for advancing toward a more sustainable model of development, the report stresses.

The state of the environment in Latin America and the Caribbean

Climate change, loss of biological diversity, environmental degradation, emergencies caused by natural disasters, water scarcity, and accelerated urbanization that the region is experiencing make it necessary to make urgent and decisive changes in environmental management, according to the UNEP report.

Historically, the drivers of the regional development model have been based in the production of food, primary materials, and natural resources. This model has generated economic growth, the study notes, but also environmental degradation and societal breakdown. The tendency toward the concentration of income and an inequitable division of the benefits of this growth has led to Latin America and the Caribbean being the region with the highest level of inequality in the world.

The region possesses great environmental richness. The six countries (Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela) are among those countries with the greatest biodiversity in the world. Although promising efforts of environmental protection have been launched, this rich diversity is presently under threat.

GEO LAC highlights the UNEP Green Economy Initiative
This initiative seeks to accelerate the transition toward an environmentally sustainable economy. Three documents are central to this initiative: i) the report on the Green Economy; ii) the report on Green Jobs; and iii) the report of the evaluation of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).

It is estimated that five sectors will be those that generate the greatest economic returns: 1) clean energy and clean technologies, including recycling; 2) rural energy, including renewables; 3) sustainable agriculture, including organic production; 4) ecosystem-based economic infrastructure; reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD); and 5) sustainable cities, including planning, transportation, and green buildings

Loss of water resources. The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean face the challenge of designing and implementing efficient strategies for sustainable water use. Even though the region as a whole contains a great quantity of water, disparities are present within a single country, with areas where critical water shortages exist and where the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands have the greatest limitations on the availability of fresh water. This situation is compounded by the fact that there is a notable increase in water demand, due to human consumption, as well as, among other factors, an increase in the extent of irrigated agriculture.

The availability of water could be affected by climate change, as well, especially by the loss of glaciers. GEO LAC 3 underscores that, according to the Fourth Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), by 2050 the number of persons affected by the increasing water shortages in Latin America and the Caribbean will be between 79 and 178 million.

Threats to Caribbean countries as a result of climate change:

Increased saltwater intrusion
Land degradation
Destruction of agricultural crops, homes and livelihoods
Destruction of vital physical and social infrastructure
Fresh water contamination

Changes in agriculture. Due to international market demand for products such as grains and soy bean, and given the growth in these and national markets for beef cattle and poultry, the land surface area dedicated to agriculture has increased. The region is transforming its farming practices to respond to the new economic model, which wants to increase trade. But at the same time, the region suffers a growing weakness in its capacity to produce basic foodstuffs, which has resulted in a significant increase in agricultural imports.

Loss of forests. The most recent available data (2005) indicate that the forest cover of Latin America and the Caribbean continues to diminish, although in some countries rates of deforestation have abated. The accumulated regional loss of forested areas has reached some 24 million hectares between 2000 and 2005. Cattle-raising and agricultural expansion are the principal threats to forests in the continental tropical countries, while the expansion of infrastructure for urbanization and tourism are the major causes of deforestation in the island regions.

Some relevant facts

35% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean (189 million people) are poor, and 14% live in extreme poverty.
By 2010, 79% of the region's population (some 470.5 million people) will be concentrated in urban areas, and only 21% in rural areas.
The demand for water in Latin America and the Caribbean has increased by 76% (from 150 to 264.5 km3/year between 1990 and 2004) as a result of demographic growth.
The economic losses accumulated from extreme weather events in the region reached a value of US$81 billion for the period 1970-2008.
For 2006, investment in infrastructure and development was around US$18 billion, 60% more than in 1997, and representing about 2% of the total world investment in this sector.
Public expenditure on the environment as a percentage of GDP for 2005 made up 0.3% of GDP in Mexico, 0.06% in Brazil, and between 0.01% and 0.05% of GDP in Argentina, Belize, Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay. In the member countries of the OECD, it accounted for between 1% and 2% of GDP.
It is estimated that the losses stemming from desertification for 11 countries in the region are as high as US$27.525 billion.
Calculations suggest that the total extent of protected areas in LAC increased from 303.3 million hectares in 1995 to more than 500 million in 2007.
Five of the 20 countries with the most endangered animal species, and 7 of the 20 with the greatest number of endangered plants, are found in LAC
In Latin America, 86% of wastewater arrives untreated into rivers and oceans; in the Caribbean this figure may be as high as 90%.
More than 100 million people live in urban areas that do not meet minimum standards of environmental quality.
Although probably underestimated, the total calculated value of what the region's coastal ecosystems provide comes to US $6.48 million a year.
An estimated 31% of the 35 million cubic kilometers of freshwater resources of the planet are found in the region.
There are around 50 million persons in the region who lack access to potable water, even though the coverage of this service reaches 80% of the residents.
As a consequence of climate change, by 2020 between 12 and 81 million people will be affected by the increased water shortage.

Sources: ECLAC: 2007 a, 2008, 2009), Ricyt (2008), Arnell (2004), Martinez and others (2007), NSI (2004); PAHO (2005), UNEP (2007), IUCN (2008a), United Nations (2010)

Degradation of marine ecosystems and coastal areas. The report emphasizes the dependence, at the regional level, of these ecosystems, which contribute to human welfare through the provision of different types of services including fishing and tourism. However, over-exploitation of aquatic resources, erosion and pollution from land-based sources, among other things, have generated the degradation of coral reefs and seagrasses and threatens the main source of income for many Caribbean countries.

Environmental impacts from mining and hydrocarbon extraction. Exploitation of resources such as copper, coal, nickel, gold, silver, or sand, and of hydrocarbons represents an important source of income for some countries. Nonetheless, these practices affect the reserves of the minerals which impact other natural resources (water, forests, and soils) and ecosystems, causing high environmental costs.

Rapid urbanization. The environmental situation of cities, especially large urban areas, is of great concern, the study emphasizes. The absence of land-use planning, unplanned land-use changes, air and water pollution, or a greater vulnerability to climatic events and natural extremes are some of the consequences of the accelerated, unplanned urban growth experienced by the region in recent decades.

Instruments for action. Diverse innovative practices implemented in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in other places around the world, show some of the lines of action that will permit the countries of the region to achieve better management and environmental sustainability. Among other measures, the third report "Perspectives on the Environment: Latin America and the Caribbean ? GEO LAC 3" highlights the following:

Apply an ecological focus and land-use planning in rural and urban development policies;
Integrate an ecosystem focus into environmental policy and, in corresponding measure, into sectoral policies;
Implement payments for environmental services and green enterprises;
Improve the organization and management of protected areas, biological corridors, and coastal areas;
Encourage sustainable tourism;
Increase rates of certified forest management and community-based forest management;
Strengthen the administration and management policies for watersheds;
Promote the development of renewable sources of energy;
Demand the sustainable management of extractive activities;
Increase policies and fiscal incentives that promote sustainable practices and patterns of production and consumption;
Strengthen and adjust environmental regulations;
Promote sustainable consumption.

Structure of the report:

The third report is comprised of five chapters. The first describes the main driving forces and pressures ? demographic changes, the demand for raw materials and commerce, growing globalization, climate change, technological development, and socio-political and institutional aspects ? that cause environmental change that affects Latin America and the Caribbean.

Chapter 2 analyzes the situation of the state of the environment, while the third chapter evaluates the relationships and associations between environmental changes and human well-being. The fourth chapter presents four socio-economic and environmental scenarios that can facilitate decision-makers to adopt positive action in terms of mitigation and adaptation in the face of environmental challenges. The last chapter describes the tendencies that have characterized environmental policy in the region and the challenges that must be met to assure their contribution to a paradigm shift toward development that favors economic growth, the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, and the sustainable use of natural resources.

The study "Latin America and the Caribbean: Environment Outlook ? GEO LAC 3" is a contribution of UNEP to promote improvements in human well-being, and to add to the debate around the concept of environmental sustainability in a changing and evolving world .

The document is now available on the UNEP website:

For more information:

Latin America and Caribbean Regional Office (LACRO)
Ciudad de Panamá, Panamá
Clayton, Ciudad del Saber - Avenida Morse, Edificio 103
Tel: +507 305 3100
Fax: +507 305 3105

Further Resources
Latin America and the Caribbean: Environment Outlook