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Land degradation

Vulnerability to water and wind erosion: Latin America and the Caribbean

Erosion is the main cause of land degradation in the region, affecting 14.3 per cent of South America and 26 per cent of Meso- America

Source: USDA 2001a and 2001b

Erosion is the main cause of land degradation in Latin America, affecting 14.3 per cent of the territory in South America and 26 per cent in Central America (Oldeman 1994). Nutrient depletion is also a serious issue, largely driven by agricultural intensification. In South America, the depletion of nutrients from the soil had affected 68.2 million ha by 1980 (Scherr and Yadav 1997). This depletion has exacerbated poverty which, in turn, has contributed to greater environmental degradation and land deterioration.

Chemical soil pollution is increasingly significant given the intensification of agriculture and the use of pesticides during the past 30 years. Agricultural technology has increased production throughout the region but at a high cost to the environment. Of great concern is the impact of agrochemical pollution on soil and water and, as a consequence, on human health. Soil and water nitrification is linked to the use of chemical fertilizers which increased from 3.7 to 10.9 million tonnes during 1972-97 (FAOSTAT 2001).

Salinization is a particularly significant form of soil degradation because it is difficult to treat and can lead to desertification. Salinization caused by irrigation affects 18.4 million ha in the region, particularly in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru (AQUASTAT 1997).

The problems of land degradation have been discussed in regional and international fora for several decades. Following the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, work on new conventions and agreements started to seek regional and sub-regional solutions. For example, the secretariat of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), together with UNEP and the government of Mexico, established a Regional Coordination Unit for Latin America and the Caribbean to coordinate the work of national focal points in preparing national action programmes. These actions encouraged several countries to set up similar programmes and have led to the creation of monitoring systems (UNEP/ROLAC 1999, Universidad de Buenos Aires 1999). The Amazonian Pact, the Sustainable Development Commission, the Central American Integration System and the Andean Pact are examples of sub-regional mechanisms that have paved the way for agreements and have promoted monitoring and control systems to prevent land degradation.