Note: This is the 1997 edition of UNEP's Global Environment Outlook. If you are interested in more recent information, please see the 2000 and 2002 editions.
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Chapter 3: Policy Responses and Directions

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Latin America and the Caribbean

National Initiatives

[ Environmental Institutions | Environmental Amendments | Environmental Legislation | Economic and Financial | Public Participation | Environmental Information ]

Environmental deterioration in Africa is intricately Most national initiatives for the environment in LAC revolve around command-and-control mechanisms, particularly legislation. The major instruments in the legislative framework are new and improved environmental institutions, such as ministries to co-ordinate environmental management and enforce laws; the inclusion of environmental matters in the constitution; the setting of environmental standards and norms through legislation; the use of economic instruments; and increased public participation and education.

Environmental Institutions

The creation of specific ministries of the environment in many countries and the adaptation and empowerment of existing bodies have been important steps towards the conservation of environmental quality in the region. The establishment of appropriately empowered Government agencies helps ensure that environmental issues become part of a Government's agenda and decision-making process. Moreover, the establishment of these institutions will help pave the way for a more holistic and coherent approach to environment and development issues and minimize the problems that arise from fragmented and unco-ordinated institutional regimes (UNEP, 1995b).

The new generation of state agencies responsible for the environment in the region include: the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Environment in Bolivia; the Secretariat of Environment, Natural Resources, and Fisheries (SEMARNAP) in Mexico; the Natural Resources Conservation Department of Jamaica; the National Environmental Commissions (CONAMAs) in Chile and Guatemala; the Secretariat of Natural Resources and Human Environment (SERNAH) in Argentina; and the Secretariats of the Environment in El Salvador and Honduras (UNEP, 1995b; WRI, 1995). Similar initiatives have taken place in many other countries of the region.

Most of these institutions have multiple roles, ranging from the drafting of legislation to the enforcing of pollution standards. For example, in Honduras, the General Law on the Environment in 1993 established a State Secretariat in the Department of the Environment. The duties of the Secretariat are monitoring compliance with and enforcing environmental legislation, formulating and co-ordinating national policies on the environment, supervising their fulfilment, and co-ordinating public and private institutions dealing with the environment (UNEP, 1995b). Through bodies of this type, numerous legislative measures have been taken to set air and water quality standards, emission standards, and impact assessment guidelines.

Aside from the multi-purpose environmental ministries, some countries have created separate bodies to deal with specific environmental sectors. Examples include the protection of natural patrimony through specific organizations, such as the National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO) in Mexico and the National Biodiversity Institute (INBIO) in Costa Rica-two organizations devoted to the survey of the biological richness of their respective national ecosystems. The work of these groups is pointing out gaps in the national networks of protected areas and allowing the incorporation of knowledge derived from research in the areas into specific policies (WRI/UNEP/IUCN, 1995).

There has also been concrete progress in the establishment of national systems of protected areas. In some countries, alliances have been made with local populations, research groups, NGOs, and international organizations in order to improve the management of protected areas and to implement the protection of reserves legally decreed but not yet managed in practice.

Environmental laws in the region have invested relevant agencies with wide regulatory powers to establish environmental standards and norms. In Mexico, power is given "to establish requirements, conditions, procedures, parameters, and permissible limits that must be observed in development of activities or use and benefit of products which cause, or might cause, ecological imbalance or damage to the environment." Similarly, the Brazilian Law on the National Environment Policy of 1981 entrusts the National Environment Council with the task of setting standards and norms (UNEP, 1995b).

The law enforcement powers granted to these institutions reflect the seriousness with which particular states view problems within their borders. In LAC, broad powers have been granted to pollution control authorities in some countries in an attempt to control polluting activities.

In Mexico, SEMARNAP has authority to confiscate polluting materials or substances and impose the temporary closure of a polluting source where there is an imminent risk to the environment or public health. The sanctions that may be imposed by State or local authorities include fines, temporary or permanent closure of the offending source, administrative arrest for up to 24 hours, and the cancellation of any permits, licences, or concessions (UNEP, 1995b).

In Honduras, it is not the environmental agency but the courts that have the authority to impose fines or jail terms or to close down or suspend activities or facilities that are damaging the environment. The courts may require indemnity to the State or to third parties for damages caused to the environment or natural resources (UNEP, 1995b).

Environmental Amendments to Constitutions

Since the 1972 Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, principles of environmental management have increasingly been incorporated into the constitutions of LAC countries. This elevation of environmental concerns to constitutional status is a statement of intent, and may enhance the priority conferred by Governments to sound national environmental management and sustainable development.

All constitutions enacted in LAC in the two decades since Stockholm contain important environmental protection principles, and older constitutions have been amended to incorporate them. For example, the Constitution of Panama states that it is the fundamental duty of the State to safeguard the conservation of ecological conditions by preventing environmental pollution and imbalances in the ecosystems, in harmony with economic and social development (UNEP, 1995b). Since UNCED, six LAC countries (Paraguay, Cuba, Ecuador, Argentina, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua) have incorporated the right to a healthy environment as a constitutional right. Bolivia and Chile incorporated this right into their general environmental laws. Colombia has put the concept of sustainable development into its new Constitutional Charter. In Mexico, the National Commission on Human Rights has urged Government authorities to take action to solve critical environmental problems that are considered to be violating the basic right to a healthy environment.

Environmental Legislation

Legislation dealing with a broad range of environmental issues-pollution, management of hazardous wastes, protection of water resources, and conservation of biodiversity-have increased over the past decade in the region. Effective implementation of the legislation and law enforcement, however, are still weak in most countries, mostly as a result of the lack of financial resources.

Environmental laws existed in the region before the Stockholm Conference. Most were in the form of legislation dealing with the management and sustainable use of specific natural resources such as fisheries. In 1967, for example, Argentina established a legal system for control of fisheries, while laws passed in the same year in Brazil established penalties for marine pollution and regulated fisheries. In Colombia, several regulations were passed as part of the National Code on Renewable Resources and Environmental Protection, including decrees on hydrobiological resources (1978) and the use of marine resources (1979). In Peru, a Forestry and Wildlife Law and a General Fisheries Law were enacted in 1975.

Following the Stockholm Conference, appreciation of the interrelationships within the ecosystem and the linkages in environmental stresses increased greatly. Since then, there has been a growing realization that a combination of sectoral "resource-oriented" legislation and anti-pollution laws are not sufficient to safeguard the quality of the environment or to guarantee sustainable development. As a result, more "system-oriented" legislation has emerged, aimed at the integrated planning and management of the environment. This legislation began to emerge in Latin America with the promulgation of the Colombian Code of Renewable Natural Resources and Environment Protection in 1974, and with the Venezuelan Organic Law on Environment in 1976.

The new basic environmental laws of LAC countries are now the primary instruments for reordering the fragmented and unco-ordinated sectoral approaches to environmental management used thus far. These laws conceptualize the environment as an integrated system that should be managed on the basis of all-embracing environmental principles, policies, and plans. Such laws have been passed in most countries in the region.

Examples include the 1986 Law for the Prevention and Control of Environmental Pollution Decree in Ecuador; the Mexican General Law on Ecological Balance and Environment Protection of 1988, which was added to the 1971 Law to Prevent and Control Environmental Pollution; and the 1986 Guatemalan Law for Environmental Protection and Improvement (UNEP, 1995b).

The move towards more comprehensive environmental laws is apparent in the increase in National Environmental Action Plans. The countries that now have these include El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua in Central America, and Colombia and Ecuador in South America. Numerous countries also have National Conservation Strategies, including Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Nicaragua in Central America, and Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru in South America. Many countries have augmented these national plans with sectoral action plans, such as those for forests. (See Table 3.2.)

Many innovations have taken place as a result of legislative changes, particularly after UNCED, including increased setting of emission standards and greater use of environmental impact assessments. As a result, atmospheric degradation in some of the region's large cities is now not increasing quite so fast. But there have also been numerous counteracting forces. On the one hand, introduction of emission standards and programmes, such as Brazil's efforts to produce energy from biomass, have contributed significantly to the reduction of gasoline emissions and achieved some degree of sustainability in the use of energy. On the other hand, the widespread promotion of the automobile industry in the region as a stimulus for industrial development has generated growing environmental problems in the large cities.

Environmental auditing of industries and comprehensive environmental impact statements are now mandatory in many countries. Environmental impact statements have become prerequisites for large-scale development projects in some nations. Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are a predominant tool for incorporating environmental considerations into national socio-economic planning. Many countries, such as Chile, apply EIA legislation to both private and public-sector undertakings. In Mexico, the Secretariat of Environment, Natural Resources, and Fisheries is responsible for reviewing environmental impact statements, which must be prepared for specified projects and undertakings. The Secretariat may grant authorization to undertake the work, deny permission, or require modifications in order to avoid or lessen the severity of the environmental impacts associated with ordinary operations (UNEP, 1995b). The EIA process in Jamaica lets the Natural Resources Conservation Authority request an EIA of any permit applicant or anyone planning to undertake works in prescribed areas (UNEP, 1995b).

Economic and Financial Instruments

The use of economic disincentives to control and prevent pollution has long been part of national legislation in the region. The use of pollution licences and fines for the improper treatment of waste are common examples of such instruments. More innovative economic instruments are also being used in the region to address environmental concerns. These include tax incentives, environment funds, and other tools to promote the "polluter pays" principle.

The Chilean Law on General Basis for the Environment, in 1994, provided for an Environment Protection Fund. This is financed by allocations from the national budget, among other sources, to provide financing for projects and activities to protect or restore the environment, to preserve nature, or to conserve the environmental heritage (UNEP, 1995b).

Numerous countries work with schemes to promote the polluter pays principle. For example, the Jamaican Government requires permits and licences to undertake certain activities that will have a negative impact on the environment. Similarly, Chilean environmental legislation encourages the adoption of economic instruments, including tradeable emissions permits, tradeable water rights, emissions taxes or user charges, and other instruments that encourage environmental improvement and restoration activities (UNEP, 1995b). In Santiago, access rights to certain key city roads for buses and taxis have been auctioned. Costa Rica introduced biodiversity prospecting rights and tradeable reforestation tax credits, and is currently experimenting with internationally tradeable development rights and carbon offsets.

Financial incentive programmes for the protection of the environment also abound in the region. In Honduras, agricultural credits are given to programmes and schemes that protect and conserve valuable soil resources. Investment in filters or other technical equipment used for the prevention of pollution in the industrial, agricultural, forest, or other commercial sectors may be deducted from income tax, and such equipment is also exempt from import duties and sales tax (UNEP, 1995b).

Some countries, including Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Chile, have incorporated estimates of the degradation and loss of their natural resources into their national accounting systems. For methodological reasons, these estimates usually are not incorporated into the financial estimates of economic development. The fact that indicators such as soil erosion or deforestation are presented together with financial estimates of economic growth highlights the growing interest in the region in evaluating the costs of natural resource degradation. (See Box 3.16.)

Public Participation and Education

Non-governmental organizations increasingly participate in the formulation of policies, and some Governments are turning over the management of protected natural areas to NGOs and grassroots groups. Mexico, Colombia, and Chile have passed new laws requiring Governments to establish environmental planning committees with broad social representation at the provincial or local levels (WRI, 1995).

The work of NGOs has been crucial in the creation and management of protected areas in Costa Rica, of biosphere reserves in Mexico, and of the Atlantic Forest Biosphere Reserve in Brazil. In some countries, NGOs have also been important driving forces in the implementation of recycling programmes and in the promotion of alternative sources of energy.

One such example is the Isiboro Secure National Park in El Beni, Bolivia. Most of the park's territory is located in territory traditionally occupied by Indian communities who, after negotiations with the Government, began administering the park in 1992. In other countries, such as Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and Costa Rica, Governments have turned to NGOs to help manage national parks and other protected areas. The Calakmul Bioreserve in Mexico's south-eastern state of Campeche is one example of such NGO participation (WRI, 1995).

Environmental education programmes are growing at all levels in the region, and the incorporation of an environmental perspective into traditional educational curricula is widespread in the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of education. Many LAC universities now offer graduate courses in environmental sciences, ecology, and natural resource management.

Environmental Information

A great deal of data and information exists in the LAC region on the state of the environment and natural resources. Most countries have completed either national State of the Environment reports or environmental profiles in some form. (See Table 3.2.) These reports generally include an inventory of natural resources, a summary of the state of the environment, and, in some cases, policies and strategies for natural resource use and conservation. Most countries in the region provided national reports for UNCED in 1992. However, few regularly or periodically publish State of the Environment reports, with the exception of Chile, Mexico, and Venezuela. As a result, there is a lack of continuity and cohesion in environmental monitoring and reporting. Much of the information produced is consequently underused and does not adequately contribute to environmental decision-making and policy setting in the region (CIAT/UNEP, 1995).

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