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Human induced forest fires have become one of the most serious environmental problems in Latin America and the Caribbean, especially in Central America and tropical South America. The fires are started to clear land for agriculture, and promote the growth of new grass for livestock.

Figure 2: Fires in the rainforest areas of Brazil, Bolivia, southern Peru and northern Paraguay on 7 October 2004

Source: NASA Satellite Photo

Between June and September 2004, more than 137 000 fire hotspots were recorded in Brazil, especially in the Amazon and the Cerrados, gradually moving northeast (PROARCO 2004). In Bolivia at least 25 000 fires were recorded between June and September. At one point, smoke covered an area of about 648 000 km2 - 59 per cent of Bolivia 's territory. All the countries in Central America also experience this problem. It is especially serious in Guatemala, where it is estimated that fires affected 300 000 ha during 2004, especially in the Peten rainforest (López 2004). In absolute terms, Honduras follows (with 53 000 ha of affected forestland) and Costa Rica (40 000 ha). However, in relative terms, fires are also a serious problem in El Salvador and Belize.

Although fires occur naturally and in some ecosystems are an essential part of the cycle of diversity and renewal, excessive fires reduce biodiversity by killing animals and destroying their breeding and nesting sites, their food sources and ultimately - if conversion is permanent - their habitat (SCBD/UNEP 2001).

Fire may have negative effects on regional, continental and global climates. In the case of the Amazon, fires, the loss of forestland and spreading pastures lead to an increase in wind and average temperatures, while evapotranspiration decreases, leading to local climate changes, such as changes in rainfall (Andreae and others 2004). In Brazil, it is estimated that 74.5 per cent of CO2 emissions and 14 per cent of CH4 emissions are due to land-use change and forestry. Almost 60 per cent of the net annual CO2 emissions due to land use change and forestry (1988-94) were from the Amazon (Ministry of Science and Technology 2004). Finally, particulates from fires cause air pollution over thousands of kilometres. For instance, smoke from the Amazon fires reaches the South Atlantic coast and southeast Brazil (Escobar 2004).

Attempts at fire fighting and the introduction of practices that prohibit or regulate field burning have revealed several problems: farmers resist changing their farming practices; there are shortcomings in monitoring and inspection due to limited financial and human resources in environmental and farming agencies; and enforcement by the justice system is lax (Cochrane 2002).

Box 2: Coasts, mangrove forests and coral reefs in the wider Caribbean

Reefs at Risk Threat Index in the Caribbean.
Source: Burke and Maidens 2004

The Caribbean's coral reefs have more than 500 species of coral spread over around 26 000 km2 of Caribbean water. About two-thirds of the reefs are at risk, especially in the eastern and southern Caribbean, the Greater Antilles and Yucatan, where the diversity of species is decreasing and ranges are diminishing. The principal impacts are caused by coastal development, effluents (especially from agricultural activities), overfishing and tourism.

Coral reefs provide net annual revenues in the Caribbean valued at US$310 million from fishing, more than US$2 billion from dive tourism, and various ecological services such as shoreline protection. However, only 20 per cent of the reefs are within marine protected areas, and only four per cent of them are rated as effectively managed (Burke and Maidens 2004). Mangrove deforestation has adverse effects on coral reefs and reef fish communities, including some species that are commercially important, such as the rainbow parrotfish (Scarus guacamaia).

The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (MBRS), endorsed by the Central American Environment and Development Commission, aims to improve protection of the unique and vulnerable ecosystems that make up the MBRS. It has four components:

  • Protection of marine areas;
  • Regional environmental monitoring, and an environmental information system;
  • Sustainable use of the MBRS (including sustainable fisheries management and sustainable coastal and marine tourism); and
  • Environmental education and public awareness.

Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico are involved in this project, supported by the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility.

Thirteen Caribbean nations have also established a joint strategy to reduce the amount of pollutants in waterways that flow into the ocean, in the framework of a GEF project on Integrating Watershed and Coastal Area Management in Small Island Developing States of the Caribbean (IWCAM).

Sources: Burke and Maidens 2004, Mumby and others 2004, UNEP 2005

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