By Humberto Márquez
This management “must be effective, participatory, and based on environmental and climate justice, with protection for the environment and environmental and indigenous activists,” biologist Vilisa Morón, president of the Venezuelan Ecology Society, told IPS.
Latin America and the Caribbean is home to almost half of the world’s biodiversity and 60 percent of terrestrial life, and has more than 8.8 million square kilometers of protected areas, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
It is thus the most protected region in the world, with the combined protected area greater than the total area of Brazil or the sum of the territories of Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Paraguay, from largest to smallest. The leaders in percentage of protected territory are the French overseas departments and Venezuela.
The second great environmental challenge in the region for 2023 and the following years lies in the extractivist economies, which run counter to the region’s responsibility to the planet as a major reserve of biodiversity.
THE extractivist economy involves the mining of metals in the Andes region, the Guyanese massif and the Amazon rainforest, and the exploitation of fossil fuels in most South American countries and Mexico.
Extractivism, plus the pollution in urban areas and in rivers and other sources of fresh water, weighs like a stone on the region’s transition towards a green economy that would rethink the management of these areas as a challenge, says Morón.
Other difficulties for the defense of the environment in the region are the destruction of the habitat, livelihoods and cultures of indigenous peoples, and the murders of environmental leaders and activists.
Deforestation, a key issue
A major problem in Latin America, and particularly in South America, is deforestation of land for agriculture and livestock, or as a consequence of mining.
According to the report “Amazonia Viva 2022” by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), 18 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been completely lost, another 17 percent is degraded, and in the first half of 2022 the damage continued to grow.
The loss of the Amazon jungle can directly affect the livelihoods of 47 million people who live in that ecosystem which forms part of eight nations, including 511 different indigenous groups (totalling more than one million individuals), as well as 10 percent of the biodiversity of the planet, said the WWF.
At the fifth Amazon Summit of Indigenous Peoples, held in September 2022 in Lima, the Amazon Network of Georeferenced Socio-environmental Information (RAISG) presented “Amazonia against the clock: A Regional Assessment on Where and How to Protect 80% by 2025”.
Brazil is the main focus of the deforestation, because 62 percent of the Amazon is located in that country, where the jungle is rapidly being cleared for agriculture and livestock, as well as the devastation caused by fires.
For this reason, environmentalists around the world breathed a sigh of relief on Jan. 1, when moderate leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took over as president from the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, who turned a deaf ear to calls to curb deforestation and favored the expansion of the agricultural frontier.
Brazil “has shown that it is possible to reduce deforestation by implementing clear policies,” said researcher Paulo Barreto, co-founder of the Amazon Institute of Man and the Environment (IMAZON), based in the northern city of Belém do Pará, from which he spoke to IPS.
Barreto has faith in the environment minister appointed by Lula, Marina Silva, who already held that position when Lula was president, between 2003 and 2008.
Among the necessary policies that challenge the environmental agenda, according to Barreto, is the application of protective laws and, at the same time, addressing the social and economic issue represented by half a million smallholders in the Amazon and the Cerrado ecosystem.
The Cerrado is a more open forest, extending over 1.9 million square kilometers to the east of the Amazon basin.
According to the expert, policies aimed at reforestation and forest recovery “can be part of the solution in generating jobs and income, if, for example, payment is made for avoiding deforestation,” an initiative that he sees as positive in terms of bringing in foreign aid.
Barreto welcomed Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s launch of a new fund and new cooperation programs in the region to save the Amazon rainforest, based on extensive accumulated experience.
Words and mining
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says the restoration of 20 million hectares of degraded ecosystems in the region could generate 23 billion dollars in benefits over 50 years.
Peruvian biologist Constantino Aucca said that “In our countries and in general in the world there is a lack of political will to protect and recover our natural areas. More action is needed and fewer words,” he told IPS from New York, where he is staying temporarily.
In November Aucca received the Champions of the Earth award, the highest environmental honor given by the United Nations, in recognition of 35 years of work to restore the high Andean forests in 15 nature reserves in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru.
The Association of Andean Ecosystems that he heads has led the planting of three million trees in Peru and as many in neighboring countries, but Aucca insists that “much more is needed. Climate change is coming hard and fast and the Andes are already facing severe problems.”
“Enough egos, we need honest leaders who do not allow their heads to be turned by power. In some countries in our region a mining permit is granted in three weeks while studies for a protected natural area take five years,” he complained.
Unregulated illegal gold mining in southern Venezuela, eastern Colombia and northern Brazil is another major environmental challenge in the region, which combines the destruction of the natural environment – the habitat of native peoples – with the contamination of water and soil, Morón said.
Another problem is the presence of irregular armed actors, such as groups of garimpeiros (illegal miners) from Brazil, criminal “syndicates” from Venezuela or remnants of the guerrillas and other illegal armed groups from Colombia.
Morón stressed that illegal mining, bolstered by weak institutions in the region, as well as the oil industry that is active in most South American nations, is a constant source of environmental and social liabilities.
Drought, crime and indigenous people
In Argentina, three years of drought in most of the country have severely hit the indebted economy and public accounts, along with more than 6,700 fires that affected some 2.3 million hectares in the same period.
It is an urgent issue for Argentina, a global agricultural powerhouse whose economy depends on food exports to its clients, mainly Brazil, the United States and East Asia.
In addition, a serious regional problem is the murder of human rights defenders, including activists for the environment and the rights of indigenous peoples.
Of the 1,733 murders of environmental activists documented between 2012 and 2021 around the world, 68 percent were committed in Latin America and the Caribbean, and Colombia was the most dangerous country for them between 2020 and 2021, accounting for 33 of the 200 murders documented in that period by the Global Witness organization.
In this sense, the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, known as the Escazú Agreement because it was adopted in that Costa Rican city in March 2018, has a key role to play.
The agreement, signed by 25 countries and ratified by 14, seeks to ensure “adequate and effective measures to recognize, protect and promote all the rights of human rights defenders in environmental matters, including their right to life, personal integrity, freedom of opinion and expression.”
The sources interviewed also agreed on the need to give priority to indigenous peoples and local communities in all pending environmental management in the region, since their habitat is directly at stake in the short term.
The Escazú Agreement also provides an effective way of taking care of the territory and paying attention to the social debt that has accompanied the many decades of environmental degradation.