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Spotlight on the Environment: Latin America & Caribbean

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Rainforest with butterfly

The Latin America & Caribbean region is broadly on track to halve the proportion of people without access to an improved source of water and sanitation facilities by 2015. However, the region lost a large amount of forest cover to agriculture between 1990 and 2005, making deforestation and loss of biodiversity a major cause for concern. Also, the largest agricultural losses from climate change are likely to occur in parts of Latin America, making adaptation to climate change a high priority.

The link between environment and health

Fig 2.12 - Environmental disease burden in DALY

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green arrowThis map shows the region’s burden of environment-related disease in terms of disability-adjusted life years (DALYs). One DALY = one full year of healthy life lost. 
green arrowStudies show that Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador, El Salvador and Peru have health costs from environmental risks that range from 2 to 3 percent of GDP. In these countries, limited water and sanitation access, poor hygiene that leads to water borne diseases and air pollution pose the main environment-related health risks.
green arrowThe region is broadly on track to halve the proportion of people without access to an improved source of water and sanitation facilities by 2015. 
green arrowThe region has a high rate of urban electrification (98 percent), but over 34 percent of its rural population lacks access to electricity and may be dependent on biomass fuels, which affect health through indoor air pollution.
Climate change and Latin America
round bullet Climate change is often seen as a “future” problem, but by 2020-29—just 12 years from now—temperature changes are likely to significantly affect Latin America. Avoiding the damages of large temperature changes in 2090-99 requires action now.
round bullet Adaptation to climate change in agriculture is a high priority in the region, especially in countries like Mexico which may face very large productivity losses.
round bullet Defensive infrastructure and micro-insurance are important to cope with the adverse effects of climate change. Countries likely to face high risk of flood disaster include Honduras and Jamaica. 
round bullet Weather-index insurance, now being piloted in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru, will go a long way to assist farmers.
round bullet Being allowed to trade forest carbon credits in world carbon markets in exchange for preserving forests would strongly benefit many countries in the region.
Environmental sustainability 
green arrowThe region has the highest natural wealth per capita among developing regions, at $17,000 per capita. Subsoil assets play a major role in the region’s natural wealth.
green arrowMineral rich countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela are not saving enough to offset resource depletion and environmental degradation.
green arrowWater resources are abundant in most of the region. However, regional and seasonal water scarcity is a growing problem in Mexico, the Caribbean and the northeast of Brazil. Water pollution has created serious water quality problems in some areas of all countries. 
green arrowThere is scope for developing renewable energy sources (solar, wind and hydro power; geothermal energy; and biofuels).
Saving Latin America's Forests

Deforestation, mainly from conversion to agricultural land, has been very high in Latin America, which lost 7 percent of its forest cover between 1990 and 2005 (a total area of 47,000 sq km). Brazil lost the largest forest area in the world in a single country in this period (31,000 sq km), and ranks among the top ten global emitters of carbon dioxide when emissions from land use change are taken into account.

A new carbon credit program—Reducing Emissions in Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD)—under negotiation within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) could provide the right incentives to avoid forest loss. As Chomitz (2007) notes, clearing a hectare of dense rainforest in the Brazilian Amazon for crop or pasture land could release 500 tons of CO2. The present value of the cleared land is $100-$200. At a carbon price of $10/ton of CO2, forest worth $5000 is being destroyed for land use 1/20th as valuable.

 Photo credit: Curt Carnemark

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