What Needs to be Done to Reverse Latin America’s Harsh Environmental Reality

By Gustavo A Maranges on April 27, 2022

photo: Bill Hackwell

The World Meteorology Organization just released a report about the state of the climate in Latin America and the Caribbean from 1998 to 2020. The results are just alarming and expose how Latin America is one of the most affected regions due to climate change. Even when it is a worthy document, it does not say anything we have not come to realize already. However, the report is the perfect reason to go a step further and ask ourselves why is this happening. Is nobody alarmed because of it?

Over the last few years, climate phenomena have swept across the region with tremendous consequences for people. It is not necessary to search for historical records when the damages caused by hurricanes Iota and Eta in Central America, the pouring rains in southern Brazil, the drought in the Caribbean, or the recent floods in Venezuela are still fresh. According to the report, over 312,000 people have died and another 277 million have been affected by climatic events. This reality is shocking, but it could be worse if we count all those who have also suffered the following economic hardships, even when living miles away from the impacted zone.

The increase of regional average temperature by almost 1 Celsius degree is among the most evident and immediate consequences of climate change. It might not seem that  important but it takes meaning when compared to the Paris Agreement’s established limit of 2 Celsius degrees. This situation affects the regional ecosystem while posing a major threat ever since it became clear that it also raises oceans’ temperatures. Therefore, the chances of being affected by hurricanes and tropical storms also go up and these storms are not only more frequent but stronger and more devastating.

The highest temperature record in the Atlantic was registered in 2020 when 31 meteorologic phenomena were reported. It means ten more than in 2019 and almost twice the 2018 total. Numbers do not lie. Higher temperatures also affect the polar ice caps of the southern extreme of the region, which alters the normal development of local wildlife and economic activities.

The second-most-important issue is drought, which is affecting important ecosystems like southern Amazonia, large extensions in Mexico and Central America, and the Caribbean. This last case is among the world regions with more hydrologic tension. This situation is devastating for a continent like Latin America, where agrarian business is one of the main economic activities, and where millions of people depend on family agriculture to survive.

All this information might seem plain figures for many people, but for those who live in this region, it means hunger, poverty, displacement, deaths, and more inequity. Taking into account the urgency of the matter and the disaster that is already taking place, it is necessary to act now. Why isn’t this happening? Why the Amazonia’s resources are depleted faster every year? Why are we still poisoning water flows and high-quality soils to feed the mining industry or cattle industry?

The main reason for this parsimony is economic interest. Natural resources are predicated by local and transnational mega-corporations that care little about being environment-friendly. These enterprises bribe or blackmail public officials and governments to loot natural resources while taking advantage of the cheap local labor force. Private control over natural resources is a common trait of Latin America’s economies. Few are the countries and the sectors where those resources are used to solve people’s main needs. This is precisely one of the missing points of the above-mentioned report.

Many people may think I am suggesting not exploiting natural resources. Although it is an applicable measure, I think it should only be used as a last resort alternative. The problem here is that those who benefit from Latin America’s natural resources do not care about the environment or people. They just follow the neoliberal thesis, placing profits above everything else.

Neoliberalism has worsened environmental issues all around the world, but for third-world countries like those in our region, it has become a vicious cancer. It destroys everything necessary for healthy living without even thinking about consequences inthe next 20 to 50 years. They create too little compared to all the negative consequences they produce.

US and European companies and banks have a major role in all these projects since they are generally the main investors. They should be responsible for keeping safe one of the main ecosystems of the world is not just the responsibility of Latin America People, but also our North American and European fellows.  In the US it is an open secret that fracking for oil shale has not only created earthquakes in areas not known for them but it has poisoned drinking and plant irrigation water. The profit margin of oil over water is greater so that is what rules in the neo liberal model.

People protesting in Brazil, or Central American countries do not go to the streets to face police because they like to be beaten. They do not oppose mining or big infrastructure projects because they are anti-development actors or they like to be threatened or killed. They do it because what corporations present as development is just covered pillage that left little benefits to people. Those demonstrators only demand sustainable exploitation of the environment and a management that balances environmental, social, and economic profits. The neoliberal logic must stop because it goes against humankind’s existence.

Many Latin America governments have said to be working to get the necessary balance, but it hardly ever comes true. Recently, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean announced it will support the Escazu Agreement, which is the first environmental agreement in the region. The treaty was signed on March 4th, 2018 and just came into force on April 22, 2021, after 12 countries ratified it.

Among those 12 countries, there is only one Amazonian country, Bolivia. Meanwhile, Brazil, Colombia, Perú, Ecuador, and Venezuela remain out, which means that Escazu is not even able to guarantee the sustainable management of the main regional ecosystem. Looking at this, it is evident that local just a few local governments are doing something to tackle this threat, while the major actors who don’t live on these are lands still refusing to cooperate.

The only chance we have to make a difference is to intensify the struggle for the environment, which means struggling for our lives. Maybe 20 years ago, this was seen as a future issue, but this future is today’s reality. It is not anymore the next generation’s issue. At the same time it is not only a matter for the people of Latin America since climate change does not respect borders. This crisis has to be addressed as everybody’s priority right now. We all need to join forces with land defenders, that are primarily indigenous led, throughout the region. The governments of the so called developed world must be stopped from spending  billions on war and rescuing corporations while our only house is falling into pieces. What is more important now, spending almost $8 billion on a war in Europe or investing at least half of that money to foster environment-friendly industries?

It is abundantly clear about the causes of this situation. As long as we keep splitting efforts on patching solutions and turning the blind eye to the real cause, we will be just be spinning our wheels while the situation steadily worsens. The time to act has come once and for all, and now we really know who is the one to be defeated.

Source: Resumen Latinoamericano – English