Environmental challenges in Latin America have never been greater

Recent events have highlighted the many ongoing threats that are hammering Latin America’s environment from all sides; overcoming them will require extraordinary and unprecedented levels of effort and cooperation.

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Events in recent weeks and months have underlined, in a most brutal fashion, the many ongoing threats that are hammering Latin America’s environment from all sides. Most notably, the hurricanes that have pummelled Puerto Rico, and many other parts of the Caribbean and Central America, provide evidence of the perils of a changing global climate in which extreme weather events are set to become more and more frequent (and, indeed, extreme!).

However, it’s not just the climate that is waging war on Latin America’s environment and the people whose livelihoods depend on it. Attacks on indigenous peoples – who are not only the historical and rightful inhabitants of areas such as the Amazon rainforest, but are also widely recognised as the most effective stewards of these crucial ecosystems – seem to have intensified in recent times as communities come into direct conflict with powerful oil, mining, and agribusiness interests.

On top of this, several national governments have embarked on a worrying and devastating spree of rolling back laws and regulations which were implemented to protect the Amazon and other vital regions. Brazil’s new centre-right government of Michel Temer has led the way on this, but so too the leftwing government of Evo Morales in Bolivia has recently unveiled plans to remove the special protected status of the TIPNIS national park, while successive governments of varying political stripes in Peru have been accused of routinely ignoring the negative environmental and social impacts of developing oil and gas fields in the Andean nation’s Amazon regions.

All this is set against the wider backdrop of the growing impacts of climate breakdown across the continent. Unprecedented droughts, floods, wildfires and melting glaciers are imposing themselves on Latin America, with disastrous implications for the sustainable development of the region as they interrupt food and water supplies, inflict catastrophic damage on cities and vital infrastructure, and tear at the socio-economic fabric of numerous Latin American countries. Analyses of the global impacts of climate change, both now and in the future, consistently cite Latin America as being one of the regions most vulnerable to these impacts.

Still, there are reasons to be cheerful. Latin American countries (led, most notably, by the likes of Costa Rica, Chile and Uruguay) are ploughing on ahead with impressive plans to boost the contribution of renewable energy to national electricity grids. This is no doubt helped by the fact that Latin Americans rank among the most concerned people in the world about climate change, and so ambitious policies to address key sustainability issues are a much easier sell to the public.

Not that they would ever settle for anything less: activists and civil society groups have a strong presence and voice when it comes to keeping up public awareness and interest in these issues, and piling the pressure on authorities to respond to these concerns – even when this means increasingly putting their lives on the line to defend the environment. While the increasing violence against environmental activists in Latin America (and indeed around the world) is reprehensible, it points to the determination of a continent to keep standing up for its environment and the rights of those who defend it.

Overcoming Latin America’s environmental challenges will require an extraordinary effort and unprecedented levels of cooperation across different communities, countries, supranational organisations, and sectors of society. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can provide a meaningful framework for this, and indeed work is already well underway to tackle the region’s environmental, social and developmental challenges in conjunction with one another. While there will inevitably be setbacks along the way, Latin America will never give up its fight to overcome whatever environmental challenges are thrown its way.