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Latin America and Environmentalism

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By Carla Suárez

· 7 min read

The richest region in the world for biodiversity, Latin America is at risk of damaging its extremely diverse ecosystem. Indeed, if its current leaders do not put aside their ideological differences and investing in projects and ratify polices for sustainable development the consequences of climate change on the Latin American biodiversity will be disastrous.

From the glacier mountains and the dry deserts of the Andes to the warm blue seas of the Caribbean and the tropical rainforests of the Amazon, Latin America truly has it all. Renowned for the beauty of its landscapes and the warmth of its people, the region attracts millions of tourists every year, as well as investors from all over the world. As a continent in a state of development, Latin American nations seek both economic growth and environmental protection, but these two aims can often come into conflict with one another. Consequently, governments need to be more strategic when it comes to decision-making and the implementation of sustainable policies. Indeed, insuring future economic growth, as well as environmental protection is a primary necessity as the whole continent economy thrives on the beauty and abundance of its biodiversity.

Costa Rica pledged in 2015 to achieve carbon neutrality by 2021 and successfully reduced its carbon emissions to this day as 80% of its energy comes from renewable sources such as hydroelectric dams. Uruguay took the lead in implementing the Paris Agreement and was commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council in 2017 to work with other countries in the region to seek a legally binding environmental treaty.

Latin American and Caribbean nations are running against the clock in terms of environmental policy decision-making

Thus everything seemed to be heading in the right direction for greater environmentalism in the region. Accordingly, the "Escazu Agreement" was signed by 14 Latin American and Caribbean countries on September 27, 2018 at the UN headquarters in New York. It has been considered as a historic treaty since its foundation as it gives environmental rights the same status as human rights. The agreement is a multilateral treaty elaborated by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) that aims at protecting both the rights of environmental activists and the heart of the ecosystem. The Escazu Agreement was first established during negotiation rounds in early 2018 by 24 Latin American nations. out of which 17, including Brazil, have signed and ratified the agreement since its establishment in September 2018. The Escazu agreement is similar to the Aarhus Convention, ratified by the European Union 1998, as it grants public rights on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in environmental matters to its citizens.

However, the establishment of the Escazu Agreement in the region is much more complicated than in the case of the Aarhus Convention within the EU. Indeed, there is a substantial lack of political union in the ideologically divided subcontinent whereas economic organisations as numerous. The challenge nowadays is to establish environmental democracy in a region where political stability is highly volatile due to the absence of political union, and where a strong ideological divide enforced by the global powers, the U.S, (China and Russia) has taken place. As the Cold War is subconsciously still present in the decision-making sphere of the region, along with the rising growth of inversions in the exploitation of energetic resources that can be found in the subcontinent, only keep their own economic interests at heart when influencing Latin American governments and therefore impeach any progress on sustainability as they are major investors in the region.

On the other hand, the only favourable external investment sources Latin America receives come from the EU and its developed cooperation plans across the region that focuses mainly on sustainable agriculture. The implementation of the Escazu Agreement would lead Latin American and Caribbean countries towards greater environmental protection, and impactful changes on the daily life of its citizens. It will also facilitate the energetic transition from fossil fuel reliance towards greener renewable sources of energy in the future.

Home to six of the ten richest countries in terms of biodiversity in the world, and fostering an extensive amount of wildlife species, Latin America today has an increasing quantity of animal species as well as plants species that are at risk of extinction and heavily threatened by the deforestation of the amazon rainforest. The issue thas massively grown in the years with the wildfires that have ravaged more than a million hectares of the surface occupied by the Amazon.

Since Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, the deforestation rate in Brazil has dramatically risen to 80% more losses, compared to the deforestation rate of June 2018. The most disrupting fact about these fires is that they have been initiated by humans. Jair Bolsonaro president of Brazil, as well as his counterpart, Evo Morales, both gave consent to cattle ranchers in their countries to set the Amazon on fire through the infamous yearly practice of queimadas, a tradition perpetrated by cattle farmers in order to prepare crops for cattle ranch. Determined to end wildlife protection in Brazil, Bolsonaro has threatened multiple times withdraw from the Paris Agreement since he rose to power, inducing fear and uncertainty for environmental defenders both locally and regionally. His latest actions have raised concerns in the international community. Led by the president of France, Emmanuel Macron who rightly called the Amazon burning an "international crisis", G7 members held an emergency summit in Biarritz in late August and pledged to fund the recovery of the Amazon with a $20 million dollars donation as well as a long-term initiative to protect the rainforest. The donation was initially rejected by Bolsonaro, who decided to go into a diplomatic conflict with Macron accusing him of meddling in Brazilian State Affairs. Equally alarming is the lack of measure taken by the Bolivian state to extinguish the fires as president Morales refused to declare it an international emergency after week of protest across the nation.

The irreversible damage that the Amazon has suffered lately will lead to severe water stress in the upcoming future. It will only accelerate global warming and climate change destroying the Amazon rainforest, considered to be "the lungs of the world" due to its fundamental role in the cyclic process of evapotranspiration that is crucial to the sustainability of our planet. The fact that the Amazon forest is shared by nine different countries also complicates the matter as any issue within the Amazon is a multilateral issue. Any damage made to the Amazon has a significant impact on the general condition of the Earth. The international concern surrounding the deforestation of the Amazon should be directly tackled by Brazil's neighbouring countries as well. Unfortunately, the great ideological divide existing in the region, along with the significant corruption present in the political spheres of these countries and the considerable disparity in the balance of political power held by each one of these, blocks the possibility of making any progress in the field. Under the leadership of Bolsonaro and Morales, not only is the Amazon forest at stake as they keep on denying the magnitude of the ecocide that has been perpetrated under their watch, but they also threaten the great advancements that have been made in the political sphere, such as the Paris Agreement and Escazu Agreement, towards higher environmental protection and democracy. The focus on commercial and economic growth needs to be targeted towards the creation of a sustainable economy. Maintaining these agreements at the core of the decision-making process should be a binding rule for nations in the region as preserving the great biodiversity of Latin America is key to achieve environmental equality and equilibrium on a global scale.

Latin American and Caribbean nations are running against the clock in terms of environmental policy decision-making. Therefore, it is necessary to act swiftly in order to make substantial change happen regionally, which can immediately create a positive impact in the international scene. The first step has already been taken with the enactment of the Escazu Agreement, but there is still a long way ahead in the negotiation process to achieve environmental equality in the region and this is where countries can either make it or break it. Latin American governments must act to halt biodiversity loss as soon as possible in order to achieve ecological sustainability, environmental justice and sustainable economic growth.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem. This article was also published as part of the 20th Edition of KCL Dialogue.

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About the author

Carla Suárez is a Press and Information Section Trainee at the European External Action Service. ​ During her BA in European studies at​ ​King's College London she was also involved in numerous media related jobs and societies. She is also interested and committed to the environment.

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