Governments around the world are feeling increasing pressure to do more in the battle against climate change, and Latin America is no exception. The region is coming to grips with being not only critical for natural resources, but also among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Latin America: Rich in Natural Resources that Matter
When it comes to an array of natural resources that are both essential and fragile, Latin America reigns supreme. It contains 25% of the world’s remaining forests. It also has 25% of the planet’s arable land. Latin America holds 30% of Earth’s water resources. And then there’s biodiversity. Of the word’s ten most biodiverse countries, six of them are in Latin America, including Brazil (#1), Colombia (#2), Mexico (#5), Peru (#6), Ecuador (#9), and Venezuela (#10)
You’ve no doubt heard the Amazon rainforest referred to as ‘Earth’s lungs’, and for good reason – the Amazon produces about 20% of the world’s oxygen. But in terms of climate change, the more important planetary role it plays is the carbon dioxide it absorbs and stores—to the tune of 140 billion tons. If the Amazon rainforest were burned in its entirety and all that carbon released into the atmosphere, it would be the equivalent of 140 years of emissions from all human activity.
Climate Vulnerability Throughout Latin America
The impacts of climate change throughout Latin America do vary, but primarily come in the form of longer and drier droughts, more wildfires, increased severe weather events, and shifting rainfall patterns. Many of Latin America’s countries lack the financial resources to fight global warming and climate change.
A river in Paraguay runs dry during a drought
Caribbean island nations face two immediate threats from global warming and climate change. They not only become smaller as sea levels rise, but also bear the brunt of severe weather events in the form of hurricanes.
In spite of 30% of the world’s freshwaters flowing through parts of Latin America (primarily the Amazon basin), those waters aren’t evenly distributed. There are parts of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia where the only available supply of freshwater comes from tropical and subtropical glaciers. Global warming causes them to melt faster, and when they’re gone, they’re gone for good. This means the people who live there will have no choice but to migrate away from those areas.
Latin America’s Biggest Opportunity: Agriculture and Forests
Although Latin America is responsible for only 16% of the world’s agricultural exports, the fact a region accounting for only 7% of the world’s GDP has accomplished this is impressive. It comes into sharper focus when you realize what comes from Latin America: 80% of the world’s bananas, 60% of all coffee, 36% of the world’s soybeans, and 30% of its meat.
The question then becomes whether Latin America can continue along its pathway of agricultural expansion in ways that don’t exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions. Burning down rainforests to raise water-intensive livestock is not helpful. It’s fast and easy, but the ultimate price paid in climate change will be far too high.
Some countries are doing a better job of fighting deforestation than others. Colombia, for example, undertook an extensive reforestation program at the turn of the millennia that has added tens of thousands of hectares to its natural forest reserves.
Brazil, on the other hand, has all but abandoned any attempts to curtail the destruction of its Amazon resources. Granted, the virtually lawless Amazon region is difficult to control regardless of intention, but the callous disregard of president Jair Bolsonaro will have long-lasting effects on the country.
The good news is that there are plenty of options for expanding agricultural activity throughout Latin America while at the same time keeping production sustainable. Obviously, the agriculture industry is going to keep growing, and the developed world can’t force it to stop. Not only would it be morally wrong, it would be totally ineffective.
What we can do is help Latin America take a leadership role in developing smartly through more sustainable agriculture and land use. But it takes real effort, and it takes money to shift things in the right direction.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has worked with partners in Colombia to promote sustainable ranching on the largest scale ever seen anywhere in Latin America. TNC also has active sustainable ranching projects in Mexico and Brazil. And they work. The World Bank’s $8 billion Climate Investment Funds helps countries fund climate change action around the world, and 21% of it goes to 13 different Latin American countries.
Perhaps the most promising recent development of all came out of the Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by the US on Earth Day (and attended by Latin American heads of state from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico). It’s a financial tool called Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance (LEAF) to incentivize the end of tropical deforestation by 2030.
LEAF already has $1 billion in funding (and is seeking more). Countries can receive money for stopping and reversing deforestation, based on the real action and results they achieve. It’s not about what any country has or hasn’t done in the past, it’s about what they’re going to do right now to turn things around, and that means net zero deforestation in Latin America.
With programs like TNC and LEAF taking proactive steps to implement sustainable agriculture in Latin America, it is hoped that the region will take a leadership role in reducing environmental destruction and fighting climate change.