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Latin America and the Caribbean - Atlas of our changing environment is a United Nations Environment Programme publication which aims to provide "an overview of the region's environmental issues and offers a cautionary note as to the reality and magnitude of the problems involved. Viewing the satellite imagery lends a sense of urgency to the issue and serves as a reminder of the responsibilities that present generations have both to themselves and to future generations." [1]

Latin America and the Caribbean is a region with a rich natural environment. However, this environment has been deteriorating. As shown in Atlas of a changing environment, the most acute problems facing the region are accelerating urbanization without adequate planning, climate change, deforestation, land use change, loss of biodiversity and degradation of coastal areas.

The state of the region’s environment: principal findings Edit

  • The growth of cities: The absence of proper urban and land-use planning has created major problems in the cities of the region. Latin American cities are the most compact in the world, have the highest-density urban centres and present major challenges such as waste management and wastewater treatment.
  • Land Degradation: Although the region still has areas of lush vegetation, and houses one of the world’s foremost reserves of biocapacity, land degradation – including desertification and the erosion of soils and coastlines – is evident throughout the continent. Desertification currently affects more than 600 million hectares in arid, semiarid and subhumid biomes in the region.
  • Profound changes in agriculture: Land for agricultural use increased at a rate of 0.13% per year between 2003 and 2005, resulting in the loss of forests and other habitats. This change has been accompanied by an even more profound one: major food crops such as potatoes, cassava, rice and wheat have decreased on a per capita basis, while there has been an increase in crops used for industry, fuel and fodder.
  • Mining: Of the world’s regions, Latin America devotes the largest share (23%) of its budgets to exploration by major mining companies. More than US$10 billion dollars are invested every year in mining activities in the region, with Chile accounting for approximately 20% of the total.
  • Freshwater: The region accounts for more than 30% of all available fresh water on the planet; nearly 40% of the region’s water resources are renewable. The pressure exerted by agricultural use has increased steadily since mid-1990; total irrigated area doubled between 1961 and 1990.
  • Glaciers: According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), most of the tropical glaciers in the region will melt between 2020 and 2030. South American glaciers are a vital source of water for domestic, agricultural and industrial use.
  • Coastal development: A large percentage of the population and of economic activities are concentrated in the region’s coastal areas. Tourism, unplanned urban sprawl, urban and industrial wastewater, and aquaculture are among the factors responsible for the degradation of coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, wetlands and coral reefs.
  • Forests: Deforestation is widespread and, in some places, rampant. According to FAO, Latin America and the Caribbean lost approximately 43,500 km2 of forests per year between 2000 and 2005. This corresponds to an annual loss greater than the surface area of Switzerland. The most severe deforestation is occurring in South America, particularly in the Brazilian Amazon, although recent efforts have reduced the annual rate of deforestation in this ecosystem.
  • Natural disasters: The number of people affected by floods, droughts and other hydro-meteorological events has increased in the region since 2000. Between 1995 and 2006, approximately 20 million people were affected by such occurrences – particularly climatic events such as hurricanes.

Related topics Edit

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  1., Press Release, (undated),, 14 December 2010

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