A.J. Gabaldon, Senior Advisor, Ecology and Environment, Inc., Caracas, Venezuela




Development, sustainability, ecology, social, economy, politics, Latin America, Caribbean, indexes, poverty, demography, institutions and reforms




1. Introduction

2. Approach to a Conceptual Framework for Analysis

      2.1. Ecological Sustainability

      2.2. Social Sustainability

      2.3. Economic Sustainability

      2.4. Political Sustainability

      2.5. Recapitulation

3. Barriers to Sustainable Development

      3.1. Poverty

      3.2. Unsustainable Management of Natural resources

      3.3. Negative Institutional Environment

      3.4. High Population Growth

      3.5. Lack of Social Consensus on the Meaning of Sustainable Development

4. Towards the 21st Century





Ecological sustainability: The capacity of an ecosystem or a group of ecosystems to support the development of different social and economic activities without undermining the ecosystem’s conditions over time.

Social sustainability: A condition where the social strains generated within a society do not hinder the continuous enhancement of the standards of living of that society.

Economic sustainability: The capacity that a development has to maintain in order to increase income levels over time.

Political sustainability: The ability of  a system to achieve permanent institutional stability.

Pentagon of unsustainability: Five regional factors: poverty, unsustainable management of natural resources, negative institutional environment, high population growth, and lack of social consensus regarding the meaning of sustainable development.

Income poverty: The daily monetary amount received by an individual.

Human poverty: An estimate based on an index that considers the percentage of persons who die before reaching the age of 40, the percentage of illiterate adults, the people with no access to private resources, and underweight children under the age of five.

BID: Interamerican Development Bank.

CEPAL: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

LACCDE: Latin American and Caribbean Commission for Development and Environment

NMH: Netherlands Ministry of Housing

UNDP. United Nations Development Programme

UNEP: United Nations Environment Programme

WB: World Bank

WI: Wuppertal Institute

WRI: World Resources Institute




It is necessary to have a regional perspective in order to achieve sustainable development in its ecological, social, economic, and political dimensions.  However, sustainable development is not an absolute concept.  Therefore, it is necessary to have a conceptual framework for analysis, as well as some indicators and indexes, that will allow each region to know how far it is from attaining the dimensions of sustainable development. The factors that influence sustainability must be analyzed and an index to evaluate these factors must be developed.


The most serious barriers to the attainment of sustainable development are poverty, the mismanagement of natural resources, the existing institutional environment, the need—despite advances toward democratization in Latin America and the Caribbean—for reform to strengthen the civil society, demographics (population growth rates in Latin America in comparison to other countries around the world are still very high), and the absence of social consensus between the population and its leaders regarding the meaning of sustainable development.


Positive factors in the attainment of sustainable development include the increasing participation of the civil society, advances in environmental institutions, and knowledge of the regional ecology.  Considering the problems in the globalization process, the foreign debt, and the large amount of money still used for  military expenditures, international cooperation is essential now more than ever.



1. Introduction

Given the current deterioration of the planet from an environmental perspective and in terms of economic, technological, and environmental globalization, consideration of  a specific sustainable development model for a given region is not realistic. Nevertheless, there are well-founded elements for a region to have its own sustainable development strategy. The regions have positive aspects that must be recognized and used in order to develop a path to sustainability and any limitations that pose challenges must be overcome by society to attain such objective. As a result, there is the need to tackle this endeavor with relative criteria since it is not a matter of reaching globally uniform objectives nor an issue of tackling unchanging realities through previously established paths.


During the past 200 years and especially during the second half of the 20th century, the world has experienced an accelerated modernization process with unsustainable long-term growth (see Future Outlook for the Environment and Sustainable Development). The possibility of reversing this unsustainability depends on several technical, social, economic, and political factors. Strategies to attain sustainable development must include knowledge of the environment, as well as specific cultures, experience in the management of development, and an  understanding of the meaning of this new paradigm. In this sense, the conclusions of Stockholm (1972) and Rio de Janeiro (1992) can be of great use.


From the perspective of the human community, development is equivalent to progress in its economic, social, cultural, and political dimensions. The qualification of sustainability is assigned to a development when progress, with its acceptable ups and downs, meets the requirement of realization while preserving or improving the natural environment. Preservation of the natural environment equals development with ecological sustainability.


Sustainable development is not an absolute concept given the different regions of the planet. Although globalization is homogenizing the understanding of sustainable development, there are significant differences in the interpretation of its meaning and in its implementation at the regional level (see Dimensions of Sustainable Development). For example, economic progress means to possess a large amount of material goods. However, the income thresholds above which people from different parts of the world feel comfortable must be considered. Logically, an income threshold that fulfills basic needs is minimally comfortable. However, what constitutes a basic need is a very relative concept and depends on cultural factors as well as the particular economic environment or the progress status of a given society. The basic needs of a person living in New York or Vienna are not the same for a person living in a remote Andean village in South America or in a Yanomami community of the Brazilian Amazon.


The same concept applies to social well being, which is closely linked to the feeling of safety  perceived by a population. For a community in which there is a high sense of family solidarity the need to have a social security regime is mitigated.


Cultural progress can be loosely viewed as time on a road along which we can look ahead to acquire new knowledge and habits or behind to implement traditions and to appreciate history and cultural values.


Progress at this stage of human evolution is identified in terms of freedom and the respect of human rights. These are two concepts offered by democratic government systems and which are perfectible. However, one aspect that differentiates the possibility of attaining a sustainable development between regions is the wealth of natural resources available and the demand placed on those resources through economic and social activities. Regions that have an adequate balance between the availability of natural resources and the demands placed on their ecological environment, as is the case in Latin America and the Caribbean (see Figure 1), are in a more favorable position to become adjusted in time to the demands of sustainable development when compared to other regions whose balances are less advantageous from this perspective. This capacity of maneuvering is being altered due to the occurrence of global environmental problems that alter the fate of the planet as a whole. This is why it is of great importance to regional sustainability to join international forces to overcome such problems.

Figure 1. Latin America and the Caribbean

The purpose of these considerations is to emphasize the need for each region to adapt its vision of sustainable development to its own realities and requirements. In this sense, there cannot be a universal standard. In Latin America and the Caribbean, this adaptation led to the proposal of a regional strategy for sustainable development, called Our Own Agenda, during the Conference of the United Nations on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Later, in 1996, all the nations of the region subscribed to the Declaration of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia concerning sustainable development and approved an action plan.


The remainder of this paper describes the possibility of achieving sustainable development in Latin America and the Caribbean. We establish a conceptual framework for analysis, approaching sustainability from the perspective of its four essential aspects: ecological, social, economical, and political. We explain in detail the factors that differentiate these aspects by comparing them with other regions. We then present a discussion of the most significant regional barriers that interfere with sustainable development and how to overcome these barriers. We conclude with a reflection: Towards the Twenty First Century (see Culture, Civilization and Human Society).


2. Approach to a Conceptual Framework for Analysis

It would be very convenient to have some indicators and indexes, which—in the case of each region or country—would allow us to determine the region’s ability to reach sustainable development (see Indicators for sustainable Development). We are still far from that objective, since we do not have the necessary statistical basis and a thorough understanding of the factors that determine sustainability and its quantitative interrelations. This last factor is especially true when dealing with the social, economic, and political aspects of sustainability, which, since by nature fall into the broad field of social sciences, are the most elusive to mathematical formulas. The sustainability (S) of development can be expressed through a compound index, where:






and Sa, Ss, Se, and Sp are the indexes of environmental, social, economic, and political sustainability. In this equation, the coefficients of the partial indexes of sustainability (a, b, c, and d) must reflect the weight that a society assigns to each. Such assignment, although subjective in character, may reflect the importance that the regions or countries confer to the different dimensions of a sustainable development at a given time. In other words, S is a relative sustainability index and can be used to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the regions and countries in terms of  achieving sustainable development. S can also be used to determine the dimension of sustainability that is more vulnerable or that commits to a larger extent the possibility of attaining such an objective over time.


2.1. Ecological Sustainability


Ecological sustainability is the capability of an ecosystem or a group of ecosystems to support the performance of different social and economical activities without undermining the ecosystem’s condition over time. Two types of factors determine ecological sustainability: characterization of an ecosystem with concern for biotic and physical aspects such as nature, extension, potentiality, productivity, vulnerability, elasticity, and resilience; and magnitude and intensity of the environmental impacts that may compromise an ecosystem’s over time, such as the settled population, the way in which natural resources are used, and the patterns of consumption and waste or emission generation. Consumption and waste generation largely determine the magnitude of environmental impacts.


For example, a recent study on the economies of the United States, Japan, Germany, and Holland showed the industrial aspects of these economies require 45 to 85 metric tons of natural resources per person per year. (This total does not include use of air and water). The worldwide environmental impact caused by this industrial production and its subsequent consumption is very severe.


The ecological sustainability index can be expressed as a ratio between ecological factors and environmental impacts:


where Se is the ecological sustainability index, Fe is an index that reflects the physical/natural characteristics of the ecosystems and will always have a positive sign. Ia an index of environmental impacts.


In this sense and based on the known equation of Paul Ehrlich, it can be said that environmental impacts are expressed as: , where Ia is the index of environmental impacts, P is the settled population, Cp is the consumption of natural resources per capita; E is the emissions or waste per capita, and CT is a coefficient that expresses the intensity of environmental impacts according to the used technologies. CT can then have a positive or negative incidence on the magnitude of environmental impacts. However, it should be noted that when the environmental impact index is determined for each region, it is necessary to consider the demand on its natural resources that can be generated from abroad. These impacts can be very significant as in the case, for example, of the demand of forestry or mining products from the tropical forests of South America by some industrialized countries.


The Se index could be valued to say that if Se>1, there is ecological sustainability. If Se<1, the environmental impacts exceed the ecological capacity and a sustainable development cannot exist.


The ecological sustainability index of Latin America and the Caribbean is one of the highest in the world. It is true that there are ecosystems in the region that are suffering serious and permanent degradation processes, as is the case in the highlands of the Andes, humid tropical forests of Central America, Amazon and Orinoquia, Caribbean Sea, and some important rivers. The region as a whole has a series of attributes—its rich biodiversity, forest availability, fresh water, farming lands, types of minerals, and hydrocarbons—that make the best conditions to face the ecological impacts of the future. On the other hand, the region has a very low population density overall. Furthermore, on average, the consumption patterns of the population and the generation of contaminant waste (i.e., liquids, solids and gases) are much lower than those registered in highly industrialized countries (see Regional Review: Latin America and the Caribbean).


2.2. Social Sustainability

From a general standpoint, it can be said that a development is socially sustainable if the strains generated within the society do not constrain the continuous enhancement of the standard of living and if social transformations will occur without major traumas.


The social sustainability index must be associated to the income levels, wealth distribution patterns and poverty indexes, equality of opportunities, level of expectations, effectiveness of the social security regime, indexes of education and health services coverage, and personal security. Vital statistics show that there is a strong correlation between the per capita income and the life expectation at birth, child mortality, illiteracy, political and civil rights, and some indicators of environmental quality. Likewise, it has been proven that social development generates economic growth (see Socioeconomic Development).


As an approach to social sustainability (Ss) and as long as there is no other one available index that can better reflect this concept, the Human Development Index (HDI) as defined by UNDP could be adopted.


The HDI includes three components: longevity, knowledge, and income, which are combined to reach an average deprivation index (see Sustainable Human Development). Longevity is measured based on life expectancy at birth. Knowledge is measured based on two related variables: adult literacy and the average of schooling years. Per capita income is adopted as a starting point and adjusted according to a formula that takes into consideration its decreasing yields .


The sustainability panorama in Latin America and the Caribbean looks less favorable when the social aspect is analyzed. It is threatened due to the poverty levels registered, which reflect an unsustainable pattern of income distribution. This situation has become considerably serious during the last two decades and, in general, is unfavorable when compared to the remaining regions with the exception of Africa.


In spite of this situation, important advances have been made concerning the indexes of health, including life expectancy, child mortality, and nutrition; and in education, including population that is schooled, schooling rate, reduction of illiteracy, and university enrollment. According to the HDI, slightly over half of the countries are ranked in the category of High Human Development. The remaining countries are ranked as Medium Human Development with the exception of Haiti, which is classified as Low Human Development.


2.3. Economic Sustainability


An economic sustainability index must reflect the capacity of development to maintain increasing levels of income over time (see Economic Development).


The income increase is inevitably linked to production increase. At the same time, production is linked to the use of natural resources, creating a factor that generates ecological impacts due to the depletion of nonrenewable resources and sometimes of natural renewable resources when poorly exploited or by the release of waste to the environment.


The continuous growth of production is advocated by most economists as the objective of development and conspires against ecological sustainability when considering that the natural resources of the planet have finite dimensions.


Continuous growth must be approached with a certain relativity that derives from the economic situation of different regions or countries. Although undefined economic growth collides with the thresholds of ecological sustainability, low income levels and nonequitable distribution become an obstacle for a society to attain social and political sustainability. This situation characterizes the Latin American and Caribbean countries, where in most cases, incomes are low and nonequitably distributed.


At the region the sustained economic growth and the enhancement of income distribution patterns constitute a requisite for a sustainable development, at least for several decades, until some levels compatible with an acceptable standard of living can be overcome. This is why the problem of constant income growth, as a factor contrary to sustainable development must be discretionary approached at the time of considering the different regions and countries.


In the case of Latin America and the Caribbean, Se could be adopted as an economic sustainability index, a value that could reflect the persistence of a positive growth with time. This could be, for example, the average during a five or ten year period of the per capita income growth rate, which would take into account both the sustained expansion of the economies as well as the population growth.


The opposite case is that of highly industrialized countries that have reached high income levels. In their case the approach is how to maintain the already attained levels, with an increasingly lower consumption of natural resources and a decrease of polluting waste or emissions. For example, in  OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, it has been estimated that there is an average requirement of 300 kg (not including air and water) per year of natural resources to generate US$ 100 of GNP, and a proposal has been put forth to reduce this figure during the coming decades down to one tenth, this is 30 kg per US$ 100 of GNP.


The de-materialization of income will depend to a large extent on the introduction of new technologies that will save natural resources in which recycling, reuse of materials and energy efficiency will play an important role. At the same time, it is also planned that the highly industrialized economies develop a series of services that will contribute to improve, or at least to maintain, the standard of living, without this necessary leading to an increase in the material consumption of these societies. This is the case of the cultural and recreational services that are increasingly valued by societies as the income levels increase.


Nevertheless, in the region, and after having overcome the so-called ‘lost decade’ of the eighties, the economic sustainability index has been improved. But it cannot be generally said that  economic strategies have been implemented that are capable of ensuring a sustained economic growth of income in the medium and long term, as it would be necessary to overcome the levels that are still low in many countries. The variation range of the per capita income levels, among the richer and the less favored countries, is still one to 12.3, which reflects a very heterogeneous income distribution at regional scale.


On the other hand, at the individual level of countries, there are still very pronounced economic ups and downs taking place, mainly depending on the fluctuation of the prices of the produced raw materials and the productive structures that are not sufficiently diversified (see Environmental Economics and Ecological Economics) and (see Industrial Ecology).


2.4. Political Sustainability

Development is politically sustainable if it can achieve a permanent institutional stability. This is generally associated with the existence of institutions that recurrently constitute the power which are acceptable to a majority of the population.


When talking about the stability of the institutions it must not be interpreted as a static concept, since in that case there would be no progress. It actually refers to a situation in which those institutions are continuously reformed as a response to the different requirements of society.


Democracy is a government system that historically has proven to be the most appropriate one to attain the previous objective, without this meaning that the pure democratic mechanisms of government will ensure the permanent stability of the State institutions.


The valuation of a political sustainability index may be a complex aspect, since among other aspects it must start from the historical analysis to predict the future behavior of a society towards its institutions.


The index of political sustainability, Sp, could then be a function of the transparency of the electoral systems, measuring such transparency by the nature and magnitude of the denunciations made about their results; the number of existing social participation organizations; the women in leadership positions; the aggressions against freedom of expression; and the frequency of violation of human rights, especially of women and children, among other aspects.


Political sustainability in the region has experienced considerable progress during the past 20 years, which is a paradox when considering the serious economic problems that have affected the majority of countries. Until approximately two decades ago authoritarian regimes prevailed in the region. Currently these regimes have all been substituted, with the exception of Cuba, by democratically elected governments.


Nevertheless, it should be noticed that the performance of the democratic mechanisms is still precarious in many countries. There are frequent violations of human rights, usually freedom of expression is not totally respected, and the levels of population participation are still quite low. These mentioned deficiencies and backwardness in the social and economical sustainability constitute a permanent risk for the political governability of the Latin American and Caribbean countries. The close relationship between political stability, economic progress and social peace is a proven fact.

2.5. Recapitulation

As a recapitulation it can be said that the attempt here is to express the sustainability of development through a simple mathematical algorithm, more than finding a formula for its estimate, by presenting its dimensions and by revealing the main factors that determine it, as well as its interrelations. In other words, to establish a conceptual framework for analysis. In this way it will be easier to visualize the process, to compare the relative conditions among the regions and the countries, and to appreciate their possibilities to attain sustainability. A sustainability index can be a convenient instrument in order to plan sustainable development policies. Nevertheless, a last observation must be made in this sense. The estimate of a sustainability index is not to simply establish an arbitrary number above which a country attains its sustainable development. This would be possible if minimum requirements within each one of its dimensions were met. A development that attempts to be sustainable may lose this possibility due to social, economical or political reasons, and obviously it will not be sustainable if it does not meet its ecological condition. This appreciation is made to highlight that although there can be a certain substitution between the partial indexes, such as for example social sustainability can be partially substituted or compensated by political sustainability, in certain situations it is not possible to unrestrictedly substitute ecological sustainability by economic sustainability, as some economists state. With time, the technological development can allow the substitution of natural capital by economic capital, but this has limitations imposed by nature, such as the irreversibility of certain ecological impacts that are dangerous to force.

3. Barriers to Sustainable Development

Which are the most important barriers that currently interfere with the objective of attaining sustainable development in Latin America and the Caribbean?  In our opinion there are five which are shown in Figure 2: poverty, unsustainable management of natural resources, negative institutional environment, high population growth and lack of social consensus on the meaning of sustainable growth. These barriers have the peculiarity of being mutually intertwined and being interdependent, constituting what has been called the pentagon of unsustainability.

Figure 2. Pentagon of Unsustainability

3.1. Poverty

From the social perspective, the poverty levels that prevail in the region are a serious obstacle for its sustainable development. This is an ominous phenomenon that not only affects the most precious capital, the human one, but that also underlies many of the deterioration processes of natural resources.


As of 1998 in Latin America and the Caribbean, it was determined that about 24 percent of the population suffers from income poverty. In absolute figures this is equivalent to a population of approximately 111 million inhabitants.


The most serious part of this situation is that the contingent of the poor, that in absolute and relative terms had been decreasing during the 1960-1980 period, after the eighties and nineties has increased as a result of the combination of low economic growth, high demographic rates and an unacceptable inequity pattern. Between 1980 and 1995 the growth of the Gross National Product per capita decreased at an annual rate of ‑0.4. Qualified sources have highlighted that although poverty is an old historical problem in the region, the processes of economic adjustment and restructuring that started in 1980 accentuated the concentration of income and increased the absolute and relative levels of poverty.


One of the aspects that most seriously affects the intensification of the poverty phenomenon are the per capita income distribution patterns, which are more uneven that in other regions. If such pattern is expressed as the ratio between the per capita income of the richer 20 percent of the population and the income of the poorest 20 percent, it can be seen that in Latin America and the Caribbean it is 19 times higher (see Figure 3). In the industrialized countries this ratio is approximately 7 times higher, and in South East Asia is 11 times higher. On the other hand, it has been estimated that the number of poor people should be half if the income distribution were that which would normally correspond to the region development level.

Figure 3. Inequality in Income Distribution

The poverty condition does not exclusively depend on economic variables, that is, on the income received by the population, but also on other conditions such as health, education and social integration. UNDP (1997) has defined poverty under two perspectives: income poverty and human poverty. The first one refers to the amount expressed in monetary units daily received by individuals. In some places such amount refers to the cost of the basic diet for the main groups of age, sex and activity, in addition to non-essential food items. The World Bank uses for the region a line of critical poverty of two dollars (1985) per capita, daily.


Human poverty is estimated according to an index that takes into account different dimensions within the population: short life, that is, the percentage of persons that die before 40 years of age, lack of basic education, percentage of illiterate adults, lack of access to private and public resources: general economic provisioning in terms of percentage of children under five years that are underweight.


At the regional level, the income poverty (24 percent) is more generalized than human poverty (15 percent). This is due to the fact that the advances achieved in health, education and access to services in general contribute to mitigate the income poverty. For example, life expectancy at the region is 69 years, only 5 years less than in industrialized countries, while in Africa, south of the Sahara, is 50 years. On the other hand, it is estimated that 68 percent of the population has access to appropriate sanitation systems (water and sewage), a much more favorable figure than the 32 percent registered in South East Asia.


However, poverty presents different intensities when comparing urban and rural areas. In the region the rural poverty is 1.8 times higher than in urban areas, although urban poverty is more visible because it is located in the belts of marginal population that usually surrounds most of medium and large cities. Poverty also differs among sexes, always unfavorable for the woman.


When poverty is registered within a frame of progressive worsening, such as the case of the region, it constitutes one of the most evident manifestations of the social unsustainability of the prevailing development style. But also widely known are the multiple interrelations between poverty and ecological degradation, both human and of the physical/natural environment. The increasing production of hallucinogens and the intensification of drug trafficking are an expression with the same sense.


The outlined situation has been the result of unsuccessful economic policies that have been implemented during the last decades, but above all they are the result of deficiencies in social policies, such as those of income redistribution that have left a lot to be desired.


The future perspectives of effectively reducing poverty in the region include the need to rethink the economic and social strategies that have been implemented. There is the impression that at the region the macroeconomic indexes established by international organizations of financial assistance, to measure the progress of economies, do not adequately reflect the well being of the population. During the past years this is generating the paradox of having apparently successful countries concerning their macroeconomic achievements, and increasingly unsatisfied populations.


The new sustainable development strategy to be formulated must be capable of generating a sustained growth with time, while simultaneously achieving an improvement of the income distribution mechanisms. Income redistribution is not automatically linked to economic growth, as experience has shown.


Within this context, priority must be given to the creation of productive employment and it is necessary to review the purpose of the investments made, the technologies that are promoted and the social organization for the production. The idea is to maximize employment generation per unit of investment. Now, for the employment that is generated to be increasingly more productive, it will be necessary to invest more in the formation of human capital, providing better services of health, drinking water, sanitation and increasing the quality of education, especially education aimed at work. The increase of social investment is then an imperative. The increase of productivity of small farmers and micro‑businesses is also essential, as it is to ensure their access to credit.


The new strategies of sustainable development to be formulated should put great emphasis on increasing the efficiency of the States in two factors that can be combined to attenuate poverty. That is, improving the capacity of tax collection by introducing appropriate tax policies that will induce sustainability, and increasing the efficiency of public expenditure, especially in the rendering of health and education, which are, as was said before, essential for the formation of human capital.


The sustainable development of the region must go hand in hand with the implementation of political and social reforms aimed at strengthening the participation capacity of the poor, at attaining equal rights for men and women, and at ensuring land tenancy and the ownership of healthy housing. Political, administrative and economic decentralization is showing to be an effective way in the region to advance in that direction (see Poverty).


3.2. Unsustainable Management of Natural Resources

Although the region has a rich natural patrimony in relation to its population in terms of rich biodiversity, volume of freshwater, extension of farmlands, and other resources, the society/nature imbalance observed, especially during the past years, is of great concern.


With regards to tropical forests, the region has the largest surface area on the planet; 30 percent of the tropical forest frontiers or primary forests that still remain in the world, which constitute intact ecosystems since they have suffered little perturbation and are large enough to maintain all their biodiversity, are located within the region. Among the 10 countries in the world with the highest level of plant biodiversity in their forest borderlines, six of them: Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Mexico are in the region. Likewise, among the 10 countries in the world with the largest extension of mangrove swamps, five of them: Mexico, Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia are located in the region.


Due to this favorable endowment of forests, the region has one of the highest rates of (unsustainable) use of these resources. Its primary forests are under serious to moderate threat, at a rate of 87 percent in Central America and 54 percent in South America. During 1990‑1995, the deforestation rate in Central America was 1.3 percent per year and 0.5 percent per year in South America. These rates are much higher in the case of tropical forests which decreased at a rate of 7.4 percent per year during the 1980‑1990 period. In the Brazilian Amazon, an annual surface deforestation of approximately 20.000 km2 is taking place.


The largest threats to forest resources are indiscriminate felling, clearance of trees to expand agricultural areas, large-scale mining, oil and gas exploitations, and the development of infrastructure works. These threats are encouraged by the population growth that demands a higher food production; by the incidence of poverty and the bad economic policies that lead to adverse decisions to the sustainability of natural resources (see Natural Resources Policy).


The loss of habitats constitutes the worst threat for the biodiversity of the region. Many of the habitats and endangered species are located at the high mountain ranges, at the savannas and tropical forests and in arid and semi-arid zones. A general estimate indicates that the current rate of deforestation and the rate of change of use of tropical forests may mean the elimination of 100,000 to 450,000 biological species within the next 40 years.


Concerning freshwater, the total volume available is 10,582.07 km3, the second largest in the world. In per capita terms it is also the second highest in the world after Oceania, a sparsely populated continent. The region is classified as having low vulnerability with regards to water availability, with the exception of Mexico, Honduras and all the Caribbean Islands.


In spite of this favorable situation in global terms, due to the non-uniform distribution of available water resources and land settlement, there are zones with water deficits which will require costly engineering works in order to fulfill their needs. Moreover, this situation tends to become more serious in other zones, due to the deterioration of water quality caused by chemical and biological contamination. It is estimated that around 90 percent of all domestic and industrial sewage waters are not treated, and in addition there is an increasing water pollution in the rural areas generated by the intense use of chemicals in agriculture.


A large part of the rich biodiversity that lives in the fresh water bodies is threatened by these causes, and also by the construction of engineering works such as dams, drainage and hydraulic dredging that alter said ecosystems.


In the large variety of salt or brackish water ecosystems that exist in the region, degradation is also of great concern. For example, the destruction of coral reefs in the Caribbean, which constitute in size the second system of this nature in the world is outstanding, due to the increase of pollution, the sediment discharge caused by the greater erosion of hydrographic basins, and the overexploitation of herbivorous fishes, thus breaking the ecological balance in relation to the growth of seaweed, which is a negative factor for corals. The coral reefs are also being extremely affected by the proliferation of constructions in coastal areas, the pollution caused by the population living in them, and the oil spills. According to some estimates, 26 percent and 24 percent of the coasts of the region are under high or moderate potential risk of degradation, respectively.


Concerning farming lands, the region has 23 percent of the potentially arable lands in the world, 12 percent of cultivated lands and 17 percent of all grazing. Nevertheless, around 72.7 percent of farming lands used suffer moderate or extreme degradation, and approximately 47 percent of grazing lands have lost their fertility. This degradation of soils includes erosion, desertification to different degrees due to overgrazing, and salinity and alkalinity of irrigated soils. The incidence of forest fires is very serious.


In addition to all these resources is the large amount of hydrocarbons and metallic and non-metallic minerals of highly varied nature.


It is estimated that 81 million persons living in cities within the region are affected by the atmospheric pollution mainly produced by the burning of fossil fuels. Mexico, Sao Paulo and Santiago de Chile are among the cities in the world with the most polluted air.


This group of examples of the available natural resources and the threats against them and the population, has the purpose of illustrating on the one part the wealth of the region, and on the other the unsustainable way in which some of these resources are being used. Since natural resources are not geographically distributed, nor does the population pattern match them, there are zones in the region that show serious manifestations of ecological imbalance, in some cases of irreversible character, constituting in turn a factor of social unsustainability. For example, in the case of strongly eroded landscapes that can be seen in the valleys among the mountains along the Andean range, and also the advance of desertification on the Argentinean Patagonia that gives place to a loss of approximately 1000 km2/year of soil.


Most of the previously mentioned situations are created by mankind, as a consequence of the population processes that took place without the necessary environmental provisions and by the unsustainable management of renewable and non-renewable natural resources, due to the lack of knowledge of the adequate practices. For example, this is usually the case of the permanent expansion of the agricultural boundaries determined by the need to increase food production, which has been increasing at a greater rate than the demographic growth, and that is a determining factor of the high deforestation indexes that are taking place in the region.


The causes of this situation essentially lay: on the poor ecological culture of the population in general, to which we shall refer in more detail later; on the inappropriate practices in the management of natural resources; and, on the increase of the poverty phenomenon that encourages the overexploitation of natural resources when the population depends on them for their subsistence. The perspective for the above described situation to considerably improve in the future, will depend on the implementation of strategies in three directions: in the technological aspect; in the field of research of natural resources; and, in territorial land use planning. These strategies will eventually come together.


Concerning the first group of strategies, it is necessary not only to develop the appropriate technologies for the sustainable management of the regions natural resources, but to put them within the reach of people and to ensure that they receive the appropriate teaching and training for their utilization, which requires an understanding of the popular culture.


There are three sectors in which it is crucial to meet the indicated process. In the first place, there is the agricultural sector. The approach to a sustainable agriculture in a generalized manner will be one of the greatest actions that can be conceived to overcome the misuse of lands, forests, and wild fauna that take place in the region.


A sustainable agriculture must be one in which the production of agricultural goods (food, fibers, various inputs) will take place in such a way that the basis of the utilized natural resources is preserved or improved; that will constitute a profitable business for the different actors of the agricultural circuit, starting with the producers and reaching the consumers, so that it will in turn fight poverty; and that is socially acceptable in the sense that the actors will know, accept and value it.


The second sector on which attention must be focused is the oil mining sector. These activities are one of the most serious threats against the natural resources, due to the range of impacts they generate when the adequate technologies are not used and when strict guidelines of environmental conservation are not followed. As it has been said, the region is rich in these resources. The energy model prevailing in the world is mainly based on fossil fuels and is generating a considerable international demand on hydrocarbons from all over the world. Environmental impacts are not limited to the exploitation and production phases, but also and maybe the most important ones, the impacts generated by their utilization in the electrical, industrial and transportation sectors.


Mining activities are also a significant risk for the renewable natural resources of the region. Currently, the largest world exploratory activity in the search for minerals is taking place in the region. For example, mining in the Amazon and Orinoquia may become one of the most serious threats for these ecosystems, partly derived from the fact that the most adequate technologies are not being applied, or because there are no really sustainable mining technologies when working in tropical humid forests, and because the States are not capable to enforce the environmental laws and regulations.


The third sector representing a significant potential risk for natural resources is the industrial one. It is true that the industrial development of the region is lagging with respect to the most advanced countries. Nevertheless, in many areas, the consequences of contamination of water bodies, soils and even the atmosphere are already felt.


The trajectory to be followed by the Latin America and Caribbean countries in the future places them at the dilemma of resorting to clean and ecologically efficient technologies or watch how the misuse of natural resources aggravates.


The second strategic direction is research on natural resources. Sustainable development will have to be founded necessarily in the exploitation of said resources. Apart from human resources, they are the most valuable patrimony available to attain the objective. But this still demands to a large extent knowing their potentialities and limitations.


Significant advances have been made concerning research on natural renewable resources related to certain items of agricultural production. For example, the National Institute of Biodiversity (Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad - INBio) in Costa Rica, is advancing a program of selection of biological materials to obtain useful products and to enter into agreements with companies that may be interested. But there is much yet to be understood concerning the use of soils; the exploitation of tropical forests; or the coastal marine ecosystems, just to mention some of the items of a long list of research on natural resources that must be conducted. This research is obviously essential in order to be able to tackle the aspects on the above mentioned management, under circumstances in which ecological research has a low social priority and thus, does not receive enough funding.


The third strategic direction that has been proposed is territorial land use planning. Fortunately this approach has been gaining ground in the region, and currently the agencies of environmental management are starting to gather basic information and making the necessary studies to formulate this type of plans. Territorial land use planning may constitute one of the most effective ways to improve the management of natural resources with a farsighted sense when defining bio-regions and establishing areas under special administration, such as national parks and biosphere reserves, among others, using an ecological view; and, when they are subject to the location and implementation of productive and social activities.


There may be no other region in the world that can benefit most from the progressive application of the principles and strategies contained in the Convention on Biological Diversity, than Latin America and the Caribbean. In this sense, it must be emphasized that the increase of protected areas under special administration at the region, during the last quarter of the century, has been very important (see Interdisciplinary and Sustainability Issues in Food and Agriculture and Socio-economic Factors in Food and Agricultural Systems).


3.3. Negative Institutional Environment

A comprehensive analysis on the operation of the governments of Latin America and the Caribbean, leads to expound that in general terms, their institutions were not originally established to work on a sustainable development. With rare exceptions, these are governments that have multiple weaknesses. Their operation mechanisms are not entirely democratic, and it has not yet been possible to get rid of the lasting past of authoritarianism and arbitrariness.


These have been assaulted with political promises to obtain votes. They have a precarious institutionalization. These governments grew in a disorderly fashion and generally corruption pervaded most areas. In their case, expansion took place without substantially altering the State/Society relationships.


Governments are weak in enforcing the laws. They are strongly centralized and are not trained to satisfactorily respond to the demands made by the civil society. With their policies they have contributed to generate societies in which, as we have seen, wealth is unfairly distributed.


The future viability of a sustainable development trajectory will depend to a large extent on countries with a civil society that is politically powerful and take active part, is capable of advocating in favor of the collective interests, especially those of the lower income groups, and counteracting any trends to the contrary.


This concept is possible in systems where there is freedom, where human rights are respected and where actions follow a pre-established legal order. In other words, where democratic systems are in power. As it has been said, historically Latin America and the Caribbean come from a turbulent past, where authoritarian governments and weak and unstable institutions have prevailed. This situation has had a tendency towards change for the last quarter of the Twentieth Century. Figure 4 shows the evolution of democratically elected governments in the region. Latin America and the Caribbean represent the region that has made the greatest efforts on the road to democratization. Between 1974 and 1994 over 150 general elections took place.

Figure 4. Democratically Elected Governments by Region, 1960-1994

Coincidentally, it has been during this last period when an incipient environmental institutionalization has been established in the majority of the countries, both in the public sector and within the civil society. There has been a proliferation of ministries of environment or national commissions responsible for the formulation and coordination of the environmental policy.


It can also be observed, as a very positive sign, the proliferation of all types of non governmental organizations (NGOs) as a clear manifestation that a social change process is taking place, and the civil society is becoming better organized and structured in order to have more power (see Non-Governmental Organizations and Institutions).


The adoption of short- and long-term public policies consistent with a sustainable development is very difficult within an institutional environment characterized by democratic systems that still operate precariously, that have governments with low foresight capacity and administratively weak to ensure the enforcement of the laws, and that have a civil society that is not strong enough nor trained to participate in the decision making process that commits their destiny.


The economic crisis the region has lived during the past two decades of the century has had as a correlate the weakening of the public administration, since there has been the need to readjust budgets in order to ease the fiscal imbalances originated by populist type policies. During this process, the agencies in charge of the social and environmental management have been greatly affected, since they have less political weight in the governments to defend their budgetary allocations.


The large reduction of public expenditure has also decreased the capacity of the governments to establish environmental regulations and to enforce them. The reduction of the government roles and responsibilities has consequently brought the weakening of research programs on the environment and the sustainable development.


This institutional environment is currently one of the most solid barriers that interfere with the sustainable development of the region.


The perspectives for this situation to be reverted will depend on whether the countries achieve a social and political consensus to implement reforms that will enable them to advance toward the modernization of their institutions. These changes, which have been mentioned within the broad frame of the government reform processes, currently constitute an absolutely priority aspect for the objective of sustainable development in the countries of the region.


The government reform not only aims to make more efficient and effective the public administrations, which from the standpoint of environmental management is very important, but to modernize the governments as a whole, and especially their relations with society. This will entail the perfecting of democracies, the strengthening of the civil society, so that it can more intensively and responsibly participate in the political‑social processes to which its destiny is going to be closely tied; and to have more efficient and powerful states to guide the development towards sustainability.


This is why the approach to a sustainable development in the region will have to depend on the culmination of a social and political change process that will actually strengthen the civil society, so that it as a whole will become its main sponsor (see Institutional Issues involving Ethics and Justice).


3.4. High Population Growth

Given the large endowment of natural resources in the region, the population density of 234 inhabitants per 1,000 hectares, the lowest among all the regions in the world with the exception of Oceania, does not represent at first sight a serious threat from the ecological standpoint. This situation has its variations, especially in Central America and the Caribbean, where there are countries with population densities ten times higher than the mean (El Salvador, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica).


A more concerning factor for the sustainable development in the future is the high rate of demographic growth still registered in a large number of countries in the region, due to the decrease of mortality rates, as a consequence of better sanitary services. The population of Latin America and the Caribbean grew from 179 millions to 481 millions between 1950 and 1995. The average rate of demographic growth has actually been decreasing during the past three decades, as a result of the reduction in fertility rates. Nevertheless, it is considered high since it is approximately 2 percent per year. It will generate a population growth that in the next decade is estimated to be around seven million inhabitants per year. By the year 2040, it is estimated that the current population of the region, which is close to 500 million, will have doubled. This demographic increase represents an enormous effort in terms of employment generation, food and public services, if the well-being levels are to be improved.


Figure 5 shows the progress that the region has been making towards the stabilization of the population after the high demographic growth rates observed in the past decades. In spite of this progress, the stabilization of the population will only be attained after the year 2050. This is the result of  social modernization, better education, especially of the woman, and the increase in the living standards that have occurred.

Figure 5. Progress Toward Population Stabilization, 1950-2050

Ignoring aspects such as the social organization for production or the technologies used, the combination of the higher population generated by the demographic growth rates forecasted and the increase of the standards of living, will bring higher consumption of natural resources and thus greater environmental impacts.


Moreover, the demographic growth must also be seen from another perspective that tends to generate increasing ecological problems. It is related to the accelerated urbanization processes that are taking place in the region, which have placed it at the level of developed countries with regards to the percentage of population living in cities. The demographic growth rates in many cities largely exceed the national means. Between 1970 and 2025 the percentage of the population living in urban areas at the region will have increased by 26 percent, exceeding 80 percent. This growth rate, similar to that observed in Africa and Asia although at higher urbanization levels, will imply a colossal effort to ensure acceptable environmental conditions in circumstances in which experience shows that the efforts of governments and communities have not been enough to avoid urban environmental degradation.


It is thus considered that demographic growth, especially in the urban areas where a larger percentage of the population live (78 percent in South America and over 70 percent in the whole region), constitutes one of the most serious problems that the region must confront during the coming decades, in order to be able to increase the standards of living of the population and to improve environmental conditions, in tune with sustainable development.


The possibilities for this situation to be overcome in the medium term will largely depend on the success that the countries have to improve the educational levels, especially education for women, since as it has been shown, it is the most effective way for the required demographic transition to take place for a sustainable development. In other words: to fight poverty in its multiple expressions, so that the population as a whole can enjoy better income levels.


3.5. Lack of Social Consensus on the Meaning of Sustainable Development

A common factor of the countries of the region is the limited significance that sustainable development has for the majority of the population. Such development does not yet constitute a social objective. Obviously, there are critical perceptions on the social and economic realities that separate us from such an objective. Likewise, it can be said that great advances have been made concerning the internalization of the democratic form of life, the determination to value freedom and the desire to participate; all these manifestations constitute expectations of a broad social base. But still, there is not yet an articulated concept of social-economical, political and ecological sustainability.


On this last aspect, the environmental issue is still far from being a priority item in the social-political agenda, as happens in most industrialized countries. This is partly due to the shortages in education, which is very deficient from the ecological standpoint, and additionally does not teach the close relationship between environment, development and quality of life. For these same reasons, the political leadership is not forced to defend environmental causes, as there is in general a great ignorance on these subjects.


It is frequently heard in developed countries that is difficult for populations that are weighed down with so many problems of poverty and undernourishment, and lack the most elementary public services, to assign any priority to the conservation of nature. This approach is wrong. What has failed is the capacity of the educational system to clearly state the multiple interrelations between poverty and environmental conservation, and between conservation and quality of life. And also that conservation policies must contribute in the first place to preserve human ecology, starting with health and the improvement of the inhabited environments, especially the urban environment which is currently where the largest number of the population live. Also, that food and its cost closely depend on the conservation of natural renewable resources from which agriculture is derived.


Many times we can observe the struggle of the humble communities to see urban problems solved through health and housing policies, supply of potable water, sewage systems, garbage collection, and transportation. These are in essence environmental demands. Thus what is missing in education is an approach that will interpret the environmental problems from a much broader perspective, based on the concept that man is the natural resource that must receive priority protection and preservation—an approach that will clearly show the relationship between poverty, health and education, and non-sustainable ecological practices; and the relationship between quality of life and environmental conservation.


As long as this does not take place, it will not be possible to generate the social consensus required so that the majority of the population will advocate a sustainable development. The absence of this social consensus constitutes one of the most important barriers for the sustainable development of the region. Under such circumstances participation in the solution of global environmental problems, such as climate change, the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of the ozone layer is very difficult and require a true social concern that will encourage the governments to take concrete and definite actions.


In the future, the generation of the social consensus needed on the meaning and requirements of a sustainable development, will depend on the success the region has in improving the educational endeavor, which in most countries leaves a lot to be desired. This need is an increasingly more important part of the priorities stated by the leaders, and this is why it is expected that it will be a reality in the Twenty First Century.

4. Into the 21st Century

Latin America and the Caribbean are not currently following a sustainable development path. Nevertheless, significant advances have been made in some aspects during the past two decades of the Twentieth Century towards that objective and those shall be studied in depth in the next century.


Within this context it is worth highlighting three factors. The first one is the increasing participation of the civil society, which can already be seen in the majority of countries, in denouncing the problems that affect the communities, and in searching for their solutions.


This truly favorable social change is the result of the democratization process that has occurred. In effect, the improvement of education, the increasing volume of information and the freedom of organization, have allowed the emergence of a more aware civil society to advocate for the attainment of its basic needs, and it is politically stronger to force governments to act towards that end.


Although it cannot be said that sustainable development as such constitutes a priority item in the political agenda of the countries of the region, multiple aspects of sustainable development can be identified and are being felt. Among them, is the improvement of environmental quality at the urban zones where most of the population lives, the struggle for a better nutrition and the defense of national parks and other protected areas.


This process of awareness and strengthening of the civil society will be translated in the future into the most powerful driving force to change the prevailing development trend, especially in its ecological and social dimensions.


The second aspect is the institutional one, in which it is considered that very significant recent advances have been made. Especially after the Conference of United Nations on Environment and Development, in most countries of the region their Congresses have passed environmental laws that give the legal foundation for environmental management, and international conventions on environmental matters have been subscribed. Likewise, ministries or national commissions in charge of issues related to the environment have been created, and in some cases councils or commissions on sustainable development have additionally been created with wider attributions for the coordination of public policies than the environmental agencies. It is true that in many cases the incipient institutionalization that is emerging is politically and administratively weak and lacks the budgetary means to carry out the desirable initiatives. Nevertheless, it is thought that it is part of an increasing historical process where the social forces will unavoidably lead to the progressive strengthening of the environmental institutional framework.


The third one, are the relevant advances in the region that have taken place in the field of knowledge of the ecology. Although since the 19th century most countries started to gain a better knowledge of their fauna and flora and the physical environment, it was not until the last decades when a predominance of the ecosystem vision has prevailed, and from this standpoint the systematic research starts. There is still a lot pending in order to know the potentiality and limitations of the regions natural resource patrimony, but institutions that are specifically in charge of this task and that are linked to counterpart world centers have been created. The awareness of the environmental problem has started to be created and diffused through many universities, setting up active scientific networks. It is not far away the time in which a regional system of sustainability indicators will emerge, where interdependent information will be generated about the ecological, social, economical and political dimensions of sustainable development. This system is already seen and felt as a need.


Besides these advances, as it has been previously said, from the general ecological perspective the region has highly favorable factors to allow a progressive adjustment in time to a sustainable trajectory. Nevertheless, the maneuvering margin given by its rich biodiversity, and in general the patrimony of natural resources available, could be compromised by the global environmental problems. For example, the consequences of the climatic change process, especially at the Caribbean countries, which has not been well determined yet, may have severe social and economic repercussions. The same could occur if the trend to an anarchical occupation of ecosystems of global significance such as the Amazon and Orinoquia continues, in the absence of conservation criteria, since their deterioration will affect the sustainability, not only of the region but of the planet as a whole. Similar speculations can be made concerning the pollution process and the non-sustainable exploitation of the marine and oceanic biodiversity.


Nevertheless, the weakest sides to reach a sustainable development of the region in the future, are its social and economic problems. Without exaggerating, it could be said that the region has not yet found an economic and social strategy that within the market economy will ensure in a sustained fashion the improvement of living standards, going in this way beyond acceptable sustainability thresholds. Where are the failures?  To know and internalize them, within the social body, constitutes a regional priority. Nevertheless, there is the intuition that besides the inefficiencies shown by the élites to implement the adequate strategies and their incapability to find valid answers to the development dilemmas in a global world, there are international conditions that are not favorable to a sustainable development in a planetary scale. The progress of the world economy, especially the globalization process which is impossible to stop, must be carefully examined, since it has core factors that can be strongly perturbing to the sustainability at a regional scale, as well as on a planetary scale. Likewise, there are two other factors that are seriously gravitating around the regional economic growth. In the first place, the great burden represented by the foreign debt whose amortization decisively commits the necessary resources for investment. Secondly, there is the very high amount of money that the region continues to allocate to military expenditure, which by 1996 amounted to US$25 billions per year. What kind of justification do these huge expenditures have in the current world?


Thus today, as never before in the evolution of the human species, international cooperation is needed in all fields, but especially in the scientific, economic and ecological fields, as an unavoidable requisite for society to continue its growth and to avoid a cataclysm. It is not only a matter of finding a solution to the large global environmental problems, which is obviously an imperative to all countries in the Planet, but also to make a more equitable economic and social world in which all citizens will have the hope to reach better living standards.





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Latin American and Caribbean Commission on Development and the Environment (LAC CDE). (1992). Our Own Agenda, 102 pp. UNDP and IDB in collaboration with ECLAC and UNEP. [This report defines an strategy for the sustainable development of the region]


United Nations Development Programme (1993). Human Development Report, 249 pp. New York. [A yearly report with world socio economics statistics]


United Nations Development Programme (1997). Human Development Report, 262 pp. New York.


United Nations Development Programme (1998). Human Development Report, 228 pp. New York.


United Nations Development Programme (1999). Human Development Report, 262 pp. New York.


United Nations Environment Programme (1997). Global Environmental Outlook. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. [This report provides extensive information about the global state of the environment]


United Nations Environment Programme (1999). Global Environmental Outlook 2000, 398 pp. Earthcan Publications Ltd.


Winograd M. (1995). Environmental Indicators for Latin America and the Caribbean: Toward land use sustainability, 75 pp. GASE in collaboration with the Organization of American States, IICA/GTZ and WRI. [This paper provides a good compilation of environmental indicators in the region]


World Resources Institute, United Nations Environment Programme, United Nations Development Programme, World Bank (1996-1997). World Resources, 365 pp. Washington. [This biyearly report provides extensive world environmental statistics]


World Resources Institute. (1997). The Last Frontiers: Ecosystem & Economics on the Edge, 42 pp. Washington. [This paper provides an outlook of the state of the original forest in the world]


World Resources Institute, Wuppertal Institute, Netherland Ministry of Housing, National Institute for Environmental Studies. (1997). Resource Flows: The Material Basis of Industrial Economies, 66 pp. Washington. [This presents the results of the natural resources flow per person in four developed economies]


World Resources Institute, United Nations Environment Programme, United Nations Development Programme, World Bank (1998). World Resources 1998-1999, 269 pp. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.