Economic development and environmental sustainability in Latin America and the Caribbean are intrinsically connected, as evidenced by a seminar this summer
organized by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute
(on behalf of the Latin American Program
), and co-sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development
(USAID). The seminar — the culmination of six workshops and a regional meeting in Panama
— presented the new Wilson Center report Emerging Trends in Environment and Economic Growth in Latin America and the Caribbean
(also available in Portuguese
), which identifies key trends likely to shape the economy and natural environment in Latin America and the Caribbean over the next 10 years.
Janet Ballantyne, acting deputy assistant administrator of USAID’s Latin America and the Caribbean Bureau, stated that Latin America is “not our backyard, it’s our front yard.” It’s time that we “open the front door,” she claimed, and address the issues facing Latin America — issues that have long-term consequences for not only the region, but the United States and the world as well.
A Broad Range of Challenges
Christine Pendzich, principal author of the report and technical adviser on climate change and clean energy to USAID, covered the five interrelated economic and environmental trends that the report discusses: climate change, clean energy, indigenous and minority issues, challenges facing small economies, and urban issues. To capitalize on the Latin American demographic transition that will soon result in a large number of working age adults, Pendzich argued that the region needs to increase skilled job creation, educate workers to fill those positions, and maintain economic stability. She also declared that recent climate change trends are a “game changer,” which can fundamentally alter development paths.
While closer economic ties with China have contributed to Latin America’s above-average recovery from the global economic downturn, Pendzich argued that this economic relationship could add to the social and environmental problems facing the region. She added that insufficient innovation could lead to the continuation of the region’s dependence on commodity exports, while also noting that the inadequate economic integration and educational opportunities for indigenous and minority groups “drags everyone down.”
In terms of the regional economic trends, Eric Olson, co-author of the report and senior associate of the Mexico Institute, highlighted six challenges and opportunities for Latin America and the Caribbean. Olson claimed that the recovery of the global economy will hurt net importers of fossil fuels, especially in Central America and the Caribbean; have a negative impact on the environment; increase natural resource exploitation that may exacerbate inequality and social conflict; increase demand for primary products that will decrease the incentive to diversify Latin American economies; provide opportunities to promote environmentally friendly growth; and allow for increased utilization of existing trade benefits and intra- and sub-regional trade opportunities.
Recognizing the Need for an Integrated Response
Three of the 77 participants involved in the formation of the report explored in greater depth what Geoffrey Dabelko with the Environmental Change and Security Program described as the “integration and interconnectivity” of the five trends discussed in the report. Blair Ruble, chair of the Comparative Urban Studies Project, noted that with 78 percent of the Latin American population living in urban areas, “cities and urban life create a context in which there are opportunities for solutions to problems,” opportunities that can be used to further innovation, encourage social equality, and promote good governance.
Meanwhile, working with rural indigenous communities and minority groups can also provide valuable opportunities for change, specifically in the area of climate change, according to Judith Morrison, senior adviser at the Inter-American Development Bank’s Gender and Diversity Unit. Morrison argued that indigenous populations are the ones most affected by climate change, but also the most able to improve environmental stewardship as a result of their unique knowledge of the local geography.
Maria Carmen Lemos, associate professor at the University of Michigan, highlighted that vulnerability to climate change depends on two sets of factors: geographical location and socioeconomic factors. As a result, Lemos asserted that climate-change adaption measures must focus on poverty reduction as well as the vulnerability of specific geographic locations.
Julie L. Kunen, senior adviser to the Bureau of Policy, Planning, and Learning at USAID, applauded the report for its cross-trend analysis and called the development community to work together to address these trends in the Latin American and Caribbean region. The next step, Kunen claimed, must be to develop an ambitious strategy and “convene everyone who cares about the issues and rally them around the agenda.”
Elizabeth Pierson is an intern with the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Photo Credit: “The River Runs Through the Andes,” courtesy of flickr user Stuck in Customs.