South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.
The region is fragmented both in terms of the potential impacts of climate change and its response capacities.
The less developed areas in the Andean mountain range and in the Amazon lack financial and technical capacities to adequately cope with the consequences of climate change.
In more developed countries such as Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, the needs of a growing economy often conflict with local livelihoods, for example in the case of electricity generation. Large-scale projects such as the hydropower plants planned in Brazil (Belo Monte) and Chile (HydroAysén) provoke vocal opposition.
Unsustainable natural resource management and an unequal distribution of resources can trigger or exacerbate local conflicts, sometimes accompanied by controversial expropriation decisions. For example, Bolivia has experienced violent conflicts both over access to water – the most prominent example being the privatization of water services in Cochabamba – and over minerals, particularly Lithium. Bolivia is home to the world’s largest reserves of this rare earth.
Large-scale logging is often linked to organized crime and puts at risk not only the region’s forests, but also human lives. Conflicts over land use and environmental protection are turning increasingly violent.
Climate change risks:
Ecosystem changes endanger the local livelihoods of the rural population in particular, which depend to a large degree on agriculture and fishing. Ecosystem changes already reduce biodiversity, especially in the tropical regions. South America is home to a significant proportion of all species and the largest share of the earth’s rainforests, acting as an important carbon sink.
Over the long term, the melting of glaciers in the Andes will lead to increased water scarcity both in urban and agricultural areas.
Socio-economic and socio-political challenges:
Many South American countries suffer from political instability. Among the causes are exceptionally high inequality rates, high crime rates, corruption, drug trafficking, and intra-state conflicts, as for example in Colombia. These determinants hamper the adaptive capacities of the affected countries when it comes to solving land-use conflicts, managing resources, etc.
The existence of long-standing grievances and the struggle with post-colonial structures in the region are also important factors in the equation. Indigenous communities are particularly affected by resource conflicts and have frequently voiced their concerns by demonstrating, often serving as a starting point of broad demands for societal change.
Regional cooperation on environmental issues is channeled through various formal and informal, regional and international groupings, such as the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action, the Environmental Integrity Group and the Coalition of Rainforest Nations, often serving as a starting point for increased regional cooperation. Climate change often remains a side-topic, however, and due to the diversity of institutions, the continent still finds it rather difficult to agree on a common position.
Like other emerging economies, Brazil is increasingly assertive in international climate negotiations, the latest symbol being the organization of the Rio+20 summit. Latin American countries often represent global pioneers in the use of renewable energy resources, such as hydropower and biofuels – though sometimes with unintended side effects, as numerous land disputes exemplify. Brazil has, for example, pursued REDD+ for the protection of the Amazon rainforest, and even though its government is looking for alliances with the other BASIC states, regional cooperation may in the future strengthen the region’s position in international climate debates.
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Nabuurs, G.J. & Masera, O. (2007): Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Chapter 9, Forestry. IPCC.
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UN-REDD (2012): Third Consolidated Annual Progress Report on Activities Implemented under the UN-REDD Programme Fund. UNDP.