14.1. The Latin America Region
14.1.1. What is Unique about the Latin America Region?
The Latin American population will increase to 838 million by the year 2050.
Annual population growth rates will decrease from 1.68%, in the period 1995-2000,
to an estimated 0.51% in the period 2040-2050, according to the medium
prospect of the United Nations (Nawata, 1999). This signifies that the population
explosion will continue, even if a decerease in population growth rates were
possible. One of the critical difficulties caused by growing population is the
problem of nutrition and availability of food. Global food supply is expected
to meet the overall needs of the growing world population, but significant regional
variation in crop yields as a result of climate change (Rosenzweig et al.,
1993) could lead to an increased risk of hunger for an additional 50 million
people by the year 2050. Because most Latin American countries' economies
depend on agricultural productivity, the issue of regional variation in crop
yields is very relevant for the region.
The area of the Latin American region is approximately 19.93 million km2double
that of Europe, but smaller than that of North America, Asia, or Africa. Latin
America includes all of the continental countries of the Americas, from Mexico
to Chile and Argentina, as well as adjacent seas (Canziani et al., 1998).
Even though the region has a predominantly southern location, Latin America
also has a presence in the northern hemisphere, including Mexico, Central America,
the Guyanas, Suriname, Venezuela, and parts of Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil.
Latin America's orographical systems present a predominant north-south
orientation, extending from the ranges of Mexico and Central America to the
southern Andes. These features divide the region into two contrasting but interdependent
geosystems, influencing the climatic and hydrological patterns and making primary
productivity a direct dependent variable of the aforementioned environmental
factors (Lieth, 1976).
These conditions initially led to a prevalence of agricultural activities near
coastlines. From the end of the 19th century and the arrival of European migrations,
these activities were extended to inner valleys and plateaus. Pre-Colombian
cultures, however, had developed many of their community farming activities
in the high plateaus, where the largest proportion of Latin America indigenous
communities still are settled.
Mountain ranges and high plateaus play an important role in determining local
climates that are conditioned by altitude and orientation, which in turn enhance
biological diversity. Agricultural diversification also is coupled to habitat
heterogeneity through varying crop species and agricultural time schedules.
Morello (1976) has reported the way in which hunting, fishing, cattle and sheep
grazing, and cropping activities are correlated to discontinued habitats along
the altitudinal gradients in the humid tropical Andes in Colombia. Similar patterns
have been reported for the Andes of Ecuador (Cornik and Kirby, 1981). Mountain
ranges in Latin America also should be considered genetic/germoplasm banks for
a wide variety of plants cultivated since the pre-Hispanic period, as well as
for domesticated animals (llama, alpaca) and their wild relatives. The success
of agriculture in the Andes is based on the genetic variability of plant populations
and on the people themselves who have acquired the proper technology after centuries
of agricultural practices. This genetic variability has resulted not only in
a high number of cultivated species but also in a striking diversity of cultivars
and genotypes adapted to the environmental heterogeneity of the mountain ecosystems
(Blanco Galdós, 1981).
Each valley or mountain range has its own characteristics, especially in the
tropical Andes, making the area one of the most diverse physical and biological
mosaics in the world. At the same time, local populations in the Andes have
developed appropriate technologies that are applicable in highlands agriculture;
these technological reservoirs are comparable only to those existing in the
high plateaus of Asia (Morello, 1984)
Earthquakes, volcanoes, and tectonic movements are common all over Latin America.
Some of these events may be catastrophic because urban and rural settlements
are likely to be devastated, but some may have positive effects. For example,
floods in Argentina, which originate in the high Andean watersheds, have devastating
effects on cultivated valleys. However, aquifers previously exhausted through
alfalfa irrigation become recharged, and salinized soils are washed. Furthermore,
volcanic eruption generates soil enrichment, which nourishes a wide range of
crops, including coffee in Central America and Colombia.
Latin America contains a large variety of climates as a result of its geographical
configuration. The climatic spectrum ranges from cold, icy high elevations,
with some of the few glaciers still found in the tropics, to temperate and tropical
climate. The region also has large arid and semi-arid areas. One of the most
important characteristics of Latin America from the climatic point of view is
its large sensitivity and vulnerability to ENSO events. From northern Mexico
to Tierra del Fuego, every country in the continent exhibits anomalous conditions
associated with ENSO.
The region also hosts the largest pluvial forest in the world: 7.5 million
km2 constitute Amazonia, of which 6.12 million km2 are
within the Amazon basin. The average rainfall in the Amazon basin is about 2,300
mm yr-1, with real evaporation estimated at 1,146-1,260 mm yr-1.
The Amazon is undoubtedly the world's largest river in terms of its outflow,
with an average annual flow rate of 209,000 m3 sec-1.
The Amazon, the Parana-Plata, and the Orinoco carry into the Atlantic Ocean
more than 30% of the freshwater of the world. However, these water resources
are poorly distributed, and extensive zones have extremely limited water resources.
Latin America hosts one of the largest terrestrial and marine biological diversities
in the world. South America has the largest fish catch on the eastern Pacific.
There is an important flow of krill and other plankton species as a result of
cold sea currents on both sides of the southern tip of South America. A combination
of the prevailing atmospheric and oceanic circulation defines the climate and
the land and sea productivity of the region. This explains the actual distribution
of human settlements and the availability of basic services (e.g., water supply).
Overall, the health profile of the Latin American population can be classified
as undergoing a slow epidemiological transition. At one extreme of the spectrum
there is a high incidence of (and mortality from) chronic noninfectious diseases
such as cardiovascular problems and cancer, which predominate in large metropolitan
areas. On the other hand, infectious diseases still impose a heavy burden on
the poverty-stricken parts of the population. The reasons for this dichotomy
are two-fold: uneven socioeconomic development within countries and the extreme
diversity of regional environments.
Latin America (and the Caribbean) has the greatest disparity in income distribution
in the world. A mere 5% of the population receives 25% of all national income,
and the top 10% receive 40%. Such proportions are comparable only to those found
in some African countries (IDB, 1999).
Many problems that have affected Latin America adversely are now showing a
wood-saw type of change, with some temporary improvements and downfalls. However,
in some countries of the region, improvement in the macroeconomy is being observed,
in spite of the negative impact from recent developments in Asia and some countries
of the region (Mexico and Brazil). Improvement currently observed in the economies
of Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina does not reflect the meso- and microeconomies
net deterioration in the living standards of rural and peri-rural urban areas.
The middle class, which had become a sign of progress in several countries,
also is adversely affected. This situation, added to the effect of extreme events,
has exacerbated migration toward richer cities and countries with relatively
better economies. Shantytowns have grown steadily around big cities, and poverty
belts have even tripled. Their location in flood-prone valleys and unstable
hills results in a lack of potable water and sanitation services, which is posing
a serious threat to these cities.
Cultural (language, traditions, religion), economic (degree of development,
economic systems, wealth distribution), and social (demographic growth, political
systems and practices, educational systems) similarities in Latin American countries
indicate that they could address climate change with common (shared) methods.