Emerging Trends in Environment and Economic Growth in Latin America and the Caribbean

July 22, 2010 // 9:30am12:30pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Urban Sustainability Laboratory
Environmental Change and Security Program
Latin American Program
Mexico Institute

Economic development and environmental sustainability in Latin America and the Caribbean are intrinsically connected, as evidenced by the July 22, 2010 seminar organized by the Woodrow Wilson Centers' Brazil Institute, on behalf of the Latin American Program, and co-sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The seminar presented the report "Emerging Trends in Environment and Economic Growth in Latin America and the Caribbean," which identifies key trends likely to shape the economy and natural environment in Latin America and the Caribbean for the next 10 years. The culmination of six workshops and a regional meeting in Panama since January 2010, the seminar highlighted the key points discussed in the report.

Janet Ballantyne, acting deputy assistant administrator of USAID's Latin America and the Caribbean Bureau, began by stating that Latin America is "not our back yard, it's our front yard." She claimed that it's time that we "open the front door" and address the issues faced by Latin America that have long-term consequences for the region, the United States, and the world.

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 of small economies, and urban issues. She argued that in order to capitalize on the Latin American population's age structural transition toward a majority of working age adults, Latin America needs to increase skilled job creation, educate workers to fill those positions, and maintain economic stability. She also claimed that recent climate change trends are a "game changer," which can fundamentally alter development paths.

In addition, while the trend of 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 faced by the region. Finally, Pendzich contended that insufficient innovation could lead to the continuation of the region's dependence on commodity exports, and that the inadequate inclusion of indigenous and minority groups in education and the economy "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. He claimed that the recovery of the global economy will hurt net importers of fossil fuels, specifically 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.

The second panel, consisting of three of the 77 participants involved in the formation of the report, revealed in greater depth the "integration and interconnectivity" of the five trends discussed in the report, said Geoffrey Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Program. Blair Ruble, chair of the Comparative Urban Studies Project, highlighted 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—the key to success in all of these areas.

On the other hand, cooperation with the rural indigenous 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. She argued that indigenous populations are the ones most affected by climate change, but also the most able to help as a result of their unique knowledge of the local geography. Finally, 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. Therefore, she contended that policies to adapt to climate change must focus on poverty reduction as well as the vulnerability of specific geographic locations.

In conclusion, 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."

Drafted by Elizabeth Pierson.

The report "Emerging Trends in Environment and Economic Growth in Latin America and the Caribbean" is available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese here .

Event Speakers List: 
  • Blair A. Ruble // Vice President for Programs; Director, Urban Sustainability Laboratory; and Senior Advisor, Kennan Institute
  • Eric L. Olson // Associate Director, Latin American Program
  • Technical Adviser on Climate Change and Clean Energy, USAID
  • Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator, Latin America and the Caribbean, USAID
  • Senior Adviser, Bureau of Policy, Planning, and Learning, USAID
  • Senior Adviser, Social Sector, Gender and Diversity Unit, Inter-American Development Bank
  • Associate Professor, Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan
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