Environmentalism in Latin America

Today, about 75% of Latin Americans reside in urban areas.  This has not always been the case.  In Table 1, we show the changes in the urban percentage of the population between 1950 and 1990.  In 1950, less than 50% of the population lived in urban areas. 

Table 1. Latin America: % Urban Population in 1950 and 1990

Country %Urban 1950 %Urban 1990 %change
Argentina 65.3% 86.5% 21.2%
Bolivia 37.8% 55.8% 18.0%
Brazil 36.0% 74.6% 38.7%
Chile 58.4% 83.3% 24.9%
Colombia 37.1% 70.0% 32.9%
Costa Rica 33.5% 47.1% 13.6%
Dominican Republic 23.7% 60.4% 36.7%
Ecuador 28.3% 54.8% 26.5%
El Salvador 36.5% 43.9% 7.4%
Guatemala 29.5% 39.4% 9.9%
Honduras 17.6% 40.7% 23.1%
Mexico 42.7% 72.6% 29.9%
Nicaragua 34.9% 59.8% 24.9%
Panama 35.8% 51.7% 15.9%
Paraguay 34.6% 48.9% 14.3%
Peru 35.5% 69.8% 34.3%
Puerto Rico 40.6% 71.3% 30.7%
Uruguay 78.0% 88.9% 10.9%
Venezuela 53.2% 90.4% 37.2%

(source: United Nation, World Urbanization Prospects: 1994 Revision, Population Division, NY, 1995)

A great deal of the population shift has been due to rural-to-urban migration.   Such shifts occurred for a variety of economic and social reasons: growing rural populations, more jobs and better wages in the cities, easy transportation, support networks, armed conflicts in the countryside, wars, and so on.  The rapid, unplanned growth of the urban population led to a host of problems, of which environmental problems are perhaps the most visible.  These include:

These problems incur vast economic, social and health costs.  For example, in 1991, the cholera epidemic in Peru caused over 320,000 cases, 2,600 deaths and $1 billion in direct economic losses, when a smaller investment in water, sanitation, sewerage treatment and food safety might have prevented the epidemic.  Compared to a cholera epidemic, environmental pollution may be less dramatic, but the consequences may be more severe.

Some major Latin American cities (for example, Mexico City, Santiago and São Paulo) are among the most polluted in the world.  Size is not always the dominant factor.   Mexico City's problems are exacerbated by its location in a basin at high altitude, where thermal inversions trap cold, stagnant air.  Rio de Janeiro may contain many automobile and industrial plants, but there are sea breezes to clear the air.  Table 2 shows some standard air quality measures.

Table 2. Air Quality in Major Latin American Cities

City Sulfur
Mexico City Serious Serious Above
Serious Above
São Paulo Low Above
Low Above

(source: UNEP/WHO (1992), Urban Air Pollution in Megacities of the World, Blackwell, Oxford)

What does the 'serious' classification in the above table mean?  For example, in the case of Mexico City, this meant the production of an estimated 451,000 metric tons of suspended particulate matter and 206,000 metric tons of sulfur dioxide in 1990.   Suspended particular matter are smoke, soot, dust and liquid droplets from combustion which are associated with a wide range of  chronic respiratory diseases, heart diseases and other ill heath conditions among humans.  Sulfur dioxide emissions lead to acid rains, which cause serious defoliation and other environmental damages.

What does the citizenry think about all this?  For most people, the presence and effects of environmental pollution are evident everywhere.  The real question is their level of concern.  In the Los Medios y Mercados de Latinoamérica study, we asked whether or not people agree with the statement: "I am very concerned that pollution is affecting people's health".  It turned out that 82% of the people agreed with the statement.  In Table 3, we break down the answer by various geo-demographic subgroups.

Table 3. %Agree that Pollution is Affecting Health

Geo-demographic group %Agree
Argentina 54
Brazil 90
Chile 65
Colombia 85
Mexico 78
Puerto Rico 89
Venezuela 89
Balance Central America 88
Balance South America 77
Male 81
Female 83
Age 12-17 89
Age 18-24 89
Age 25-34 85
Age 35-44 84
Age 45-54 82
Age 55-64 83
Education less than 6 yrs 86
Education 6 to 11 years 90
Education 12 or more years 85
Socio-economic Level A 81
Socio-economic Level B 83
Socio-economic Level C 82
Socio-economic Level D 82

There does not appear to be much difference by age, sex, education and socio-economic level.  In fact, the biggest differences are that Argentina and Chile are lower than the other countries.  Unfortunately, our study does not allow us to determine the reason(s).  Are these two countries actually less polluted?  Do the people in these countries perceive their countries to be less polluted?  Are they less aware of the effects?  Or are they simply less concerned?

In as much as environmental pollution comes from multiple sources, the reduction of the problem has to be tackled by governments, non-government organizations, corporations and individuals alike.  The largest single role has to be played by the government, which must regulate and enforce anti-pollution measures.  These are not simple decisions, as there must be a balance struck between reducing environmental pollution and disruption of commerce, and between conservative fiscal policies and ambitious spending programs.   Sometimes, even the best of intentions may lead to contradictory results.  For example, the Hoy no circula program in Mexico City was intended to reduce traffic by forbidding driving one day per week depending on the license number, but the program was easily subverted and may have contributed to increased vehicle sales.

It would be nice for the private sector to act as responsible citizens and spontaneously do their own share.  Now, corporations are driven by the profit motive, and one might suppose that their current modes of operation maximize short-term corporate profits irrespective of any long-term costs to society at large.  This might mean that they would not be motivated to change anything.

In the Los Medios y Mercados de Latinoamérica study, we asked whether or not the respondents agree with the statement: "I would pay more for a product made by a company which respects and improves the environment".  Overall, 75% of the respondents agreed with this statement.  In Table 4, we have broken down the answer by geo-demographic subgroups.   Again, there is not much difference by age, sex, education and socio-economic level.  Argentina appears to be significantly lower than the other countries, but still more than half its people agreed with the statement.

Table 4. %Agree to Pay for Environment-friendly Products

Geo-demographic group %Agree
Argentina 52
Brazil 80
Chile 72
Colombia 71
Mexico 67
Puerto Rico 84
Venezuela 87
Balance Central America 84
Balance South America 71
Male 78
Female 72
Age 12-17 72
Age 18-24 75
Age 25-34 78
Age 35-44 77
Age 45-54 72
Age 55-64 69
Education less than 6 yrs 75
Education 6 to 11 years 74
Education 12 or more years 77
Socio-economic Level A 73
Socio-economic Level B 78
Socio-economic Level C 77
Socio-economic Level D 71

Corporations have the opportunity to make environment-friendly products without necessarily sacrificing profits.  They also have the responsibility to act as good corporate citizens. 


(posted by Roland Soong 7/16/98)

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