Latin America’s unique biodiversity can help kickstart post-Covid recovery

Were it better protected, the region’s massive natural capital could generate short-term economic benefits as well as long-term growth opportunities, experts say
<p>Farmers in the Chaltenango Department of El Salvador. Agriculture is one of the sectors that generate more employment in Latin America and the Caribbean (image: Alamy).</p>

Farmers in the Chaltenango Department of El Salvador. Agriculture is one of the sectors that generate more employment in Latin America and the Caribbean (image: Alamy).

Protecting and restoring natural areas in Latin America, home to 50% of the planet’s biodiversity and over a quarter of its forests, could help the region achieve a ‘green’ post-pandemic recovery and meet biodiversity conservation targets, experts say. Doing so could even create thousands of jobs in key economic sectors such as agriculture. 

The economic crisis resulting from Covid-19 has left Latin American countries struggling. Many of them also have high levels of debt. The region’s GDP dropped 7.7% in 2020 and is not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, according to the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). 


million jobs in Latin America rely directly on ecosystem services

Countries have been urged to use the crisis as an opportunity to kickstart a green recovery. This means not only reducing greenhouse gas emissions but also preserving the natural capital upon which Latin America relies for its economic growth. Approximately 64 million jobs in the region are estimated to rely directly on ecosystem services.

“Instead of a trade-off, the interdependence of economic well-being and nature can present an enormous opportunity. A range of nature-based solutions exist that can help address the crisis of nature,” said  Manuel Pulgar Vidal, global leader of climate & energy at WWF. “This includes restoring forests, practicing agroecology or even planting urban forests.”

Still, this has proven challenging. A preliminary analysis by the UN showed Latin American countries have so far spent US$318 billion on covid-19 recovery packages, of which only 2.2% was destined for so-called ‘green’ initiatives, such as clean energy and electric public transport. 

Latin America: a biodiversity superpower

Latin America houses three of the top five countries with the most bird, amphibian, mammal, reptilian, fish and plant life. The Amazon basin alone is the cradle of 10% of the world’s biodiversity. These are only the known species. From the grasslands of Uruguay to the Mesoamerican coral reef, the region is vitally important for global biodiversity. 

Sadly, there have been rapid declines in species as extinction rates rise. This has been in part due to habitat loss and agricultural expansion and intensification. Meanwhile, a high dependency on natural resources for export revenues also leads to vegetation removal and water and soil pollution. 

Biodiversity loss in Latin America has been far more significant than in any other region with an average decline of vertebrate populations of 94% between 1970 and 2016, according to the WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020. Half the decline was linked to land use change, including soil degradation and habitat loss. 

Jeannette Sánchez, head of the natural resources division at ECLAC, said the pandemic has further worsened the situation, as governments are spending less on environmental protection to obtain as much income as possible from their natural resources. But this doesn’t have to be the norm and she calls for a reimagined relationship with biodiversity.

“There are many examples across Latin America of how natural resources can be used sustainably while generating further employment, such as with marine protected areas. But they are still small-scale and should be further expanded. A political commitment and long-term vision are needed to make this happen,” she added. 

It’s a critical moment for Latin America. The region can transition to a different relationship with nature, establishing green and blue economies based on natural capital

“Agriculture and livestock” and “processing of food, drinks, and tobacco” are the sectors with the highest number of workers that rely on ecosystem services in the region, with more than 40 million and 10 million workers, respectively. Other sectors that depend on so-called natural capital are textiles, chemicals, paper and tourism. 

Yet, the numbers could be much bigger. A report by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) last year found that plant-based agriculture could employ 19 million more full-time workers by 2030. Another 60,000 jobs would be created in the forestry sector. 

Ana Sanchez, a green job specialist for Latin America at the International Labour Organization (ILO), said the region could create new jobs while protecting its natural capital through ecosystem restoration, agroecology and green infrastructure. But this requires governments to break from business-as-usual, she added. 

“They have to acknowledge that many of the jobs in Latin America currently depend on nature. This would help to drive policies in the right direction,” Sánchez said. “There are many places in the region where mining or fossil fuels are the only job creating industries. And this shouldn’t necessarily be the case.”

Nature-based solutions

Latin American governments now have an opportunity to design stimulus packages that simultaneously support nature, create employment and increase economic and climate resilience by integrating nature-based solutions.

“It’s a critical moment for Latin America. The region can transition to a different relationship with nature, establishing green and blue economies based on natural capital,” said Juan Bello, advisor on healthy ecosystems to the UN’s Environment Program (UNEP). “Governments have to value biodiversity as a source of wellbeing.”

A report last year by the ILO and WWF argued that the greatest potential for job creation lies in natural capital investments by governments in both rural and urban settings.

It highlighted inland and coastal ecosystem restoration, agroforestry, community-based ecosystem management and more marine reserves, as well as sustainable urban agriculture and the promotion of local markets. 

Latin America has already been making progress in mainstreaming biodiversity into policies and public planning. According to World Bank data, at 23% the region already has a greater percentage of land under protected status than the world average of 14.7%. Significant progress has also been made on marine areas.

Countries such as Mexico and Costa Rica have also been among the first ones in the world to implement payment for ecosystem services (PES), a market-based tool that provides economic incentives to providers of ecosystem services. It can support forest conservation initiatives as an alternative to protected areas. 

“Latin America’s leadership in restoring and mainstreaming biodiversity is essential,” said Susan Gardner, director of UNEP’s ecosystem division. “The region has to aim for a green recovery through a sustainable use of its biodiversity and the restoration of its degraded ecosystems.”