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The environmental impact of globalization on Latin America: a prospective approach

Chichilnisky, Graciela and Gallopin, G. (2000): The environmental impact of globalization on Latin America: a prospective approach. Published in: Managing Human-Dominated Ecosystems (2001): pp. 271-303.

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Current changes in Latin America include the abandonment of the economic pattern of import substitution, a growing opening of the national economies, a continental wave of political democratization, an apparent economic recovery from the "lost decade" (the 1980s), a growing social polarization, a worsening of environmental problems, the growing influence of the market, and the most intense urbanization process on the planet. The aim of this paper is not to discuss the advantages or disadvantages of the prevailing economic pattern, but only to analyze some of the possible environmental implications derived from the way of insertion of the countries of the region in the global economy. The region as a whole is relatively well endowed in terms of natural resources. With little more than 8% of the global population, Latin America has 23% of the potentially arable land, 10% of the cultivated land, 17% of the pastures, 22% of the forests (and 52% of the tropical forests), and 31% of the permanently usable freshwater. It has not less than 3% of the world reserves of fossil fuel and 19% of the technically usable hydroelectric Power.

Regarding economic globalization, the general argument from the environmental point of view is not that international trade is negative and that autarchy is desirable, but rather that a certain degree of regulation is necessary to reach a "sustainable free trade." The technological aspect of globalization is so important that it is possible to speak of a true techno-economic revolution or Knowledge Revolution (see also Chichilnisky's chapter in this book), led by microelectronics and the information technologies, and accompanied by a constellation of developments based on new technologies intensive in science (biotechnology, new materials, new energy sources, nanotechnology, etc.). From the point of view of their environmental implications, many of the new and emergent technologies exhibit interesting differences with the previous technological paradigm. The attributes of the new paradigm having higher strategic interest can be characterized as ambivalence, flexibility, and knowledge-intensivity. The technical potential for ecologically sustainable development is higher today than in any moment of the past. However, the direction toward which the trajectories of the new techno-economic paradigm seem to be moving suggests that, unless Latin America adopts active and sustained strategies to carry out the necessary social, economic, and technological structural changes, the mentioned technical potential is likely to materialize only in the most advanced countries, with the region running the serious danger of concentrating the perverse effects of the techno-economic revolution.

A prospective analysis was carried out, based on simple simulation models of the ecosystemic transformations associated to land use in each of the 18 major lifezones represented in Latin America. Two basic socioeconomic scenarios were defined by the whole region: the reference scenario and the sustainable scenario. The reference scenario suggests the type of environmental consequences associated with land use that an unrestricted and unregulated opening of the economies (in the context of an absence or widespread weakness of environmental and social policies) would have. The sustainable scenario shows that, from the ecological and technological points of view, it is possible to change direction toward a much more desirable long-term situation, without too large direct economic costs. Implications of strategic importance for the sustainable development of the region are identified.

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