A grim reminder of the impact of environmental ills in Central America came this past week when the remnants of Hurricane Mitch ravaged the region and caused an estimated 7,000 deaths.
Flash floods and mudslides caused most casualties -- the result of deforestation and soil erosion which is on the rise throughout Central America, according to the State of Environment and Natural Resources in Central America 1998, released yesterday.
"Forests are disappearing at a rate of 388,000 hectares per year... and soil loss is the norm due to lack of land planning, mining and the construction of hydroelectric dams," the report said. It was produced by the Central American Commission on Environment and Development, the Organization of American States (OAS), the World Resources Institute, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the World Bank, the World Conservation Union and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
For the most part, the environmental situation was deteriorating because existing international laws, or regulations in Central American nations, were not enforced or were ineffective, the report said.
"Current legislation is deficient, incongruent and duplicated... the majority of laws are not regulated and have gaps," it declared. "In spite of having approved general environmental legislation in practically all nations in the 1990s, regulations are fragmented and relate to individual natural resources rather than having a more holistic focus."
The interplay of poverty and unequal distribution of land is another main cause of environmental problems in the region. "In the rural sector, the concentration of land is greater than that shown in statistics, as frequently the best land is occupied by those who have the means and the technology at their exploitation, consigning the needy to poor quality land found mainly on slopes," the report said.
This pressure on fragile land causes "deforestation and the high levels of erosion and soil loss which are affecting the region." Central America possessed seven percent of the world's biodiversity and is one of the richest regions in terms of variety of plant and animal species. Many species, including many frogs and the harpy eagle, are found only in this region.
In recent years, as loss of habitat from deforestation became apparent, governments mapped out protected reserves where these species could take refuge. But despite these efforts, 44 hectares of Central American forest -- including protected land -- continued to disappear every hour, the report said.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that, between 1990 and 1995, the region lost around 2,284,000 hectares of forest.
Species are rapidly becoming extinct as wildlife became isolated and fragmented in small reserves. Such populations were especially vulnerable to disease or natural disasters, like floods or fires, the report said.
Besides increasing the enforcement of already existing protected areas, the report urged the formation of a "meso-American corridor" which would connect reserves from Panama to Guatemala. This connection would prevent plants and wildlife from being trapped in small reserves and allow them to reproduce and evolve -- as they have for thousands of years throughout Central America.
"Creation of the much needed corridor will be a very challenging task," said Jim Nations, vice president of Mexico and Central American programs at the Washington-based Conservation International. "Countries are not only going to have to better enforce their environmental laws but they will have to cooperate together for this project to succeed."
Acknowledging that the general poverty of Central America caused people to cut down forests for fire wood or to produce small plots of farm land, the report urged governments to increase employment and educational opportunities for their countries poor.
Another major environmental problem was pollution caused by motor vehicles, industry and energy generation through the burning of oil and gas, says the report.
While the Central American region does not emit nearly as much carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" -- blamed for the increase in the average global temperature -- as industrialized countries, air pollution remained a major problem for many urban areas in the region, the report said.
Central America had not employed the type of "clean technologies" used in Europe and North America that reduced sulphur dioxide and emissions of nitrogen oxide -- the chemicals responsible for causing acid rain. Lead from gasoline and industry also polluted the urban landscape, the report said.
"State of Environment" also described how water scarcity, and poor water quality, would be one of the more urgent environmental problems of the region next century.
"I know that right now, because of the floods, everyone is worried about having too much water in Central America... but the great environmental crisis still to come will be a lack of water," said Kirk Rodgers, former director of the Unit for Sustainable Development and Environment at the Organization of American States.
The report said that such scarcity often was "the result of watershed degradation, higher demands on the resource and population increases -- mainly in urban areas and Central America's Pacific region where less water is available than on the Atlantic side."
Water quality was another problem. Lack of access to clean drinkable water remained a major cause of disease in the region, said the report. Between 60 and 80 percent of all diseases in the region could be attributed to poor water quality as more than 95 percent of municipal sewage waste and industrial waste flowed untreated into river systems.
"Underground waters which supply a large number of the region's municipalities are being increasingly polluted as a result of the inappropriate disposal of municipal and industrial wastes," said the report. "It is common for excreta to be dumped untreated into river systems or the sea."
Pesticide and fertilizer run-off from agricultural areas -- especially off of heavily farmed fields of monoculture crops -- also contributed to water contamination.
"Clearly an overall water management plan for the region is needed," Rodgers declared. "But it's going to be quite a process -- none of the Central American countries have even their own water management plans."