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CENTRAL AMERICA: ‘Green Economy’ Not a Panacea

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Aug 25 2011 (IPS) - The “green economy” will not solve the problems of poverty and natural disasters in Central America as long as the development model continues to be based on over-consumption and over-production, regional experts say.

Germán Rodríguez, the coordinator of the National Network for Environmental Training and Research (REDFIA), told IPS that all efforts directed at protecting the environment and natural resources “are a good thing,” although he said he has “reservations” about the “green economy”.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines the “green economy” as one that results in improved human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

“No real structural changes are involved, because (the green economy) remains tied to the dominant economic model, which favours one particular mode of production; however, it does provide a path towards an economy in greater harmony with the environment,” said Rodríguez.

The Guatemalan expert believes that changing the current development model “is a very complex undertaking,” and to achieve it “one must start by changing consumer attitudes” and behaviour to achieve a balance with the natural world.

“If consumers stop buying a particular product, producers will have to stop selling it,” he said.

In Rodríguez’s view, the key factors are environmental education for young people, promoted through the Education Ministry and the universities, and government regulation so that companies handle their waste responsibly.

The effect of global over-consumption on the environment is an inescapable issue for the 43 million people of Central America, particularly as the region is one of the worst hit by extreme climate phenomena, in spite of contributing very little to worldwide pollution.

A 2009 study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), titled “Economics of Climate Change in Latin America and the Caribbean”, reports that Central America contributes less than 0.5 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for global warming.

But Central America was hit by severe drought in 2009, and by hurricanes Mitch (1998), Stan (2005) and Agatha (2010). The extreme weather phenomena, widely attributed to climate change, left thousands of people dead, made hundreds of thousands of people homeless and severely damaged infrastructure and crops in the region, especially in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Central Americans are still struggling to recover from the series of natural disasters, which have only exacerbated the poverty that afflicts approximately half the region’s population.

“In 2010, Guatemala’s GDP growth was 2.8 percent, but extreme weather knocked 2.3 percent off its economic performance. So what economic growth can we speak of, if we don’t take environmental variables seriously?” Rodríguez asked.

In the view of Ricardo Navarro, of the Salvadoran environmental and appropriate technology organisation CESTA/Friends of the Earth, “as long as the produce-more, consume-more paradigm is uncritically accepted, the results yielded by the green economy will be all but imperceptible.”

“The green economy does, in fact, reduce the environmental impact of every dollar’s worth of production or consumption, but as soon as production or consumption increases, the benefits vanish,” he told IPS.

Navarro said a new political and economic system must be created, based on a harmonious relationship with nature.

“What this means is that we must limit production and consumption to the bounds that nature permits, in terms of natural resource use and waste disposal, and at the same time we must guarantee respect for basic human rights,” he said.

To mitigate environmental impact, Central American countries have redesigned policies in different areas of production. In terms of energy production, for instance, Costa Rica has managed to generate more than 80 percent of electricity from renewable sources.

Nicaragua, next door, aspires to generate 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2016, while Guatemala plans to produce 99 percent of its energy from renewables by 2022, according to the energy and mines ministries of both countries.

But environmentalists are sceptical about the feasibility of these plans, and say that even if the goals are reached, a truly green economy will still be a long way off.

“The region’s governments are debating how to implement development policies while at the same time protect natural resources,” but powerful private interests actively oppose and will “ultimately prevent a green economy,” according to Eddie Gallegos of AMICTLAN, the association of municipalities for the preservation of Laguna de Apoyo, a crater lake in Nicaragua.

Gallegos advocated a change in consumer habits, so that “if we own four pairs of shoes, we should ask ourselves whether we really need all of them.”

“The key is to diminish consumption by those who buy too much, and to slow the rate of population growth,” he told IPS.

Guatemalan economist Fernando Carrera told IPS that environmental sustainability and economic productivity are equally important.

“China has proved that using up everything within reach to ensure economic growth, with no thought for poverty or the environment, generates a vast amount of pollution at home and in the rest of the world, so that environmental regulations are increasingly of concern,” he said.

In Carrera’s view, it is possible to supersede the capitalist economic model, “although humanity has yet to find something more efficient to replace it,” he said.

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