An Ecological SOS in Latin America*
One year before the 500th anniversary of the "encounter" between two worlds and two natural systems, and only a few years before the end of the 20th century and the second millennium, the planet Earth is passing through the worst ecological crisis of its history. This crisis puts at risk not only thousands of plant and animal species, but also the survival of the human species. For this reason, the environment cannot be overlooked as a topic demanding discussion in the summit meeting bringing together 19 Latin American Presidents, nor can our countries be absent from the decisions being made throughout the world that affect humanity's natural heritage. To be more specific, we, men and women of Latin American letters, propose to our heads of state that they move to form a Latin American ecological alliance, with the aim of maintaining and protecting the biodiversity of our countries through feasible areas of cooperation.
We know that almost half of the world's tropical forests have disappeared, that the planet loses between 16,000 and 20,000 hectares of forested land annually and that a species is lost every hour. We know that, by the year 2000, three-fourths of the tropical forest of the Americas will be destroyed and we will likely have lost half of the world's species. What took nature millions of years to create will have been destroyed by us in little more than 40 years. The world asks: is there a future for the rainforests? We ask ourselves: is there a future for us, for the world? The effects of the destruction of our natural resources and damage to our environment are now part of the Latin American consciousness, and there is not a nation on our continent that can escape the adverse consequences.
There is much to be saved in Latin America: of the 900 million hectares of rainforests on the planet, 58% are in Latin America (Brazil alone has 13%); Panama has as many plant species as the whole of Europe; the Peruvian reserve of Tambopata is the planet's richest habitat of birds and butterflies; the plants and animals found in Venezuela's Tepuis region are true natural treasures; the Lacandona Forest is the largest tropical forest in North America; and not only does a fifth of all the world's fresh water flow through the Amazonian watershed, but the Amazon forest is also home to a fifth of all bird species on the entire planet. Mexico and Colombia are two of the four countries with the greatest diversity of flora and fauna in the world.
We are aware of the variety of ecological problems and difficult economic situations facing our nations. For that reason, we want to concentrate our efforts in four key areas. The first is the protection of our rainforests and tropical jungles, which are threatened from Tierra del Fuego, Chile, to Chihuahua, Mexico.
One of the cooperation agreements that could be reached in the Guadalajara meeting is that of an Amazonian Pact between those South American nations sharing the richest and most complex ecosystem—and the vastest genetic bank—on Earth, the Amazon. The mere possibility of seeing this patrimony of all humanity, and of Latin America in particular, transformed into smoke and barren wasteland seems to us intolerable. An ecological loss of this scale would be a disaster for the entire planet, as life knows no borders.
As well as the valuable vestiges of Mayan culture, Mexico and Guatemala share the Usumacinta River and the huge tropical forests of Chiapas and the Petén. During the peak of Mayan culture in the first millennium of our era, the Usumacinta River was an important means of cultural communication, and the cities on its banks dominated great stretches on both sides of the river. To ensure the preservation of this zone's ecology, a binational eco-archeological park should be created along both sides of the river. This park could serve as a model in the Americas for shared projects in border zones and would put the final touch on current conservation programs, including the Monte Azules biosphere reserve.
Inter-American environmental cooperation to maintain and preserve biodiversity should be a primordial goal of our nations. As part of the framework of this cooperation, an agreement should be negotiated to protect the sea turtles in their migratory routes, given that, though no single nation by itself can protect the sea turtles, it only takes one nation to do away with them. A basic agreement would recognize the migratory nature of the sea turtles that takes them all along the Pacific Coast from Mexico to Chile, as well as along the Caribbean and Atlantic Coasts. Through an agreement, a commission of marine biologists, conservationists and appropriate authorities could be created and asked to report on the current situation of the sea turtles, presenting the necessary regional and national measures to be taken as well as actions that should be initiated, implemented and supported.
With respect to migratory birds, the most common migratory route extends throughout eastern Mexico, down through Central America, ending in the Amazon. Huge numbers of birds use this route each year. Another important route stretches from Canada down the Pacific Coast, with some species arriving in southern Chile and Argentina. There is no Latin American country without its share of migratory birds, including thrushes, great migrating falcons, the pale blue teal, sparrowhawks, shorebirds and curlews. Anguished by the danger that our continent's biodiversity will disappear, we ask the Presidents of Latin America to protect migratory birds by establishing sanctuaries in countries along migratory routes as well as in these birds’ eventual destination, with each country left to do as they see fit within this context. The habitats to be protected include tropical, island, forest, prairie, desert and beach regions.
Each year millions of tons of toxic waste are disposed of in Latin America, which has become a favorite dumping site for US, European and Japanese companies. Some 78% of the waste from abroad comes from the United States. The most frequent destinations for this waste are the Caribbean and Central American nations, along with Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, all countries that already have many problems with their own garbage and are not equipped to handle more, including nuclear, chemical and other toxic wastes. This kind of business continues to increase, many times masked under the term "recycling," and is generally done illicitly, as it leaves poisonous residues in the environment with the corresponding long-term danger to human, plant and animal life.
Given the difficulty of controlling the quantity, nature and final destination of this waste, we ask that the trafficking of toxic and nuclear waste be prohibited throughout the entire continent, and that national and international legislation be drawn up to address the problem. Our legislation should be equivalent to that of the strictest regulations in the developed world. We must see to it that Latin America does not become the toxic waste dump for the industrial world.
In the map of our continent, we can distinguish another map: that of the forests and jungles that are disappearing before our very eyes. And in this map of degradation and depredation, we can make out yet another: that of those population groups threatened by the destruction of their environment. These include the Yanomami and the Apinaye of Brazil, the Aché of Paraguay, the Yagua and Amuesha of Peru, the Miskito of Nicaragua, the Guaymí and Kuna of Panama, the Maya of Guatemala, the Páez and Guambiano of Colombia, the Mapuche of Chile, the Lacandón and Tarahumara of Mexico, all of whom are affected by indiscriminate deforestation and extensive cattle grazing; the settlement of new peoples pushing at the agricultural frontiers; the building of new roads, dams and tourist complexes; and the forced displacement from their lands by mining, lumber and cattle interests—in short, by economic slavery. On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the encounter between the two worlds, it is a priority for our governments to take the indigenous populations into account when they draw up economic projects and proposals, given that the environments of these populations are now being destroyed and their human rights violated with the wiping out of their habitat, means of sustenance and social and religious systems. Before the arrival of the Europeans, indigenous peoples from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego sustained their ecosystems without destroying them, and they have the historic right to continue to do so.
Misters President: We are part of a worldwide problem that demands worldwide solutions. We need to define an environmental policy that effectively protects our rich biodiversity. The negotiation achieved among you to establish a Latin American ecological alliance, as well as the political will accompanying that alliance within each nation, will be, we are sure, a measure that will benefit current and future generations of Latin Americans, and will serve as an example to be followed by other heads of state in other continents. The environment is a topic that should be included on the agenda of those who debate the future of the human race.
Signed: Claribel Alegría (El Salvador), Isabel Allende (Chile), Jorge Amado (Brazil), Homero Aridjis (Mexico), Mario Benedetti (Uruguay), Adolfo Bioy Casares (Argentina), Joao Cabral de Melo Neto (Brazil), Luís Cardoza y Aragon (Guatemala), Eliseo Diego (Cuba), José Donoso (Chile), Carlos Fuentes (Mexico), Gabriel García Marquez (Colombia), Roberto Juarroz (Argentina), Enrique Molina (Argentina), Carlos Monsiváis (Mexico), Augusto Monterroso (Guatemala), Alvaro Mutis (Colombia), Juan Carlos Onetti (Uruguay), Olga Orozco (Argentina), José Emilio Pacheco (Mexico), Nicanor Parra (Chile), Fernando del Paso (Mexico), Octavio Paz (Mexico), Nelida Piñón (Brazil), Augusto Roa Bastos (Paraguay), Gonzalo Rojas (Chile), Ernesto Sábato (Argentina), Severo Sarduy (Cuba), Arturo Uslar Pietri (Venezuela), Emilio Adolfo Westphalen (Peru).
* Translation of a proposal for an ecology policy submitted to 19 Latin American Presidents meeting in the first Latin American Summit, Mexico 1991 by authors Gabriel García Marquez and Romero Aridjis, and signed by 30 of Latin America's best-known writers.