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Report calls for a new economic model to address growing food insecurity in Latin America

Photo by Scott Umstattd on Unsplash

Food insecurity and malnutrition could rise in Latin America as climate change makes droughts and floods more frequent. A report from SIANI’s expert group on land rights in Latin America describes the growing risks and how climate and environmental challenges intersect with social inequalities and political instability. 

SIANI’s expert group on Land Rights in Latin America consists of 20 experts from 10 Latin American countries. With the support of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) the group seeks to develop a regional response to the rapidly growing problems of food insecurity, land conflicts and violence.

The complex linkages between these issues are described in the report Environmental and Climate Justice, and the Dynamics of Violence in Latin America: Perspectives from a Regional Working Group on Climate Change, the Environment, Peace and Security in Latin America, The report builds on discussions within the expert group as well as research from SIPRI researchers Caroline Delgado, Farah Hegazi and Anniek Barnhoorn.

The expert group warns that the climate crisis could have dire consequences for food security in Latin America. The report describes how climate models predict a drop in crop yields as droughts and floods become more frequent and more intense. Forestry could also take a blow if forests are increasingly degraded.

This contradicts most countries’ economic plans, which instead assume that Latin America will continue to meet the growing global demand for food, livestock and timber. The dominant economic model favours the expansion of large-scale agriculture and extractive industries even though this puts growing pressure on the environment and pushes people off lands they have inhabited for generations.

A key finding of the report is that Latin America’s climate and environmental challenges aggravate social inequalities and political instability in one of the most violent regions of the world. Latin America is home to 8 of the 10 most homicidal countries and is the most dangerous place on earth for environmental defenders. The region has the highest number of environmental conflicts, linked to the legal and illegal extraction of natural resources and often intertwined with drug trafficking and contraband smuggling. The main victims of violence are the socio-economically poor and disadvantaged, including ethnic minorities, women and subsistence farmers.  Protesters are often repressed and criminalized by the governments that should be protecting them.

The report highlights that governments need to move away from the current economic model which encourages natural resource extraction and land use change, often at a high price for local communities and biodiversity. Four themes are analysed in more detail:

  • Governance
  • Extractivism and land use change
  • Environmental and climate justice
  • Protection of nature and territories

Democracy is eroding in many Latin American and Caribbean countries, though 78% of governments are democratically elected. NGOs, the media, and electoral authorities have come under attack, undermining social accountability and transparency. Violence and inequality further diminishes trust in the government and the state. Combined with high levels of crime and corruption, the rampant attacks on human rights activists and environmental defenders harm the quality of governance and favours vested interests over the public good.

The report emphasises that countries in the region need to collaborate to break this vicious cycle and take back control from criminal organisations which pose a significant threat to institutions upholding the rule of law. Another key recommendation is to improve the protection of environmental defenders and strengthen the leadership in Indigenous territories, Afro-descendent communities, and among peasant communities including through better access to financing. Roles and responsibilities of the armed forces must be clearly defined with processes for accountability.

Extractivism and land use change

Latin America is rich in national resources and home to more than a quarter of the world’s medium to high-potential farmland. Mining, logging and agriculture play a pivotal role in the economy, with governments encouraging large-scale agriculture for export and foreign investment in the exploitation of forests, minerals and metals.

The report argues that this extractive economic model mainly serves a small local elite, at the expense of long-term sustainability, and advocates for alternative development models that reflect the worldviews of diverse peoples and their territories. The report recommends that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) holds a thematic hearing on extractivism and violations of the rights of Indigenous, peasant, Afro-descendant, and urban communities.

Environmental and climate justice

Despite having contributed less than 7% of global greenhouse emissions, Latin America and the Caribbean is one of the regions most vulnerable to climate impacts like droughts and floods. But the report also warns that growing demand for clean energy in the “Global North” could lead to increased exploitation of natural resources in Latin America, further aggravating food insecurity. Addressing this is a responsibility for governments in both Latin America and elsewhere, the report notes. It also argues that companies should be mandated to reduce their environmental impact.

Protection of nature and territories

The report recommends that governments assess the impacts of natural resource exploitation from for example mining, intensive agriculture and livestock rearing that requires deforestation and the use of pesticides. It also calls for stronger legislation with fair mechanisms for mitigation, reparations and compensation.

Preservation of nature requires a holistic approach, recognising the role of local and Indigenous communities in protecting nature and territories.

Moving to a safer development model

The four themes demonstrate how different social and environmental challenges intersect and cause detrimental feedback loops. To break this vicious cycle, countries in the region need to enhance their collaboration and support each other. United, it will be easier for them to take back control from criminal organisations and vested interests. Countries can also work together to monitor the situation of violence against environmental defenders and protect activists and Indigenous groups.

An important step has been taken with the Escazú Agreement, a legally binding agreement enacted in 2021 to safeguard the right to a healthy environment for present and future generations. The agreement calls for more regional cooperation and capacity-building. It also provides a framework to monitor and hold companies legally accountable for the consequences of their operations. Importantly, the Escazú Agreement is a recognition that the challenges facing the LAC region extend beyond national borders, underscoring the urgent need for coordinated regional and global efforts to address these multifaceted challenges.


Learn more

Read more about the expert group’s recent visit to Europe: SIANI expert group shows how to promote peace and food security in Latin America.