Principles for a Sustainable Future: How Latin America must rebuild after COVID-19

Posted on 01 June 2020

By Manuel Pulgar Vidal, Climate & Energy Global Practice Leader, WWF International and Yolanda Kakabadse, Former IUCN and WWF President.

COVID-19 has exposed humankind’s weaknesses, vulnerabilities and interdependencies – not least in Latin America, where, at the time of writing in late May, infection rates and mortality are rising fast. But this unprecedented crisis could, if we respond to it the right way, put us on a path to reducing the inequalities we face in our societies, making our economies more sustainable and resilient, cooperating more effectively, and living in better harmony with our natural environment.

It is to this end that around 150 leading figures across the region have come together to sign the Principles for a Sustainable Future for Latin America in Times of Pandemic and Global Crisis[1]. These individuals include the former presidents of Chile and Mexico, former environment ministers, such as ourselves, and leading figures from academia, business and civil society.

In putting our names to the principles, we aim to help lay the foundations of a sustainable renaissance in Latin America, based on scientific knowledge, solidarity, new business models and technologies, and ambitious climate and biodiversity goals.

As has been widely discussed, the emergence of COVID-19 has shown the interplay between habitat loss, the degradation of natural ecosystems, the trade in wildlife and human health. Sadly, it is not the first zoonotic disease to plague Latin America: dengue fever and rabies are endemic in the Amazon; the region was hit hard by the Zika virus; Argentina, particularly, is suffering from Chagas disease.

Social challenges in Latin America exacerbate the effects of the pandemic. Few countries in the region have health systems that are equal to the challenge posed by COVID-19. Some 34 million people lack access to drinking water and 15% of the population to sanitation services. Highly urbanised societies often make social distancing impossible. Half the workforce is employed in the informal economy, without any social safety net. Migrants and indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable.

Uneven access to technology also threatens to widen inequalities as economies shift towards telework and as access to education will, for the duration of the pandemic, increasingly depend on an internet connection.

In addition, the region remains deeply fragmented by ideology and economic competition. Its multilateral bodies have proven unable to forge a collective response to a cross-border problem such as COVID-19.

But the pandemic has, for the first time, shown what a planetary emergency looks like. While it is much more fast-moving than the climate emergency about which we have been warning for some years, it provides an example of a threat that affects everyone, and for which only a collective response will be effective.

That response must be based on science. As the Principles for a Sustainable Future state, “science, as the basis of knowledge for managing risks and global threats, must guide cooperation and political, economic and environmental decisions.”

The response must also be rooted in solidarity: “For a sustainable renaissance, we must recognise the interdependence among humans and between us and nature.”

And recovery must also involve renewed commitment to the climate and biodiversity goals of the Paris Agreement and the Convention for Biological Diversity. Crucially, these goals must be embedded with the real economy and policy and political decisions; they cannot be considered as lofty aspirations, agreed in international fora then forgotten once politicians and officials return home.

Governments and the business sector need to begin to transform economies to become net zero emissions, and biodiversity protection must be written into new laws, regulations, business strategies and investment plans. They should ensure that, as they put together economic recovery plans, they do as the European Union has done, and follow the principle of “do no harm”, ensuring that the plans are directed towards a sustainable future. Business leaders and shareholders must recognise that social purpose is as important as profitability.

In embracing a more sustainable economic paradigm, Latin America enjoys many advantages. It has enormous natural resources that can help provide solutions to the dual crises of climate change and nature loss that we face: these nature-based solutions can attract investment and create employment while they also pull carbon from the atmosphere and protect the region’s unique biodiversity. We have to raise ambition to honor the Paris Agreement and build consensus towards a New Deal for Nature and People. Latin America must lead that process.

We want to conclude as the Principles conclude:

“Our experiences throughout this global pandemic demonstrate that it is possible for structural changes to take place. The world will not be the same after this pandemic.

“We trust the capacity of current and future generations to create the conditions for a common future that is radically different – one in which the human species takes responsibility for the care of nature and of one another, informed by scientific knowledge of the laws of nature, of our creative capacity, and of the privilege of living in a planet that is able to generate and regenerate its systems of life.”

[1] The Principles were promoted by Yolanda Kakabadse, Jorge Caillaux, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, Rafael Asenjo, Pedro Tarak, Miguel Pellerano, Juan Dumas, Ramiro Fernandez and Ignacio Perez and signed by around 150 leading figures.