2. Trends and key pressures on biodiversity and ecosystems

This chapter provides an overview of the status of Latin American biodiversity and ecosystems, drawing on indicators from national and international sources. It examines the main pressures on these ecosystems resulting from forestry and agriculture, mining, energy and infrastructure development, invasive species, desertification and climate change. The chapter includes an overview of the region’s main biodiversity hotspots.


The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.

2.1. Status and trends

Latin America is one of the most important regions of the world in terms of biodiversity and ecosystems. Latin America and the Caribbean hold 40% of the world’s biological diversity, eleven of the 14 terrestrial biomes, and the second largest reef system worldwide (IDB, 2015). The region holds more than 30% of global freshwater, 50% of tropical forests, 33% of mammals, 35% of reptilian species, 41% of birds and 50% of amphibians (UNEP, 2010). Six of the world’s 17 “megadiverse” countries are found in Latin America – Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil – selected based on the proportion of species that are endemic (found nowhere else in the world) and the presence of important marine ecosystems (Biodiversity A-Z, 2014). Biodiversity hotspots – characterised by high degrees of endemism and biodiversity loss – extend across many South American countries, including Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and all countries of Central America.

Box 2.1. Biodiversity hotspots of Latin America

North and Central America

  • Madrean Pine-Oak Woodlands: Stretching across Mexico’s main mountain chains and into the southern United States, this region holds one quarter of Mexico’s plant species. The pine forests of Michoacán – threatened by excessive logging – provide a wintering site for the annual migration of millions of monarch butterflies.

  • Mesoamerica: This region is the third largest hotspot in the world and spans Mexico and most of Central America. It is a corridor for many neotropical migrant bird species, has over 17 000 plant species and provides habitat for amphibians. Species are threatened by habitat loss, fungal disease and climate change.

  • North American Coastal Plain: A newly announced hotspot in 2016 covers the south-eastern United States and north-eastern Mexico, and is characterised by more than 1 500 endemic vascular plants and 70% habitat loss. Population growth, sea-level rise and loss of historic dispersal corridors are threatening species.

South America

  • Atlantic Forest: The Atlantic Forest region extends along Brazil’s coast, inland to eastern Paraguay and into Argentina and Uruguay. Over 40% of the 20 000 plant species, and 15% of the 930 bird species, are endemic to the region, and the 8% of original forest remaining is threatened by agriculture and urban expansion.

  • Cerrado: Covering 21% of Brazil, the Cerrado is the most extensive woodland-savannah in South America. It is home to species such as the giant anteater, giant armadillo, jaguar and maned wolf. Agriculture and ranching pose threats to biodiversity in the region.

    Chilean Winter Rainfall-Valdivian Forests: This hotspot in central Chile encompasses 40% of the country, divided between a Mediterranean-type climate and winter-rainfall deserts. Species such as the Araucaria tree, Andean cat, and endemic reptiles and amphibians are threatened by agriculture and urban development.

  • Tropical Andes: Stretching from Venezuela through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia into Chile and Argentina, this region is one of the richest and most diverse on Earth. It is home to a number of endemic plants, mammals and birds, and the largest variety of amphibians in the world, threatened from mining, oil, forestry, and plantations.

  • Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena: Extending from the Panama Canal, into Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, this hotspot includes habitats such as mangroves, beaches, rocky shorelines, coastal wilderness, rain forests and South America’s only remaining coastal dry forest. Threats include urbanisation, hunting and deforestation.

Source: CEPF (2016a), Biodiversity Hotspots, www.cepf.net/resources/hotspots/Pages/default.aspx.

2.1.1. Forests

Forests cover nearly half of the Latin American continent, which is large in international comparison. Between 1990 and 2005, Latin America and the Caribbean lost nearly 69 million ha of forest, or 7% of the region’s forest cover (UNEP, 2010). On average, forest area has declined by 0.4% per year in South America, compared to 0.1% globally (FAO, 2015). While the forest loss on the continent has slowed in recent years, deforestation rates remain among the highest in the world, constituting one of the greatest challenges to biodiversity conservation. The deceleration of forest loss was much driven by Brazil, which reduced deforestation in the Amazon from 27 700 km2 in 2004 to 4 800 km2 in 2014 (OECD, 2015). Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico have also slowed the rate of deforestation, while Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay are expanding their forest area (Figure 2.1). Deforestation rates remain very high in much of Central America (FAO, 2015).

Figure 2.1. Forest loss remains high

Source: FAO (2015), Global Forest Resource Assessment 2015, www.fao.org/forest-resources-assessment/en/

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888933886018

2.1.2. Marine ecosystems

Latin American countries mainly rank in the middle of the 221 countries included in the 2017 Ocean Health Index assessment, which evaluates marine ecosystems around the world. Chile and Ecuador are among the region’s leaders, ranking 70th and 82nd respectively, while Colombia and Venezuela are among the worst performers. Ocean Health Index scores – which include biodiversity, ecosystem and economic criteria – range between a low of 60 for Colombia and a high of 71 for Chile and Easter Island (Figure 2.2). Most Latin American countries are below the global score of 70. Data limitations continue to be a challenge in fully assessing some countries, however (Ocean Health Index, 2017).

Figure 2.2. Ocean Health Index scores are deteriorating

Note: Overall scores are based on several biodiversity, ecosystem and economic criteria, including biodiversity, clean waters, carbon storage, artisanal fishing opportunities and tourism and recreation. The biodiversity criterion measures how successfully the richness and variety of marine life is being maintained in the country. The overall scores are out of a maximum of 100.

Source: Ocean Health Index (2017), Ocean Health Index 2017, www.oceanhealthindex.org.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888933886037

2.1.3. Inland and aquatic ecosystems

Although Latin America holds more than 30% of the world’s freshwater in its lakes, rivers, wetlands and aquifers, water resources are unequally distributed. Many arid and semi-arid regions are expected to face increasing challenges with water availability that will impact biodiversity, economic growth and drinking water supplies as water demand grows and climate change exacerbates water scarcity (UNEP, 2010).

The Andes Mountains in South America hold 90% of the world’s tropical glaciers, which are a vital source of fresh water for humans and biodiversity in the sub-region. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that most of the glaciers will melt by 2040 (UNEP, 2010). Northern and central Chile is facing growing water scarcity challenges due to climate change as well as water-intensive mining activities, agriculture and population growth. These are threatening wetlands and the birds, amphibians and other species dependent on them.

2.1.4. Species

Latin American countries have some of the highest numbers of threatened species in the world, and many more have not yet been assessed. Extinction risk is particularly high among coral, tree, and amphibian species (UNEP, 2010). Latin America also has high proportions of endemic species that are found nowhere else in the world. For example, 25% of the 31 000 described species in Chile are endemic.

The Red List of threatened species of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) shows that Ecuador, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Peru have the highest number of threatened species in the region (Figure 2.3). For example, in Brazil, the 2014 list of threatened flora species indicates that 46% of the 4 600 evaluated plant species are threatened under various risk categories (OECD, 2015). Ecuador and Costa Rica have some of the highest shares of threatened species compared to the total number of known endemic species in their country (Figure 2.3). Both countries see more than two-thirds of their endemic birds under threat, a larger share than any other OECD country (OECD, 2018). However, these numbers may not be reflective of the true status as many countries have only assessed a small portion of known species. Chile, for example, has only classified 3.5% of known species (see Section 3.6).

Figure 2.3. The number of threatened species is high

Note: The number of species identified as threatened is also a function of how many have been assessed in the country. The IUCN notes that there are many species that have not yet been assessed, particularly reptiles, fish, molluscs, other invertebrates and plants.

Source: IUCN (2018), IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, www.iucnredlist.org/.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888933886056

2.2. Key pressures

Pressures on biodiversity and ecosystem services are growing quickly in many regions of Latin America as a result of the scale and pace of economic and population growth. While significant progress has been made, in a number of cases biodiversity conservation and sustainable use policies have not evolved fast enough to prevent biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation. Between 1990 and 2010, Latin America’s population grew by more than 30%, and GDP in the region increased 87%. By 2030, the population is expected to reach 691 million (from 633 million in 2015), and GDP is expected to reach USD 9.2 trillion (from USD 6.2 trillion in 2015) (IDB, 2015; IDB, 2016). Forestry, agriculture, mining, and energy extraction and infrastructure are some of the key sectoral drivers of biodiversity loss. These are outlined below, and discussed in greater detail in Chapter 6 of the report.

2.2.1. Forestry and agriculture

Deforestation remains one of the greatest pressures on biodiversity in Latin America. This is predominantly driven by the desire to convert forest into agricultural land to grow commercial crops (e.g. soya, biofuels, fruits, vegetables, flowers) and raise livestock for export (UNEP, 2010). In the Cerrado region of Brazil (a biodiversity hotspot) large-scale land clearing for agriculture has left only around 20% of the original vegetation intact (CEPF, 2016b). Agricultural expansion also caused over 90% of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon. Unclear or lack of land tenure, as well as illegal activities (logging, mining, illegal crops, wildlife traffic) are contributing to deforestation (OECD/ECLAC, 2017; OECD, 2015). In Colombia 40-50% of timber is harvested illegally (MADS, 2012). Illicit crop cultivation is a challenge in both Colombia and Peru. Forest fires are also a major source of forest loss, particularly in Chile and Brazil. Chile has an estimated 5 000 fires annually, causing about USD 50 million of financial loss per year (OECD/ECLAC, 2016). Fragmented and lost forest areas not only threaten the viability of a number of species, they can also have adverse impacts on the water quality of watersheds, lead to higher soil erosion and increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Agriculture itself is also a significant threat to biodiversity, as a result of overgrazing, pesticide and fertiliser use, and high water use.

2.2.2. Mining, energy and infrastructure development

Mining, oil and gas extraction, and electricity production have environmental impacts that represent significant risks to biodiversity such as high groundwater extraction, land-use change, soil and water contamination and hazardous waste generation (e.g. in tailings ponds from mining). In Chile, mining activity has led to elevated copper and salinity levels in some rivers. Expansion of pipeline infrastructure to transport oil and gas to markets can also lead to spills and disruption of ecosystems. For example, oil company PetroPeru experienced three oil spills between January 2016 and June 2016 in the Peruvian Amazon region. Hydroelectric development, which is significant in Latin America, can result in displacement of people and destruction of natural habitat for the creation of reservoirs. Expanding road infrastructure, driven by urban growth as well as by resource extraction and energy development, is further threatening biodiversity by creating access to previously remote areas, allowing others to clear land for subsistence agriculture or illegal logging (UNEP, 2010). This happened in Brazil and Colombia where deforestation has often occurred along new road as a consequence of easier access to the forest. In Colombia about 60% of roads are built by municipalities and departments, often with weak planning or technical design and therefore do not incorporate environmental considerations. This situation has been exacerbated after the end of armed conflict by the return of population to remote and areas.

2.2.3. Invasive species

Invasive Alien Species are a mounting threat to biodiversity. They can out-compete native species for space and resources, be predatory to native species, and/or introduce disease. They can also cause economic harm by damaging agricultural production, forestry, fishing and water supplies (ICSU, 2009). In Brazil, the presence of invasive species is estimated to cause an annual loss of USD 43 billion (OECD, 2015).

Many invasive species were introduced intentionally. Indeed, it is estimated that three quarters of invasive species found in Brazil were introduced deliberately, mainly for agriculture and ornamental use. The Canadian beaver was introduced to the island of Tierra del Fuego bordering Argentina and Chile in 1946 with the intention of fostering a fur trade. The beaver grew in population and now numbers in the tens of thousands, spreading to other islands and areas north of the Strait of Magellan. The beaver is particularly destructive in the area, because Patagonian forests do not grow back in the same way as North American trees. Beaver ponds are also causing rivers to retain more organic matter, altering the watershed’s carbon cycle (OECD/ECLAC, 2016). Similarly, the expansion of the Giant African land snail, initially brought to Brazil for commercial purposes (for the development of an “escargot market”) is now causing environmental damage in several countries across the continent.

Knowledge of invasive species is limited and uneven across Latin American countries. The Global Invasive Species Database developed by the IUCN Invasive Species Specialist Group provides a good comparable indication of invasive species present in Latin American countries, though it does not include all invasive species. According to the database, Latin America has 54 of the top 100 of the world’s worst invaders, and a greater prevalence of invasive species in categories such as trees, vines, climbers, mammals, fish, amphibians, and insects (ICSU, 2009). Mexico, Brazil and Argentina showcase the largest numbers of invasive species (Figure 2.4), although this may also reflect greater data availability. In general, the numbers of invasive species listed on the Global Invasive Species Database are lower in Latin American countries than in OECD countries such as Australia (409), France (254) and Canada (243) (IISG-IUCN, 2016).

Figure 2.4. Invasive species are a threat to biodiversity

Source: ISSG-IUCN (2018), Global Invasive Species Database, http://www.iucngisd.org/gisd/.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888933886075

2.2.4. Desertification

Latin America is particularly vulnerable to desertification, with about one-quarter of the territory consisting of desert and drylands. Most of Mexico is arid and semi-arid. Southern Ecuador, the Peruvian shoreline and northern Chile have hyper-arid deserts. High and dry plains of the Andean mountains cover large areas of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. To the east of the Andes, an arid region reaches from Paraguay into Patagonia in southern Argentina. Northeast Brazil contains semi-arid zones with tropical savannahs (UNCCD, 2007). Land degradation, overgrazing, deforestation, forest fires, excessive water use for irrigation and droughts exacerbated by climate change make biodiversity and human populations in these regions extremely vulnerable. Up to 50% of agricultural land in Latin America is at risk of desertification by the 2050s (IPCC, 2007). This has strong socio-economic impacts. In Peru, for example, most areas where soil quality is deteriorating are inhabited by populations with medium to low development indices (OECD/ECLAC, 2017). Several strategic ecosystems in Colombia are threatened by desertification, with the Caribbean area being the most vulnerable.

2.2.5. Other

Fishing and aquaculture are important industries in Latin America, yet overfishing, bycatch, illegal fishing and pollution from aquaculture are placing substantial pressure on marine and coastal ecosystems. Untreated waste, urban and industrial wastewater effluent and unsustainable tourism are placing further pressures on these ecosystems. As a large percentage of Latin America’s population and development activities, including the main transport nodes, are concentrated in coastal areas, coastal development is also a driver of biodiversity loss. Inland aquatic ecosystems are threatened by pollution stemming from agriculture and aquaculture, existing and abandoned mines, oil extraction and wastewater.


Biodiversity A-Z (2014), Megadiverse Countries, United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge, www.biodiversitya-z.org/content/megadiverse-countries.

CEPF (2016a), Biodiversity Hotspots, Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, Conservation International, Arlington, www.cepf.net/resources/hotspots/Pages/default.aspx.

CEPF (2016b), “Cerrado”, Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, Conservation International, Arlington, www.cepf.net/resources/hotspots/South-America/Pages/Cerrado.aspx.

FAO (2015), Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015, Food and Agriculture Organisation, Rome, www.fao.org/forest-resources-assessment/en/.

ICSU (2009), Biodiversity Knowledge, Scope of Research and Priority Areas: An Assessment for Latin America and the Caribbean, International Council for Science: Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, Mexico City, www.icsu.org/icsu-latin-america/publications/reports-and-reviews/biodiversity-knowledge/Final%20Report_biodiversity_final_completo.pdf.

IDB (2016), Latin American and the Caribbean 2030: Future Scenarios, Inter-American Development Bank and The Atlantic Council of the United States, Washington D.C., http://publications.atlanticcouncil.org/lac2030/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/LAC2030-Report-Final.pdf.

IDB (2015), Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Program: An Overview, Inter-American Development Bank, Washington D.C., http://idbdocs.iadb.org/wsdocs/getdocument.aspx?docnum=38186826.

ISSG-IUCN (2018), Global Invasive Species Database, Invasive Species Specialist Group of the IUCN, www.iucngisd.org/gisd/.

IPCC (2007), Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R.K. and Reisinger, A. (eds.) IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland.

MADS (2012), Politica Nacional para la Gestion Integral de la Biodiversidad y Sus Servicios Ecosistemicos (National Policy for the Integral Management of Biodiversity and its Ecosystem Services ), Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, Bogota, http://humboldt.org.co/images/pdf/PNGIBSE_espa%C3%B1ol_web.pdf.

MINAM (2014), Informe Nacional del Estado del Ambiente 2012-2013 (National Report on the State of the Environment 2012-2013), Ministry of Environment of Peru, Lima.

Ocean Health Index (2017), Ocean Health Index 2017, www.oceanhealthindex.org/.

OECD (2018), “Biodiversity: Threatened species”, OECD Environment Statistics (database), https://doi.org/10.1787/data-00605-en (accessed on 16 July 2018).

OECD (2015), OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: Brazil 2015, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264240094-en.

OECD (2013), OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: Mexico 2013, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264180109-en.

OECD/ECLAC (2017), OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: Peru 2017, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264283138-en.

OECD/ECLAC (2016), OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: Chile 2016, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264252615-en.

OECD/ECLAC (2014), OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: Colombia 2014, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264208292-en.

UNCCD (2007), Combating desertification in Latin America and the Caribbean: Fact Sheet, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, Bonn, www.unccd.int/Lists/SiteDocumentLibrary/Publications/Fact_sheet_13eng.pdf.

UNEP (2010), State of Biodiversity in Latin America and the Caribbean, United Nations Environment Programme, Panama City and Nairobi, www.unep.org/delc/Portals/119/LatinAmerica_StateofBiodiv.pdf.

End of the section – Back to iLibrary publication page