Version: 12031004 Rev. 1
The Caribbean's economic and social development has been accompanied by a significant environmental impact. Various processes that are directly or indirectly related to the industrialization and economic development of the Caribbean region are associated with adverse environmental effects: the expansion of tourism, the increasing use of chemicals in agriculture, migrations from rural areas to cities, a disproportionate amount of land set aside for the construction of housing, population growth, deforestation, degradation of supplies of potable water, degradation of marine resources, problems with solid waste and wastewater disposal systems, deterioration of air and water quality in densely populated areas, increased health care costs due to pollution, and the dependence on exploitation of non-renewable resources by the poorest sectors of society. In the Caribbean islands, where land is clearly the scarcest resource (because of the geography of the small islands), the region's intensive and disproportionate use of land for mining, housing, agriculture, infrastructure, industry and tourism have had an adverse ecological impact.
The situation is only made worse by the fact that many Caribbean economies are strongly dependent on exporting natural resources and that many countries rely on a non-diversified portfolio of export products. In the continental areas of the Caribbean, the greatest impact has been on forests. Apart from the forests of the Greater Antilles, the most important forests in the Caribbean basin are those located in the continental Caribbean countries. It is estimated that the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries collectively have 32.7 million hectares of forests, the majority of which are located in Guyana, Suriname and Belize. Guyana is, in fact, one of the countries with the highest percentage of forest in its territory, with 18 million hectares of forest that represents nearly 95 percent of its national territory. Although household use of wood for cooking is common in many sectors of Guyanese society, it is estimated that the greatest environmental impact on the forests comes from commercial activity related to agriculture, mining and the timber industry. Guyana has an annual deforestation rate of 0.06% per year. Other economic activities with severe environmental effects in the Caribbean region are the mining and petroleum industries. Mining involves alterations to the soil and vegetation and also has a great impact on watercourses, drainage, swamps and underground aquifers. As for the petroleum industry, most of the environmental problems associated with hydrocarbon production are, frequently, the result of disposal of byproducts. Although agriculture is not a major sector in the Caribbean islands, it is an important source of pollution in the region, particularly because of the use of chemicals. Environmental impacts related to agricultural production are numerous, but usually include air and water pollution associated with production and processing, and problems related to the unsustainable use of land resources.
In the Caribbean islands, meanwhile, the tourism industry appears to have the greatest environmental impact on the region. The tourism industry requires many natural and human resources. For example, the industry uses a huge amount of land for the construction of gigantic hotels and golf courses, it requires heavy use of water for swimming pools and irrigation of golf courses, as well as high energy use to meet the needs of tourists. Other adverse environmental effects related to the tourism industry include the destruction of mangrove swamps, coral reefs and sandy beaches, the extinction of species, the eutrophication of lagoons and lakes due to sedimentation, the disposal of solid wastes from tourism, and excessive exploitation of fishing.
The effects of economic activity and tourism on the human element, or labor, should also be considered. Many environmental economists or contemporary academics who work on ecological issues often include the society as an integral part of the environment and often measure the impacts of changes in economic activity on local populations as part of their analysis. This is important in the Caribbean region in particular, given its recent economic history. The transition from economies based on agriculture to economies based on manufacturing and service industries (tourism) during the second half of the 20th century, along with the opening of markets through free trade agreements (for example, NAFTA, CARICOM, CBI), have revealed the lack of skills and training in broad sectors of the island populations and has created a huge mass of unskilled, unemployed or underemployed workers and sectors that are highly dependent on aid from the welfare state or on payments sent home by emigrants abroad. This situation is particularly notable in the Greater Antilles, whose population represents 80 percent of the total Caribbean population, and particularly in Cuba and Haiti, two of the poorest countries in the Americas. This has created a prevailing inequality in the distribution of wealth. The Latin America and Caribbean remains the region with the most unequal distribution of wealth in the world. Unemployment is high throughout the region, particularly among young people. Studies of young workers by Caribbean environmental economist Dennis A. Pantin show how young people are most affected by the problems of unemployment and underemployment in the Caribbean. Comparing data from seven Caribbean countries (Belize, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados), Pantin showed unemployment rates among those between the ages of 15 and 29 that ranged from 52% in Barbados to 84% in Jamaica. For this reason, many economists believe that investments in human resources — education, training, and health and nutrition — are essential for the economic growth and development of the Caribbean region.