Interview UNEP Director for Latin America

EMG recently conducted a thought leadership interview with Mr Juan Bello, Director and Representative for Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Office, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Please tell us about UNEP’s work in South America.

UNEP was established 50 years ago and operates globally. Thirty years ago, a regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean was established, serving as UNEP´s hub for guiding its efforts in aiding countries in the region. UNEP’s mission is to assist countries in attaining their goals and meeting targets related to the strategic objectives of addressing the triple planetary crisis; climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

Currently, UNEP has an extensive portfolio in the region, featuring 130 projects valued at 400 million USD across various investment areas. These encompass initiatives dedicated to climate change, spanning adaptation, mitigation and transparency frameworks. Additionally, UNEP actively supports countries implementing the Global Biodiversity Framework, focusing on conservation, sustainable land use, and educational endevors aimed at ecosystem restoration.

Over the years, UNEP has made significant strides in matters concerning law and governance. The extensive portfolio includes numerous projects focused on chemicals and waste management, constituting one our largest areas of engagement. Moreover, UNEP actively assists countries in transitioning toward sustainable consumption and production. This involves our work in promoting a circular economy and collaborating with the finance sector. Additionally, we partner with countries to monitor environmental status and trends, emphasizing the importance of vigilance in safeguarding our environment.

Additionally, we have been involved in supporting the region during times of disasters and conflict. For instance, in Colombia, we undertook a project aimed at integrating an environmental dimension into the peace process initiated 5 years ago. This effort was geared towards supporting the country in addressing environmental concerns within the context of peacebulding.

Mr Juan Bello, Regional Director and Representative, Latin America and the Caribbean Office (Image credit: UNEP)
What are some of the environmental challenges specific to South America?

The environmental dimension in South America is historically affected by the economic, political and social situation of the region.

The region exhibits a signficant reliance on extractive economies, leading to specific impacts, notably in the realms of the oil and gas industry, mineral extraction, and various commodities associated with agricultural industry and related sectors. This approach to economic development deeply influences the region´s dynamic.

Furthermore, the region remains one of the most unequal worldwide, with this inequality contributing significantly to political instabilit. This interconnection is crucial as poverty, political unrest, and broader macro-economic challenges collectively create conditions that profoundly impact the environment.

What are the main issues that South America is facing regarding the environmental dimension?

First of all, the region faces the loss and the transformation of its natural ecosystems, leading to biodiversity loss, and a significant reduction in its natural capital. These ecosystems and the services they provide are vital not only for economic development but also for factors such as health. Unfortunately,the region is moving towards the loss of these invaluable resources.

Moreover, the region is experiencing multifaceted impacts of climate change. Increasingly frequent extreme weather events, including droughts and flooding, are significantly affecting vast areas. These occurances not only contribute to migration but also result in widespread devastation, exacerbating existing social and economic challenges.

Another pressing concern revolves around pollution and waste management in the region. Despite having robust policy frameworks in place, many sources of pollution persist due to inadequate implementation. Weakness within environmental institutions, often compounded by insufficient government funding, limit the capacity for effective action on these pressing issues.

Lastly, South America remains among the most dangerous regions worldwide for environmental defenders. The threats are evident in environmental conflicts, and in social unrest, and economic tensions. For instance, in countries like Brazil, Colombia, or Peru, being an environmental or human rights defender often entails risking one´s life. This grim reality reflects the gravity of the myriad issues intertwining within the region.

ESG Latin America
UNEP Headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya (Image credit: UNEP)
Please tell us about the types of partnership that would help UNEP to reach its goals in South America.

At the core of the UNEP mandate, partnerships with governments stand as paramount. Fortunately, the establishment of the ‘Forum of Ministers of the Environment of Latin America and the Caribbean’ forty years ago, provides a pivotal platform for political dialogue and cooperation. Within the forum, numerous networks comprising focal points from various government departments, are dedicated to advancing the environmental agenda. These networks encompass diverse areas such as atmospheric pollution, closure of dumpsites, and circular economy. The breadth of working groups and networks within this structure signifies the comprehensive efforts underway.

While strengthening ties with governments remains crucial, UNEP recognizes the imperative of enhancing partnerships with the private sector, particularly with the finance sector. This collaboration is absolutely essential as it serves as a pathway to influence investment trends throughout the region. The finance sector plays a pivotal role in funding a wide array of projects—from agriculture to extractive industries to urban development. Therefore, forging robust alliances with this sector is pivotal to drive sustainable investment

Expanding engagement with civil society stands as another pivotal partnership. This involves bringing together diverse stakeholders, including women’s groups, children, young people, and notably faith communitie, which have significant influence in South America. Our ongoing collaboration with faith communities has yielded compelling projects, recognizing their substantial role as catalysts for shifting societal attitudes and behaviours concerning our relationship with nature and addressing environmental challenges.

UNEP acknowledges the pivotal role of Indigenous Peoples’ participation and values the substantial contributions stemming from their traditional knowledge. This knowledge, acquired through generations of experience, observation, and transmission, offers invaluable insights for fostering sustainable ecosystem management and development.

Furthermore, it´s imperative to strengthen our collaborations with academia, researchers, scientific institutions and communities. This area represents a significant avenue for fostering partnerships that drive impactful initiatives.

These are just a few examples of partnerships that we already have and are working on strengthening.

Please tell us about one of UNEP’s success stories in South America.

This is a difficult question, because we have so many success stories, and there are various levels of these. So I will mention just a few examples.

One example is the suppor we provided in Peru, working with the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Health to develop and adopt a law regulating lead in paint. Prior to this regulation, paint used in every house and building contained lead, which is highly toxic leading to various health issues in the population. Our support facilitated the development and adoption of crucial national legislation to address this issue.

In Chile, we collaborated with the government to develop and adopt a national strategy for organic waste management. This strategy, now widely adopted, delineates the guidelines for handling organic waste accross the country. Another notable success story, as it has become an integral practice in the daily lives of many chileans.

In Colombia we helped to develop a national strategy for electric mobility, a transformative initiative reshaping the entire transport sector and generating new opportunities and jobs. Additionally we collaborated with the finance sector to develop a new approach for microcredit tailored to assist small farmers in adapting to climate change. This initiative significantly impacted thousands of families throughout the country.

So these are just some small success stories that also indicate the scope of areas for action and the extensive collaborative work an organization like UNEP can undertake with its partners in the region.

In your opinion, what has been the most important decision made in regard to the environment concerning South America in the last 5 years?

I interpret this question in terms of environmental development in South America, and from that perspective I would say that the Escazú agreement was an extremely important one.

The Escazú agreement is unique in that there is no other multilateral regional agreement like it. It focuses on access rights related to the environment, encompassing access to participation, access to information, and access to justice. This is what I was referring to when I spoke previously about the huge problems that the region is facing in terms of inequality, social mobility and political instability ; people are seeking active involvement, transparent information from both government and private sectors, and justice.

This agreement creates new opportunities for the judiciary system to integrate environmental perspectives, and for local governments to enhance their transparency frameworks, ensuring robust engagement with local communities in decision-making processes. Ultimately, it lays the foundation for a new era of environmental democracy in the region, fostering environmental justice.

NB: This leadership interview was conducted by our management trainee Jules Thuau, who was born in Colombia. He is a Masters’ student at Excelia Business School in La Rochelle, France. EMG’s flagship CSR initiative, the IRI Reporting Standard, is a non-profit organization with observer status in UNEP since 2021.