South America is a continent rich in natural resources, including timber, freshwater, fish, rubber, agricultural products such as fruits, nuts, and quinoa, and minerals and metals such as gold, copper, lithium, and silver. As a result, the countries that inhabit this continent are highly reliant on natural resources to drive their economies and provide a livelihood to their citizens.
Overdependence on these natural resources, however, is neither good for the economy nor the environment. Deforestation, mercury contamination, soil degradation, desertification, and air pollution are only a few of the environmental ills that are resulting from such activities as mining and other natural resource extraction, including the clearing of land for agriculture and the harvesting of trees for commercial purposes. Deforestation in the Amazon basin is a serious concern, in particular, but several countries are beginning to work to slow the rate of clear cutting. Brazil, specifically, has had much recent success in beginning to slow deforestation in the Amazon basin.
Throughout South America there is a growing tension between “global demands for resources and local demands for respect and the safety of their citizens” (Sabatini, 2012). Recent clashes (some deadly) between natural resource extraction firms, such as mining and petroleum companies, and local communities have highlighted this tension and brought this issue to the forefront of discussion in countries such as Peru and Chile.
There are bright spots amid these tensions as well. Grassroot efforts by local communities are forcing governments in many South American countries to reconsider their approaches to natural resource extraction and to the power given to the firms that control these commodities. In Bolivia a unique program is involving local community in watershed conservation, offering bees and barbed wire in exchange for water conservation. In Peru, the government has created a new national organization to carry out environmental impact assessments.
Some countries are also beginning to seek out renewable solutions to the growing energy demands being placed on grids throughout South America. For example, Chile has slowly started to tap into the powerful solar potential in the Atacama Desert. And Brazil is investigating the possibilities of energy generation from its abundant wind resources. There is still a long ways to go along the path to seeking sustainable solutions to growing energy demands, but small steps such as these are encouraging.
As the Earthducation team travels from the Amazon basin to the Atacama Desert and on to Patagonia, they will be talking with people from a diverse spectrum of backgrounds about issues of sustainability and how education might influence sustainable practices within their local communities.