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Sustainable Development in Central America by Dana Williams


"Sustainable development is more than just the maintenance of resource flows; it requires that members of a community come to some sort of agreement about the shared interests that override their individual ones and depends on having in place the social organization that is based in a framework that helps to facilitate social consensus and peace."
- Ronnie D. Lipschutz, "Sustainable Development: Implications for World Peace"


Sustainable development is an intention to retain a re-enforceable and self-perpetuating society in good standing environmentally, economically, and socially. This development is accomplished by actions and plans that intend to work towards a more stable, reusable, non-exploitive, and peaceful society.

When applied to Central America (the region composed of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama), sustainable development should be that which changes the often poorly existing practices into ones that preserve the environment, help the people who live there, stabilize the economy, and halt exploitation of Central Americans, the environment, and the states themselves.

This goal is one that has special importance in Central America, due to its amazing biodiversity and extreme poverty of its people. Central America has had many different forces pulling on it for a very long time, ever since the arrival of the Spanish centuries ago. More recently, the forces of global superpowers have pulled on it, trying to manipulate its direction.

At the turn of the 20th century, Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote a book called "The Influence of Sea Power on History". This book turned into an imperialist manual for people like Theodore Roosevelt who took to heart Mahan's theories of regional control to keep out other imperial powers, while expanding globally, to get into other foreign markets, such as China. Central America and the Caribbean were the focal points for much of the US's attention. At a point when the region was just shrugging off the brutal colonialism of Spain, the US replaced itself on top of those very states and subjugated them with a different form of control: neo-colonialism.

Later on, during the era of superpower conflict between the US and the Soviet Union, Central America was the target of massive intervention under the auspices of saving (or converting) the region from (to) communism. Cuba declared itself communist once it realized it could get subsidization from the USSR, yet many other places in Central America were only practicing grass-roots revolutions against rich landowners and military dictatorships.

For example, Panama had been independent from Spain since 1821, but fell under control of its highly corrupt neighbor, Colombia. The US began building a canal in Nicaragua, and later bought out a French company's canal-in-progress in Panama. Once dangerously approaching a deadline that would revert the canal back to Colombia if the canal couldn't be finished on time, the US government and canal company sponsored (and forced) a revolution in Panama against Colombia. After parking a US war ship off the coast of Colombia, Panama was granted its independence and the Canal Company was given an extension on its project. This was a major precedence for intervention into Central America that the US started, that it continued, as it did in Panama once again in 1989 when it ousted Manuel Noriega, killing hundreds in the process.

The other forces acting on Central America are in fact the reason for such imperialist intervention, business. It is not always outside business interests who are creating problems inside the region, but native companies. Even though native, these business use and exploit workers in the countries just as bad others do and cause just as much harm to the environment.


It is important to explore all the facets of sustainable development, the environmental, the social, and the economic, in order to fully appreciate where Central America presently stands and where it needs to go to achieve such a goal.

The problems, unfortunately, are plentiful, but that is not an excuse to give up hope or to conclude that only a miracle could bring about positive change. Often even the most complex and entrenched problems require only the will power to make a significant policy change in order to accomplish a goal. Such is the case with Central America.


In considering the condition of "the environment", there are many factors to explore, and are all inter-linking parts of an ecosystem that relies on all other parts to retain equilibrium. Thus, throwing off the balance effects all other aspects of the ecosystem in unpredictable and dangerous ways. This is not to say that statism is the answer, but that natural evolution is preferable to forced environmental destruction by less than natural forces.

Perhaps the highest profile movement in conservation and environmentalism is the preservation of rain forests. Central America has many forests, with amazing diversity. In many cases, this biodiversity it being threatened, and once gone, the species do not reappear. For instance, in Panama, 13% of natural flora are threatened. In such a scenario, the destruction of "even" 13% will directly affect the animal populations that rely on those flora, causing further interference with the remaining flora.

Although the Amazon river basin's forests are often most heavily focused upon, the diversity in Central America is paramount; Costa Rica itself is home to species not found anywhere else in the world. In that light, it is important to note that natural resources are used in half the production and jobs of the region. Thus, the region is heavily dependent on its resources; consequently overuse and destruction are things that will not only affect the environment, but also the economy and social structure.

The timber harvested in Central America predominantly goes to rich countries, where there is a seemingly endless lust for wood. With local and federal governments being relatively friendly to the interests of logging companies, it is apparent that external needs are robbing Central America of its resources, in a fashion that does not endow the Central American people in any measurable way.

Strip-logging and the like are spurred on by population and financial crises, creating only short-term profits, which will likely not be re-obtainable in the future. With many of the forest in the region at risk-- from not only logging companies, but also from private household use for fuel and slash-and-burn techniques for agriculture-- it is essential to recognize the problems which follow from such practices: less flora causes erosion and, thus, flooding. As a region already stricken with the damage of hurricanes, mud slides and floods are the last thing people need.

With the exception of Belize and Nicaragua, the entire region relies heavily upon hydropower for its energy supply. Belize relies completely upon fossil fuels while Nicaragua get roughly half of its energy from fossil fuels, while supplying the rest through hydro power and "other" sources. Hydropower comes from hydroelectric dams built upon rivers. Being a hilly region, Central America has many rivers that flow from the middle of the isthmus to the coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides. Dams, although providing energy for the region, have created many ecological problems. When damming a river, large portions of dry land are flooded, which is often habitat, forest, or productive land (since it is riverbank land). Often indigenous cultures are the ones who get the least benefit from dams, as they are forcibly flooded off their ancient lands.

Like much of the world, Central America's offshore fish populations have been over-fished and are at serious risk. Oil slicks and over-development along coasts have led to the destruction of coral reefs, which are entire ecosystems within themselves, and are rendered completely unrepairable once the reef fish are gone.


There are important social concerns within Central America, ones that are unfortunately, not all that rare to many other poor regions of the world.

Overpopulation is a large problem, and is one that is a result of rapid urbanization and the migration from the rural areas to the cities. Overpopulation feeds on itself, and creates many complex problems within that urban setting, ones that will sometimes overwhelm the capacity of the city to take care of its citizen in a safe and healthy fashion.

Since Central America is predominantly Roman Catholic, birth control is not widely practiced or taught, thus the rapid population growth rates. A large number of children, in addition to added income for the family, are a form of social security later in life-- your children can take care of you, and the more children, the more care.

Urbanization has caused unstrategic urban development called urban sprawl. It is often in the form of shantytowns, where people from the countryside are forced to stay due to lack of work and living conditions elsewhere. Transportation congestion, polluted water and air, and overworked waste and water treatment facilities are all side effects of this crowding.

When treatment facilities are overworked, health hazards arise, as does the prevalence of disease. In rural areas, diseases such as malaria occasionally surface. HIV/AIDS infection rates are increasing in women, yet the most prevalent cases of contractions are from homosexual male intercourse and drug injectors who share needles. There is clear evidence that the infection rate is increasing fastest in the poorer and less educated sectors in society-- in the marginalized populace.

Hunger is also a problem and is affecting the poor sectors of Central America the most. Even without natural disasters like hurricanes that ruin entire crops and food supplies, many Central Americans cannot afford food to keep themselves out of malnutrition.

One of the most directly vital issues within the region is peace and security. As previously mentioned, security and peace are not things that Central America has had in the past few centuries-- but there is always the possibility of achieving a greater peace and broader stability. While no state in Central America is at war with another, even outside the region, there are occasionally border disputes and trade treaties that get ugly.

Democracy is a political philosophy that emphasizes the input of all members of adult society in order to achieve goals that are held by the majority of that society. Needless to say, Central America has not historically had such a legacy. The region is predominantly composed of military dictatorships and business-friendly regimes. Similar to the entrenched military dictatorship of Mexico-- the PRI-- Central America has not had many recent exercises in true governmental democracy. Whenever a legally elected government is elected it is often overthrown and replaced by a government or junta that is not likely to practice "market reform" or "land reform".


Stability and socio-economic equality are important things to keep in mind in regards to the economical factors of sustainable development. In this regard, Central America has a huge gap between the rich and poor, with economies heavily based upon exports such as coffee, bananas, sugar, seafood, and timber. Due to this societal gap, Central American countries are highly stratified by class and only a small minority of the population actually own businesses, while the rest work for others or work in agriculture while barely getting by.

Costa Rica has a large part of its economy invested in tourism, and thus goes to lengths to protect its natural resources and ecosystems. Yet, in trying to draw in tourists, it (and other states in the region) builds lots of resorts, which have a high impact on the environment, whether they are done safely or not.

Central American states are largely indebted to the World Bank, other lending institutions, and industrialized states. Most of the time, all these states can do is pay the year-to-year interest on these loans. Crippling debts like these are rarely paid back, and then when natural disasters like Hurricane Mitch come around, they only cause further damage. The need for additional aid and investment from outside the region once again increases, which only sends them into deeper debt.


Like with all problems, quick fix solutions are not the answer. Nor are solutions that only identify and handle one specific problem-- a comprehensive and thorough plan is necessary to incite real change. Thus, the following solutions to the aforementioned problems and conditions in Central America are ones that should be collectively considered and implemented, not just those which are convenient or easy.

For biodiversity to be protected there has to be a conscious effort from all facets of society. Corporations and private citizens must not over log forests, governments (therefore the people) should be able to restrict and regulate corporations. Indigenous peoples' rights and opinions need to be heeded, as do members of the academic community who have an extensive knowledge on pertinent matters. Thus by keeping all actions in the public view, it would be possible to harvest in a sustainable fashion.

With trees and lumber specific, certain things may be done. International consumption should be curbed and reduced to a reasonable, need-based level. All "chummy" relationships between logging companies and local or state governments should be terminated, because such relationships encourage intentional bending and breaking of laws. Increasing the efficiency of wood processing and usage in order to minimize waste and reduce the overall number of trees needed.

By keeping more forests in place, the likelihood of floods and erosion will decrease, since the soil will be able to retain water. Also, often unspoken in the discussion over logging, is the fact that oxygen (a byproduct of photosynthesis) is a vital part of human life, and destroying the largest tracts of forest on the planet is doing nothing but destroying the air supply.

A movement away from the harmful effects of hydropower needs to be made. There are other renewable sources of energy, such as solar and hydrogen power. The decentralization of power sources is also an intelligent strategy, as it allows for more localized power needs, and distributes it in a sturdy "spider web" fashion, instead of a centralized scheme which can be overwhelming and susceptible to overuse.

Further development on coastlines, be they resorts or oil drilling, need to consider the affects upon fish and the plants in the oceans. Dumping waste, warmed water, or chemicals into open water sources will only cause problems. Thus, better waste processing facilities need to be created. The impact of development projects needs to be lessened by using efficient methods and technologies, and using only what is necessary.

To handle the problems of urbanization, thoughtful action plans should be created by each urban center, to handle their unique problems. Yet, there are some strategies and needs which are common to all. There should be an equal access to housing, economic resources, credit, natural resources, and appropriate technologies. Quality health services which not only supply essentials, but also aid in both the care of elderly, poor, and children and also in the case of emergencies. Adequate food and water are surprisingly scarce in some places and efforts need to be made to ensure that water supplies are clean and readily available. At the same time, efforts and programs should be made to install efficient and cost-effective equipment that doesn't waste water.

Education is a crucial tool to combating the bad side effects of urbanization. With an educated population, there is more opportunity to work and engage in beneficial societal activities. Without such activities, crime is an option that is often chosen, which in turn leads to more problems. Also a "decent" thing to be considered in an urban infrastructure is the human need for open space. It is often observed that animals do not willingly place themselves in horribly close proximity to each other for reasons of freedom and taste. Humans also need the ability to expand, more about freely, and utilize private space.

In a region such as Central America where much of the population is poor and landless, the notion of "land reform" is a very important consideration. Whereas measures of land "re-distribution" have often been met with violent antagonism by the US and businesses, such polices could be done in ways that integrate people more equally into such businesses and governments, thus canceling out the loss that such institutions/entities may feel due to a loss of property. As the saying of Cuban liberator Jose Marti goes, "everything for everyone and nothing for ourselves". While such an attitude would take a while to adjust in our thinking, the notion is not entirely foreign to Central Americans who have lived under different varieties of "communes" for centuries.

The question of hunger is one that is directly akin to that of land rights in Central America. Since one often has both or not a lot of either, it is apparent that poverty and hunger go hand in hand. In order to feed a rapidly growing population food distribution needs to be improved. Yet, things of that nature are only reactive, short-term solutions, since if one can't buy foods, then increased availability isn't going to help out too much.

There are other strategies to take, however. The best way to stop the increasing deficit of food per person is to slow the increase in population growth. Once good infrastructure development takes place it becomes much easier to lower the population growth rate, thus making it easier to feed everyone. The practice of sustainable agriculture will cut-down on waste and will increase efficiency and yield. Genetically modified seeds and plants are not, however, necessarily the answer. Large seed companies engineer their seeds so that new ones need to be bought each year from the company, thus enforcing the reliance upon the company and defeating a farmer's independence. Holding the government and companies responsible for hunger in their countries, through either international or internal regulation and oversight, would hopefully eliminate abuses and ignorance.

Decentralized agrarian communities would be beneficial as well, as then people could address their own local needs and priorities. Through grassroots organization (as is already widely done) local projects, tasks, and programs are carried out. If these could be extended (or at least the style) to the rest of the countries and region, many problems could be discussed.

Fighting disease in Central America involves, for the most part, education, especially in regards to HIV/AIDS. A lack of knowledge on the dangers and the precautionary methods is very harmful, so educational programs in schools would be very useful in this area. Other diseases that are carried through animals and unclean conditions can be overcome by a general improvement in sanitation and water treatment.

A positive world media portrayal would let the rest of the industrialized world see Central America for how it really is and in what ways it is exploited. Once the veil is lifted it would become easier for people in those industrialized societies to change their policies with Central America to be more kind, congenial, and helpful. This change in attitude is needed if the countries are ever to break out of indebtedness. There are campaigns to not only extend debt "relief", but to wipe clean debt altogether.

In order for Central America to truly rise up as a region and as a people, they need to be adopted into the world community as equals, and not the sweatshops and the mines of the world's rich. Democracy within all the states in Central America must reign in order for equality to be even a feasible option. The military influence in the region must be diminished. In fact, truth be told, these states don't even need armies, since if any other country were to attack any of them, the US would be there to defend them in a second. Disarmament within militias and the general population is important. Yet, just disarming guerillas and rebels is not going to solve internal conflict-- the police forces also need to be controlled and not used as political tools of repression.

As always, a more level-playing field is desirable, and, with certain disparities gone, human suffering should also reduce. In order to approach this level field for economics and political power, some degree of supranationalism should be considered-- perhaps the "United States of Central America" (like the European Union). By bonding together, the states of Central America could handle their problems and achieve their goals more expediently and with greater ease.


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