Environment and Development in Central and South America

As Central American and South American countries continue to struggle with humanitarian issues and systemic poverty in the twenty-first century, environmental protection often becomes a tertiary concern. Friday’s Log Lunch featured two students from the Williams College Center for Development Economics, Alex Contreras Miranda and Maria Jose Sobalvarro Obregon. Miranda, a former employee at the Central Bank of Peru, shared his research related to the environmental effects of informal mining. Obregon, a former employee at the Central Bank of Nicaragua, delivered her talk on the environmental impacts of a new roadway on the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border.

In Peru, gold, copper, and other minerals account for over 55 percent of total exports, but this output is largely produced by the informal mining sector. The term informal sector refers to small and medium sized operations that are not taxed or regulated by the government. Unfortunately, much of this unregulated mining occurs in the Madre de Dios, a region of the Amazonian rainforest that is considered a global capital for biodiversity. Some of the environmental impacts of mining in the region include deforestation, mercury contamination, and erosion. Miranda believes that these environmental impacts will not be addressed until the government formally recognizes the Madre de Dios mining operations. With adequate regulatory structure and enforcement, the government can begin to limit certain types of machinery, fuels, chemicals, and processes that pose the greatest risk to the region’s diverse ecosystems.

In contrast, environmental integrity along Nicaragua’s San Juan River is threatened by politics, not industry.  Costa Rica is home to over 200,000 illegal Nicaraguan immigrants, who are often blamed for Costa Rican crime rates and other social problems. While Costa Rica cites commercial interests to justify the new road along the San Juan River, Obregon says that the road’s primary function will be Costa Rican border patrols. Construction of the road began in 2010, resulting in significant deforestation as well as sedimentation of the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua. Nicaragua has sought an injunction in the Central American Court of Justice, but Obregon believes that the judicial process will take too long to prevent any environmental damage.


Thomas Powers, Maria Jose Sobalvarro Obregon, and  Alex Contreras Miranda (left to right)