UN Enviroment Programme

Chapter 9. Status of soil pollution in Latin America and the Caribbean

International and national legal frameworks addressing soil pollution in Latin America and the Caribbean

According to the information presented in the previous sections, soil pollution is a very significant issue in Latin America and the Caribbean, as it considerably affects the environment and puts at risk the health of the region’s inhabitants and, ultimately, its sustainable socio-economic development.

The existence of legal frameworks related to soil pollution is essential to ensure the availability of funding and a liability chain, which will make it possible to prevent further incidence and deal with existing pollution. Latin American and Caribbean countries have developed numerous national regulatory frameworks and almost all countries have joined international efforts, demonstrating their commitment to combating soil pollution. However, in some cases, the instability of governments and the scarcity of funding mean that these legal frameworks are not effectively implemented and enforced, and new cases of pollution continue to occur.

9.5.1. International legal frameworks addressing soil pollution

There is no single international agreement that addresses soil pollution in its entirety. There are however several international agreements that address certain aspects of soil pollution that relate to the specifics of the agreement. These agreements include the Basel, Stockholm, Rotterdam and Minamata Conventions.

Table 4 shows the status of adoption and implementation of these main international conventions per each country in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Table 4. International legislation addressing soil pollution in the Latin America and the Caribbean Region.

Source: (Basel Convention, 2021; Minamata Convention, 2021; Rotterdam Convention, 2021; Stockholm Convention, 2021).

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) was adopted in 2001 and came into effect on 17 May 2004 (Stockholm Convention, 2019). As mentioned in Section 6.2, many countries in this region have significant stockpiles of PCBs and obsolete pesticides included on the POPs list of the Convention. The first data for the region date back to the beginning of the 21st century, when over 11 000 tonnes were reported by FAO (FAO, 2002). The regional assessment prepared by UNEP (2002) gathered information on the levels of POPs in soils, but the information was scarce and non-comparable among the different studies. Much of these stocks, corresponding mainly to obsolete pesticides, has already been eliminated or is in the process of being eliminated. However, the contaminants precedent from e-waste are an emerging threat in the region that are going to be tackle, at least partially, through an international project hosted by the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The project, involving Argentina, Bolivia (Plurinational State of), Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), will establish national e-waste management strategies, including regulations for the recovery and disposal of e-waste; the strengthening of existing dismantling facilities; and recycling and reuse standards (UNIDO, 2019).

All countries in the region, except Haiti, ratified the Stockholm Convention (Stockholm Convention, 2021), and significant progress has been made since then. In 2017, FAO reported that 319 tonnes of obsolete pesticides stocks and related wastes had been removed from Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Guyana, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. The pesticides were eliminated by high temperature incineration in Europe (FAO, 2017a). However, further efforts are needed to reduce the environmental and health impact of the remaining stockpiles. In addition, large stockpiles of PCBs are still to be eliminated in the region, where around 500 000 tonnes await to be eliminated (UN Environment, 2017).

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal was adopted in 1989 to stop the export of hazardous wastes to countries in the developing world (Basel Convention, 2011). All of the countries have ratified and adopted the Convention with the exception of Haiti (Basel Convention, 2021). In the 80’s and 90’s, Latin America was the preferred destination for hazardous wastes coming mostly from the United States of America, but also from some European countries (Clapp, 1994; Nash, 1991). Since the adoption of the Basel Convention, shipments of hazardous wastes to Latin American countries have reduced considerably, despite the persistence of some illegal trade (Asthon, 2013; Montero, 1998).

The objective of the Rotterdam Convention is the protection of the environment and human health through the responsible trade and use of hazardous chemicals (Rotterdam Convention, 2010). After its initial adoption in Rotterdam in 1998, it was adopted by most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the exception of the Bahamas, Haiti and Saint Lucia (Rotterdam Convention, 2021). Several countries in the region, namely Colombia, Panama, Dominican Republic and Honduras, have received international support to strengthen the implementation of the Convention and prevent the environmental and health impacts of hazardous pesticides (Acosta and Wyrwal, 2018).

The Minamata Convention on Mercury was adopted in 2013 and entered into force on 16 August 2017 (Minamata Convention on Mercury, 2019). The use of mercury to rapidly extract gold is the main method used in artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM), due to its high efficiency and lower cost compared to other environmentally-sound technologies. Since ASM is a practice widespread in the region, contributing to global mercury emissions and mercury soil pollution, the Convention requires action from countries where ASM is prevalent (Hilson et al., 2018). International projects are under implementation or preparation to facilitate the successful adoption of the Convention. A GEF funded project in the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay and Dominican Republic is already in place (UNEP and BCCC-SCRC, 2014).

The Convention is very relevant to Latin American countries, as the region is the world’s leading supplier of minerals, especially Chile, Peru, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia (Viana Ríos, 2018), however, its level of ratification is lower compared to the other Conventions as 8 countries have not yet ratified it (Minamata Convention, 2021).

9.5.2. Regional legal frameworks addressing soil pollution

Although no regional convention specifically addresses soil pollution in Latin America and the Caribbean, some regional agreements support soil protection and the prevention of soil pollution by controlling the transboundary movement of hazardous waste and seek to prevent illegal trafficking and disposal of waste in the region.

The Cartagena Convention, for example, imposes obligations to prevent, reduce and control pollution in the Convention area and hence promote a sustainable management of the environment. While the Convention focuses largely on the marine environment, it covers many sources of marine pollution including land-based pollution by prohibiting the dumping or discharge of wastes and coastal disposal or discharges causing pollution. Other land-based pollution includes wastewater, pesticides, heavy metals, radioactive substances, solid waste and more, all of which could affect soil preservation as well.

The Convention is supported by three Protocols on oil spills, protected areas and land-based pollution. The Protocol concerning pollution from land-based sources and activities includes regional effluent limitations from domestic wastewater and requires the development of plans to prevent, reduce and control agricultural non-point sources of pollution. Of the 21 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that are parties to the Cartagena Convention, 11 have signed the Protocol on land-based pollution.

In Central America, a regional agreement on the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes was signed in 1992. Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama agreed to take measures to prevent the imports and transit of hazardous wastes to Central America from States which are not party to the agreement. A similar trade agreement was signed between Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras addressing the management and control of hazardous substances and hazardous wastes. While these agreements may not address soil pollution directly, they support the global conventions mentioned above such as the Stockholm Convention and the Basel Convention.

Further details on the regional agreements related to soil pollution prevention in Latin America and the Caribbean can be found in Table 5.

Table 5. Regional agreements related to soil pollution prevention in Latin America and the Caribbean.

9.5.3. National legal frameworks addressing soil pollution

Some Latin American and Caribbean countries include an official definition or a list of potentially polluting activities in many of their general policies. These policies can be adopted at the national level by presidential orders or by the Ministries of Environment and Natural Resources or Agriculture.

General environmental frameworks, national environmental protection laws, national environmental strategies and natural resource management master plans, regulations on soil sampling and even regulation of phytosanitary control, may, to some extent, allow countries to prevent and control soil pollution.

A few countries have specific regulations on soil contamination. Mexico, through its regulations 138 and 147 of its Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), has established the maximum permissible limits of hydrocarbons in soils; and the criteria to determine soil remediation target concentrations for trace element contaminants (SEMARNAT, 2004, 2012b).

Costa Rica has enacted Law 7779 on the use, management and conservation of soils. Its Decree No. 37.847/S is the regulation on soil guidelines for the decontamination of sites affected by environmental emergencies and spills (CostaRica, 2013). In 2009 Panama approved Executive Decree No. 2 establishing the Environmental Standard for Soil Quality for various uses, which includes maximum values for soil contaminants (Ministerio de Economía y Finanzas, 2009). Cuba has various laws and regulations for the control of environmental contamination. Since 1976, with the establishment of the Cuban National Commission for Environmental Protection and Conservation of Natural Resources, the country has prioritized the protection of the environment, including the prevention and reduction of polluting sources (Rodríguez García, 2019).

In addition, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru have specific regulations on soil pollution (Table 6). Chile has a specific list of potentially contaminating activities in soils and a guide to managing potentially polluted soils. There are 104 activities classified as potentially contaminating, including the textile industry, tanneries, chemicals, explosives, and waste, and it details actions to identify, confirm, and control contaminated sites (Ministerio del Medio Ambiente, 2012).

Table 6. National legislation to prevent and manage soil pollution, Latin America and Caribbean region.

Source: FAOLEX, 2019.

All Caribbean countries have a framework law on the environment, and some also have special laws on soil pollution. All countries also have other related regulations such as forestry, hazardous waste, public health, oil pollution, livestock, mining, pesticides, solid waste and fertilizers. These regulations have aspects that may assist in preventing and controlling soil pollution.

As is the case in the Caribbean, most countries in Central and South America also have framework environmental legislation. However, many countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico and Peru also have specific laws for contaminated sites, which address the detection, investigation, remediation and control of environmental contamination in the soil.

In 2017, the Chilean Health Ministry issued its Environmental Management Plan in Support the Health Sector. It required its regional secretariats to carry out various initiatives to protect the population’s health from environmental risks, in accordance with the Health Code and other specific regulations (Subsecretaría de Salud Pública, 2017). This policy aims to control significant adverse effects on the quantity and quality of renewable natural resources, including soil.

Further details on the national legislation addressing soil pollution prevention and management are presented in Table 6.