UN Enviroment Programme

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

Knowledge gaps in Latin America and the Caribbean

This assessment of soil pollution in Latin America and the Caribbean has identified some critical knowledge gaps related to regulation and technological development.

9.7.1. Policy, legislative and regulatory gaps

Most of the advances in addressing soil pollution issues at the national level have been achieved through projects financed by international institutions. There are only a few examples of national monitoring programmes for decision-making in the region, such as the case of the national monitoring of agrochemicals in Uruguay presented above (MGAP, 2019c).

On the other hand, it has been observed that in some countries the competency for soil pollution is held by both the Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Agriculture and that their focuses vary according to their specific priorities. It was noted too that other government agencies also work in this field, such as cartographic institutes. Although most ministries aim to collaborate, this multiplicity of competencies has in some cases led to duplicated efforts, conflicts and some key areas of soil pollution being unaddressed. It is necessary to link the information from these different sources to understand the magnitude of soil pollution.

Another important gap concerns the dissemination of information on polluted sites. Most of the information that this assessment identified was very specific and mostly came from international organizations and newspapers, rather than from official national reports or websites. The information provided by these international organizations was often incomplete, as countries do not always comply regularly with their reporting requirements. As a result, existing information is incomplete and dispersed, making it difficult to use for statistical purposes and trend analysis, and leading to the recurrent loss of resources by various organisations which are trying to establish the baseline of pollution in the region for the preparation of projects and establishment of monitoring systems.

It is interesting to note that there is sufficient scientific evidence on the sources of soil pollution in the region. However, pollution control policies and projects do not always take this evidence into consideration. In addition, there is often a disconnection between science and policy, between scientists and planners, regulators and other policymakers. This is a difficult challenge because these specialists do not share a common language (each one has their own jargon). It is therefore important to establish a link between government institutions, industry and academia to address the problem in an integrated manner. A similar situation occurs for polluted soil remediation projects, for which academia proposes laboratory scale solutions, but there is a need to invest in scaling up these field-scale experiments with industry and governments. In addition, society needs to be involved in decision-making by improving communication and awareness through communities and the media. Sensational news about polluted sites, whose information cannot be corroborated, are often found in the media and social networks. It is therefore essential to improve communication between industry, governments, academia and civil society to address the problem efficiently and without creating unnecessary alarm.

Existing regulations in the countries of the region are focused on general environmental or agricultural issues and in only a few countries are there specific regulations on soil pollution. It is important that regional and global organizations promote among their members the strengthening of legal frameworks for the prevention and control of soil pollution, as well as compliance with international agreements.

9.7.2. Science to policy gaps

Soil pollution is one of the least studied subjects in the region. Indeed, 75 percent of all research articles on soil pollution in the region came from Mexico and Brazil, highlighting a significant lack of research in other Latin American and Caribbean countries. It is important that countries collaborate on research and share results. It would be a waste of resources for every country to conduct the same research projects. It would be far more effective to collaborate and then use the saved funds to actually implement mitigation and remediation initiatives. Research, monitoring and inventories are expensive and specialized laboratories in the countries are scarce. An example of this is the fact that only 17 laboratories from the Caribbean and Latin American region participated in the Global Soil Laboratory Assessment 2018 online survey. Dissemination of information and participation of the academic community in the field of soil pollution is needed. There is also an urgent need to develop databases and models to predict the future consequences of soil resource degradation and to propose effective measures to prevent their loss.

Another important scientific gap is the integration between the fields of agriculture, environment and health. Health and epidemiological studies are necessary because the ultimate impact of soil pollution is on people’s health. It is important to include such studies in research on soil pollution, as well as the cost of remediation, in order to understand the scale of the problems.