Despite South America’s fortune in terms of biological diversity, its natural wealth has not been sufficiently valued or strategically used; poverty and social inequality still persist across the region. The biggest challenge facing conservation stems from a rapidly expanding economy—one that is still heavily dependent on the export of natural resources and agricultural products.

Unchecked development

Many of South America’s oil and gas deposits are found in sensitive areas such as the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve in Ecuador and Patagonia is under tremendous pressure to exploit its natural resources. Unchecked agricultural expansion in the absence of effective environmental institutions is putting pressure on the region’s tropical forests while the glaciers of Peru and Bolivia are threatened by climate change.

Energy demands

Then there’s the thirst for energy which is driving the construction of large dams for hydro power that is affecting freshwater biodiversity. The increased demand for biofuels has been accompanied by the expansion of oil palm and sugar cane into areas brimming with nature such as Colombia’s Orinoco region. The Chaco region which extends across Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil is also threatened by the growing demand for biofuels. Meanwhile, transport and infrastructure improvements are opening up previously unexploited areas.

Allies for conservation

Along with South America’s great natural diversity comes enormous cultural diversity. European influences especially from Spain, Portugal and Italy, as well as from Africa, Asia and the Arab world all add to the indigenous cultural mix. Unity in diversity is one of the region’s greatest strengths but preserving this rich cultural fabric is another challenge and one that goes hand-in-hand with environmental protection. IUCN sees indigenous peoples as important allies in conservation as they have jurisdiction over vast areas of land and have been custodians of nature for centuries.

Browse our ‘focus on South America’ section to find out more about the conservation challenges facing the region and what IUCN is doing to address them. Helping people and nature adapt to the impacts of climate change and reducing carbon emissions are both high on our agenda and the sustainable management of watersheds across the continent is central to these efforts.