In terms of culture, biodiversity, ecology and natural resources, Latin America is one of the richest and most diverse regions in the world. With an area of approximately 22,000,000 km2, the 45 countries that make up Latin America and the Caribbean comprise 14.1% of the earth’s total land surface area and 8.6% of its population. These inhabitants are of diverse cultural origin, including descendents of Europeans, Africans, Asians as well as numerous indigenous groups, and speak over 550 different languages. The region encompasses glacier fields, tropical rainforests, deserts and islands and boasts an abundance of renewable and non-renewable natural resources, namely oil, copper, gold, timber and guano.
Such statistics suggest a region with considerable potential and a solid foundation for development. However, in a number of areas, this potential remains to be fulfilled. The Latin American continent today is confronted by a range of diverse and difficult problems which are in urgent need of address if the continent, and all of its inhabitants, are to prosper as they should. Of these problems the most pressing include poverty and inequality, corruption, insecurity, discrimination and exploitation.
Latin America is one of the most unequal and imbalanced areas in the world in terms of wealth distribution and access to services and resources. The economic gap between the rich and poor is often astonishingly large. In Venezuela, Paraguay, Bolivia for example, the richest 20% may own over 60% of the nation’s wealth, while the poorest 20% may own less than 5%. This gap is made overwhelmingly apparent by the landscape in many large South American cities, where makeshift shacks and slums lie adjacent to skyscrapers and luxury apartments. Though a number of Latin American nations have experienced economic growth in recent years, large segments of the population have yet to enjoy the full benefits of this and continue to lack the jobs, healthcare, education and safety that are needed to improve their quality of life. It is an unfortunate fact that poverty in Latin America often directly related to race or ethnicity and people of non-European descent often have less access to resources. Indeed, 80% of indigenous people in Latin America live in abject poverty.
Rapid population growth in the Latin American region is a factor directly related to inequality and thus, in urgent need of address. Latin America’s population is growing at an incredible rate – between 1950 and 2000 the number of inhabitants more than doubled from 175 million to 515 million. Today the figure stands at 586,662,468 million inhabitants and this is projected to rise to over 800 million by 2050. This phenomenal rate of growth puts increasing pressure on resources to which the majority of inhabitants still have limited or no access. In turn, people are at greater risk from malnutrition and infectious diseases such as hepatitis and HIV. National HIV prevalence is now estimated to be at least 1% in Belize, Guyana, Panama and Suriname while Brazil – by far the region’s most populous country – accounts for around 43% of people living with HIV in Latin America.
Political and institutional corruption is another prevalent problem in the Latin American region. According to Transparency International’s most recently published Global Corruption Barometer, 10% of Latin Americans reported paying bribes in 2009 (a 2% increase since 2005). It is clear that development prospects will be negatively affected by the existence of such corruption.
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