New atlas helps protect the soils of Latin America and the Caribbean

Hands Holding a Seedling and Soil

A precious resource for a growing population

The European Commission’s in-house science service today publishes the first ever comprehensive overview of the soils of Latin America and the Caribbean. Through colourful maps and illustrations the atlas explains in a simple and clear manner the diversity of soil across Central and South America and the Caribbean. It highlights the vital importance of a natural non-renewable resource which provides food, fodder and fuel for 580 million people. The atlas shows the delicate relationships between soils and the functions that they provide. It raises awareness of the inter-relationships with climate and land use while illustrating the role of soil in food security, particularly in relation to climate change. Latin America’s soils also support some of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, soils have to meet the needs of a population that is in continuous and rapid growth. More than half of the 576 million hectares of arable land of Latin America are estimated to be affected by degradation processes, notably in South America and Mesoamerica. The main causes are change in land use (especially deforestation), over-exploitation, climate change and social inequality. The atlas presents a number of strategies for soil preservation and conservation.

The atlas is designed to reach the general public, the education sector and policy makers dealing with environmental, agricultural and social issues. The first edition entitled: el Atlas de suelos de América Latina y el Caribe is published in Spanish. Portuguese and English versions will follow.

Coordinated by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), the Soil Atlas of Latin America and Caribbean is the result of a fruitful collaboration with leading soil scientists in Europe, Central and South America and the Caribbean.

Some key facts from the atlas:

  • Tropical areas, which represent one third of the region, are characterised by acid soils. Extensive forests feign fertility but the soils are naturally low in nutrients. Soil productivity falls rapidly after clearance of the forest unless extensive fertiliser and liming regimes are applied.
  • 20% of the region is covered by arid soils where agriculture depends on irrigation.
  • Naturally fertile soils extend over only about 10% of the area, mainly in the Argentine Pampas with its prairie soils which are rich in minerals and mixed with volcanic materials.
  • According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 14% of degraded land worldwide is found in the region covered by the atlas and affects 150 million people.
  • Soils in Latin America support an enormous wealth of biodiversity with six out of the seventeen countries hosting the highest rate of biodiversity on the planet. Particularly in the Amazon Basin, countless invertebrates, fungi and a myriad of bacteria – the majority of which are unknown to science – can be found. As an example, bacteria in the soil of Easter Island was found to have strong anti-fungal properties that led to the development of a drug that prevents organ transplant rejection and is used in cancer treatment.
  • The soils of Latin America and the Caribbean store approximately 185 Gt of organic carbon down to a depth of 1m. This is almost double the above ground carbon stock of the vegetation in the Amazon Basin.
  • While climate change would have a significant impact on the use and functions of soil, the effects of climate change may be mitigated by the storage of carbon in soils.


The Soil Atlas of Latin America and the Caribbean was funded by the European Union through the EUROCLIMA Programme, which aims to improve the knowledge base of Latin American decision makers and scientific community regarding the impact of climate change in the region in order to strengthen sustainable development strategies.

It complements a series of atlases developed in recent years by the JRC: the Soil Atlas of Europe, the Soil Atlas of the Northern Circumpolar Region, the European Atlas of Soil Biodiversity and the recently published Soil Atlas of Africa.

For more information go to http://eusoils.jrc

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