Sources of reactive nitrogen affecting ecosystems in Latin America and the Caribbean: Current trends and future perspectives

Luiz A. Martinelli, Robert W. Howarth, Elvira Cuevas, Solange Filoso, Amy T. Austin, Loreta Donoso, Vera Huszar, Dennis Keeney, Luciene L. Lara, Carlos Llerena, George McIssac, Ernesto Medina, Jorge Ortiz-Zayas, Donald Scavia, David W. Schindler, Doris Soto, Alan Townsend

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


While the amount of reactive nitrogen circulating at the global level has increased markedly in the last century, the effects of this increase are largely seen at the regional level due to interacting ecological and socio-economic factors. In contrast with most other regions of the world, Latin America and the Caribbean (LA-Ca) stand out due to the fact that the major input of reactive nitrogen (Nr) still occurs naturally via biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) in natural ecosystems as opposed to anthropogenic inputs of synthetic fertilizer, fossil fuel combustion and cropping with leguminous species. Largely due to economic reasons, the consumption of fertilizer N in the LA-Ca region is still low in comparison with the average consumption of the world. However, the fertilizer N consumption is increasing at a much faster rate than that in developed regions of the world, like USA and Canada. The Nr production through BNF in cultivated plants that fix nitrogen (C-BNF) is 5 times lower than that occurring naturally in Latin America, but is still equivalent to 16% of the world C-BNF. The cultivation of nitrogen-fixing crop species in the LA-Ca region is also increasing, almost entirely due to the expansion of soybean fields in the central and northern regions of Brazil and the Pampa region of Argentina. Other anthropogenic activities in the region that contribute to an increase in the circulation of reactive nitrogen include the impact of biomass burning and urbanization. In the last decade, an average of 47,000 km2 per year of forests was burned in the LA-Ca region. The environmental impact of urban centers in the LA-Ca region has become very important, since an intense urbanization process is occurring in this region, at an intensity that far exceeds urban development in the northern hemisphere. The consequences of increased urbanization include increased emissions of NO x to the atmosphere due to the fossil fuel combustion, and the lack of sewage treatment facilities in most cities of the LA-Ca result in a large volume of untreated sewage discharged into surface waters, creating serious environmental problems. The combination of rapid urbanization and agricultural intensification in this region suggest that concern is warranted for the potential for increase in the circulation of reactive nitrogen in the very near future. At the same time, the opportunity still exists to mitigate some of the consequences of human impact on the nitrogen cycle in a region that still maintains a large fraction of its natural ecosystems intact.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-24
Number of pages22
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - May 2006


  • Biomass burning
  • Caribbean
  • Latin America
  • Nitrogen
  • Reactive agriculture
  • Urbanization


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