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Pura vida! The air in Uruguay is the purest in the world – and that's official

Pocitos Beach in winter

Uruguay has the purest air in the world according to a Yale studyUruguayan air quality is the best anywhere in the world according to a new study by Yale University.

Uruguay, interestingly along with a number of tiny island states in the Caribbean and the Pacific, shares top spot in the ranking. It also takes first place in quantity of trees planted since 2000.

Air quality takes into account the general population’s exposure to tobacco smoke, wood and coal burning as well as pollution produced by industries.

Uruguay’s 2006 smoking ban

Uruguay was the first country in Latin America to ban smoking in all enclosed public places back in 2006. It was the fourth country in the world to do so after Ireland, Sweden and Norway.

As restaurants tried to work out how they could keep customers happy, the government allowed them to build outside decks. As long as the sides are technically “open” then smoking is allowed.

This has had the unexpected boon of not only making work and entertainment places so much more hospitable. And it has produced a thriving street-side cafe and restaurant culture.

I have to say I can’t remember the last time I was annoyed by someone smoking next to me. It’s also extremely rare to see someone violating the smoking ban, certainly not in restaurants and bars.

Not all trees are good trees

The “forest” data is where I am sceptical regarding the positive impact. The study measures the loss in forested area from 2000 to 2012 using satellite-derived data.

Huge plantations of eucalyptus trees have appeared all over Uruguay during this period, in response to demand from paper-pulp mills.

Not only has it changed the character of the Uruguayan landscape with swathes of formerly pampa and grasslands now covered kilometres upon kilometres of uniform lines of trees. It has lead to very problematic lowering of the water table in some previously prime agricultural areas as well as depleting rich soil which would be far better used by other more labour-intensive farming.

It is a very short-sighted form of industrial development that unfortunately the government has encouraged.

The Yale Environmental Performance Index measures 178 countries worldwide.

RELATED READING

Uruguay: The little country that changed tobacco laws Uruguay won a major case against Philip Morris in a World Bank ruling that could embolden other small countries that want to deter tobacco use. [July 9 2016]

4 Comments

  1. Diana Boles

    February 14, 2014

    I’m not sure that lowering the water table is a big issue, but I would be interested to know how close these eucalyptus stands are to lagunas. I can see where that would affect the bird habitat. I am not a scientist, but is it possible to let the land rest after the trees are harvested or replanted with something that would restore calcium and increase the pH? Obviously, there is some immediate benefit for the planting of eucalyptus trees. My question is can the negatives be countered to neutralize them.

    Reply
    • Welshwitch in Uruguay

      February 15, 2014

      Hi Diana, lowering the water table is an issue for farmers who have lands that in some cases have been surrounded by eucalyptus plantations. As the water tables lower, they need to drill deeper to access water for their cattle and crops. Back several years ago I had read letters that were circulating from farmers in formerly very productive agricultural areas which had become impossible to maintain because they could no longer access water from their wells and could no longer water their crops. Initially they would bring in tankers of water, but this was proving too costly. Unfortunately I have not been able to find links to information about this. But it is an important consequence of monoculture of thirsty tree types. Perhaps another reader will be able to help us out?

      My issue with eucalyptus planting is that it provides very little work, other than at planting and felling time, when other types of cultivation can be kinder to the soil, and employ more people. Best, best — Karen

      Reply
  2. Vero

    February 14, 2014

    Although I love to hear/read this news I can’t help but think about those buses and some cars which pollute the air with black, smelly, exhaust. When you walk by them, it’s impossible not
    to breathe in some of that “smoke” and worry about it’s consequences.

    Reply
    • Welshwitch in Uruguay

      February 15, 2014

      Hi Veronica, I am with you. The buses are a real problem in Montevideo belching black smoke and NOISE pollution. It would be a huge benefit for the population if the buses were run on electricity. But it is proportional, I guess. When I lived in Buenos Aires, the insides of my nostrils were black at the end of the day – you would see black on the tissue when you blew your nose. That doesn’t happen to me here, though I live in the centre of Montevideo. Thanks so much for commenting – I LOVE it when readers comment 🙂 All the best — Karen

      Reply

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