South America

South America

South America, fourth largest continent (1991 est. pop. 299,150,000), c.6,880,000 sq mi (17,819,000 sq km), the southern of the two continents of the Western Hemisphere. It is divided politically into 12 independent countries—Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela—and the overseas department of French Guiana. The continent extends c.4,750 mi (7,640 km) from Punta Gallinas, Colombia, in the north to Cape Horn, Chile, in the south. At its broadest point, near where it is crossed by the equator, the continent extends c.3,300 mi (5,300 km) from east to west. South America is connected to North America by the Isthmus of Panama; it is washed on the N by the Caribbean Sea, on the E by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the W by the Pacific Ocean.

Topography and Geology

Topographically the continent is divided into three sections—the South American cordillera, the interior lowlands, and the continental shield. The continental shield, in the east, which is separated into two unequal sections (the Guiana Highlands and the Brazilian Highlands) by the Amazon geosyncline, contains the continent's oldest rocks. Geologic studies in South America have supported the theory of continental drift and have shown that until 135 million years ago South America was joined to Africa; a Brazil-Gabon link has been established on the basis of tectonic matching. Extending down the middle of the continent is a series of lowlands running southward from the llanos of the north, through the selva of the great Amazon basin and the Gran Chaco, to the Pampa of Argentina.

Paralleling the Pacific shore is the great cordillera composed of the Andes ranges and high intermontane valleys and plateaus. The Andes rise to numerous snowcapped peaks; Mt. Aconcagua (22,835 ft/6,960 m) in Argentina is the highest point in the Western Hemisphere. The Andes region is seismically active and prone to earthquakes. Volcanoes are present but mostly inactive. Patagonia, a windy, semiarid plateau region, lies to the E of the Andes in S Argentina. On the Pacific coast, the land between the Andes and the sea widens northward from the islands of S Chile. In N Chile lies the barren Atacama Desert.

There are few good natural harbors along the South American coast. The continent's great river systems empty into the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea; from north to south they are the Magdalena, Orinoco, Amazon, and Paraguay-Paraná systems. Only short streams flow into the Pacific Ocean. Excluding Lake Maracaibo, which is actually an arm of the Caribbean Sea, Lake Titicaca, on the Peru-Bolivia border, is the largest of the continent's lakes. South America embraces every climatic zone—tropical rainy, desert, high alpine—and vegetation varies accordingly.

People

Native peoples constitute a significant portion of the continent's Andean population, especially in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Paraguay. Elsewhere in South America the population is generally mestizo, although Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and S Brazil have primarily European populations. There are sizable populations of African descent in NE Brazil, French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, Venezuela, and Colombia. Immigration since 1800 has brought European, Middle Eastern, and Asian (especially Japanese) peoples to the continent, particularly to Argentina and Brazil.

With the exception of Brazil and Ecuador, the national capitals have the largest populations and are the economic, cultural, and political centers of the countries. Since World War II, the urban population has rapidly expanded. São Paulo, Brazil, whose population is nearly 10,000,000, is the largest city of South America and one of the fastest growing cities of its size in the world. Squatter settlements have multiplied around urban areas as the poor and unskilled flock to the cities; widespread unemployment is common. Outside the cities the population density of the continent is very low, with vast portions of the interior virtually uninhabited; most of the people live within 200 mi (320 km) of the coast.

Economy

Beginning in the 17th cent., the exploitation of the continent's resources and the development of its industries were the result of foreign investment and initiative, especially that of Spain, Great Britain, and the United States, but since World War II the nations of South America have sought greater economic independence. An increasing number of South American industrial centers have developed heavy industries to supplement the light industries on which they had previously concentrated.

An early obstacle to industrial growth in South America was the scarcity of coal. The continent has therefore relied on its petroleum reserves, most notably in Venezuela and also in Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador, as a source of fuel. South Americans also have gradually developed their natural-gas reserves; hydroelectric plants produce most of the continent's electricity. Iron-ore deposits are plentiful in the Guiana and Brazilian highlands, and copper is abundant in the central Andes mountain region of Chile and Peru. Other important mineral resources include tin in Bolivia, manganese and gold in Brazil, and bauxite in Guyana and Suriname.

Subsistence farming is widespread, with about 30% of the people working about 15% of the land. Dense forests, steep slopes, and unfavorable climatic conditions, along with crude agricultural methods, limit the amount of cultivable land. Commercial agriculture, especially of the plantation type, fares better in terms of production because of the large scale and the opportunity to use modern, mechanized methods. Among the agricultural exports are coffee, bananas, sugarcane, tobacco, and grains. Meat is also an important export. In the interior, hunting and gathering of forest products are the chief economic activities of the indigenous peoples. Fishing is also a central industry. In the more accessible areas, forest products are removed for export.

Outline of Modern History

European exploration and penetration of South America started at the beginning of the 16th cent. Under the Treaty of Tordesillas, Portugal claimed what is now Brazil, and Spanish claims were established throughout the rest of the continent with the exception of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. An Iberian culture and Roman Catholicism were early New World transplants—as were coffee, sugarcane, and wheat. The subjugation of the indigenous civilizations was a ruthless accompaniment to settlement efforts, particularly those of Spain. The Inca Empire, centered at Cuzco, Peru, was conquered (1531-35) by Francisco Pizarro; other native cultures quickly declined or retreated in the face of conquest, conversion attempts, and subjugation. Spain and Portugal maintained their colonies in South America until the first quarter of the 19th cent., when successful revolutions resulted in the creation of independent states.

The liberated countries generally struggled with political instability, with revolutions and military dictatorships common and economic development hindered. Between 1820 and 1920, the continent received almost 6 million immigrants, nearly all from Europe. Guyana gained independence from Great Britain in 1966 and Suriname from the Netherlands in 1975. French Guiana is an overseas department of France.

Beginning in the 1970s, road building and the clearing of land led to the destruction of large areas of the Amazonian rain forests. International pressure and changes in government policy, especially in Brazil, resulted in a decrease in the deforestation rate since the late 1980s, although burning and illegal logging continue. Efforts to combat the illegal drug trade have been largely ineffective. Peru is one of the world's largest growers of coca leaves, and Colombia is a center for the drug trade.

Economic problems and social inequality have led to considerable unrest and political instability. Many indigenous peoples, angered by centuries of domination by a primarily European-descended upper class, have demanded a more equal distribution of land and power. Despite the increasing industrialization of some countries, notably Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina, and the widespread introduction of free-market reforms in the 1990s, high inflation and huge foreign debt continued to be major problems for many South American countries. Such economic problems led to a rise in populist political parties and movements in the region in the early 21st cent., most notably in Venezuela and Bolivia.

See also Americas, antiquity and prehistory of the; Natives, South American.

Bibliography

See C. H. Haring, The Spanish Empire in America (1947, repr. 1963); K. E. Webb, Geography of Latin America (1972); G. Philip, The Military in South American Politics (1985); J. D. Hill, ed., Rethinking History and Myth: Indigenous South American Perspectives on the Past (1988); G. P. Atkins, ed., South America into the 1990s (1988); S. Bunker, Underdeveloping the Amazon (1988); A. Daniels, Coups and Cocaine: Journeys in South America (1988); A. Cullison, The South Americans (1990).

Continent, Western Hemisphere. The world's fourth largest continent, it is bounded by the Caribbean Sea to the northwest, the Atlantic Ocean to the northeast, east, and southeast, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. It is separated from Antarctica by the Drake Passage and is joined to North America by the Isthmus of Panama. Area: 6,895,210 sq mi (17,858,520sq km). Pop., 2002 est.: 350,977,000. Four main ethnic groups have populated South America: Indians, who were the continent's pre-Columbian inhabitants; Spanish and Portuguese who dominated the continent from the 16th to the early 19th century; Africans imported as slaves; and the postindependence immigrants from overseas, mostly Germans and southern Europeans but also Lebanese, South Asians, and Japanese. Nine-tenths of the people are Christian, the vast majority of whom are Roman Catholic. Spanish is the official language everywhere except in Brazil (Portuguese), French Guiana (French), Guyana (English), and Suriname (Dutch); some Indian languages are spoken. South America has three major geographic regions. In the west, the Andes Mountains, which are prone to seismic activity, extend the length of the continent; Mount Aconcagua, at 22,834 ft (6,960 m), is the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere. Highlands lie in the north and east, bordered by lowland sedimentary basins that include the Amazon River, the world's largest drainage basin, and the Pampas of eastern Argentina, whose fertile soils constitute one of South America's most productive agricultural areas. Other important drainage systems include those of the Orinoco and São Francisco rivers and the ParanáParaguay–Río de la Plata system. Four-fifths of South America lies within the tropics, but it also has temperate, arid, and cold climatic regions. Less than one-tenth of its land is arable, producing mainly corn (maize), wheat, and rice, and about one-fourth is under permanent pasture. About half is covered by forest, mainly the enormous but steadily diminishing rainforest of the Amazon basin. Almost one-fourth of all the world's known animal species live in the continent's rainforests, plateaus, rivers, and swamps. South America has one-eighth of the world's total deposits of iron and one-fourth of its copper reserves. Exploitation of these and numerous other mineral resources are important to the economies of many regions. Commercial crops include bananas, citrus fruits, sugar, and coffee; fishing is important along the Pacific coast. Trade in illegal narcotics (mostly for export) is a major source of revenue in some countries. Most countries have free-market or mixed (state and private enterprise) economies. Income tends to be unevenly distributed between large numbers of poor people and a small number of wealthy families, with the middle classes, though growing, still a minority in most countries. Asiatic hunters and gatherers are thought to have been the first settlers, probably arriving less than 12,000 years ago. The growth of agriculture from circa 2500 BC (it had begun some 6,000 years earlier) initiated a period of rapid cultural evolution whose greatest development occurred in the central Andes region and culminated with the Inca empire. European exploration began when Christopher Columbus landed in 1498; thereafter Spanish and Portuguese adventurers (see conquistadores) opened it for plunder and, later, settlement. According to terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas, Portugal received the eastern part of the continent, while Spain received the rest. The Indian peoples were decimated by this contact, and most of those who survived were reduced to a form of serfdom. The continent was free of European rule by the early 1800s except for the Guianas. Most of the countries adopted a republican form of government; however, social and economic inequalities or border disputes led to periodic revolutions in many of them, and by the early 20th century most had fallen under some form of autocratic rule. All joined the United Nations after World War II (1938–45), and all joined the Organization of American States in 1948. By the second half of the 20th century most countries had begun to integrate their economies into world markets, and by the 1990s most had embraced democratic rule.

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