The equator runs through the center of South America at its widest point and parallels the Amazon River. The two main physical features are the mighty Amazon River and the extensive Andes Mountains. The Andes, the longest mountain chain in the world, runs from Venezuela to southern Chile. The Amazon River has the most significant flow of water of any river on Earth, and the Amazon Basin is home to the world’s largest tropical rain forest. Rain forests cover less than 5 percent of the earth’s surface but have the richest biodiversity of any biome (environmental region), holding up to 50 percent of the world’s organisms.
All of South America, except for the Guianas, was colonized by Spain and Portugal. The Gui-anas were located along the coast, where plantation agriculture was prominent. African slaves were the primary labor base on the plantations. When slavery was abolished, slaves were replaced by indentured servants from the Asian colonies. Most of the population in Guyana and Suriname are from Asia. The cultural geography of South American can be understood by identifying the cultural regions formed by the majority ethnic groups the human activity in which they are engaged.
Venezuela and Colombia dominate the countries of northern South America. Venezuela is an urban country, and much of its wealth is generated from the export of oil. Colombia is mountainous with vast tropical forests bordering the Amazon. Illegal drugs, oil, and coffee are Colombia’s three main export products. The United States is the leading buyer of these products. The control of the physical territory of Colombia is divided between the government, drug cartels, and insurgent groups.
South America’s Andean West region was the home to the ancient Inca Empire, which was conquered by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1533. Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia have regions with high elevations in the Andes, including the Altiplano region with Lake Titicaca. Most of the population is Amerindian and holds to the customs and traditions of their heritage. Oil and mineral resources have been a primary source of wealth for the region, but the profits have not always reached the majority population; instead, the wealth is often are held by a minority at the top of the socioeconomic layer.
Brazil was colonized by Portugal, which gave the country the Portuguese language and the Catholic faith. During the colonial era, a large number of African slaves were introduced to the country, which added to the country’s multicultural society. Many other Europeans and Japanese also immigrated to Brazil. The country’s large size allows for diverse human activities. The core urban area is located along the southeast coast, where the large cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are located. The forward capital of Brasilia is positioned inland on the edge of the core area.
The rural periphery of Brazil includes the vast Amazon Basin, with tropical rain forests and large undeveloped regions. Initially inhabited by Amerindian groups, the Amazon Basin is being developed for agriculture, mining, and the timber industry. This type of development is devastating vast tracts of rainforest and placing increasing pressure on the few remaining indigenous groups. Large mining operations have fueled development, causing serious environmental concerns over habitat loss and the destruction of the tropical rain forest.
The Southern Cone region of South America has a wide range of physical landscapes, from the semitropical areas of the north to the arid grasslands of the south in Patagonia. The Ata-cama Desert on the west coast is a product of the rain shadow effect from the high Andes. The fertile agricultural lands of the Pampas are the breadbasket of the region, producing large amounts of grain and livestock. Coastal areas are suitable for fishing and allow access to foreign markets.
The southern regions of South America also have heavily European populations. There are few Amerindians or people of African heritage. Most people live in urban areas, and one-third of Argentineans live in Buenos Aires. Chile has been a significant trading partner with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) nations and has a stable and growing economy. Argentina is a vast country in physical area and has excellent potential for economic development.