Central America, region of the western hemisphere, made up of a long, tapering
isthmus that forms a bridge between North and South
America. Central America, which is defined by geographers as part
of North America, has an area of about 523,000 sq km (about 201,930 sq mi) and
includes the countries of Guatemala,
Belize, El Salvador, Honduras,
Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. The region has a population
of approximately 31.3 million (1993 estimate).
THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT
strictly geological terms, Central America begins at the narrow Isthmus of
Tehuantepec, in southern Mexico.
That narrow section divides the volcanic rocks to the northwest from the folded
and faulted structures of Central America. The
southernmost geological limit of Central America is the Atrato
River valley, in Colombia, South America, just east of the Panama border.
Rivers and Lakes The
longest rivers of Central America flow to the Caribbean,
and many small streams drain into the Pacific. Longer rivers include the
Motagua of Guatemala; the Ulúa, Aguán, and Patuca of Honduras; the Coco, which
forms part of the Honduras-Nicaragua boundary; the Río
Grande and Escondido of Nicaragua; and the San Juan, which forms a section of the
Nicaragua-Costa Rica border. Some of the rivers flowing to the Caribbean are navigable by small craft, but the streams
flowing to the Pacific are too steep or too shallow for navigation.
Central America has three large lakes—Lake
Nicaragua and Lake Managua in Nicaragua and Gatún Lake in Panama. Part of the
Panama Canal, a great commercial waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific,
is in Gatún Lake.
Vegetation Central America is essentially a land bridge uniting two previously isolated
ecosystems. As a result, a mixture of both North and South American plant and animal species are found here. The lowland rain forest of the
Caribbean and Pacific coasts resembles the selva, or tropical rain forest, of South America. This is especially true below an elevation
of about 1000 m (about 3280 ft), with large numbers of palms, tree ferns,
lianas, and epiphytes (air plants) reflecting the high rainfall and humidity of
the region. Vegetation at altitudes of about 1000 to 1600 m (about 3280 to 5250
ft) shows ties with North America. The pine
and oak forests of these highlands are like those of the Mexican highlands.
High-altitude regions of Guatemala
contain grasses like those of Mexico
and the United States, and
at about 3100 m (about 10,170 ft) in Costa Rica
are tall grasses similar to those growing above the tree line in the Andes Mountains
of South America.
Animal Life Most of the
animal life of Central America is similar to that of South America, but some
animals have ties with North America. The
marley and opossum have links with South America,
as do the jaguar, ocelot, jaguarundi, and margay, which are members of the cat
family. In contrast, the puma, gray fox, and coyote are of North American
origin. The armadillo, anteater, and sloth have ties to the south, deer to the
north. The large manatee, an aquatic plant eater, survives in the isolated
lagoons of eastern Central America. Other food
sources are the large green turtle and the iguana. Central
America provides a habitat for numerous snakes such as the boa
constrictor and the bushmaster. Parrots, the quetzal, toucans, and fish are
common; notable are the landlocked sharks of Lake
Mineral Resources The
minerals of Central America were an early lure for European settlers,
especially the gold and silver found in Honduras
and the highlands of Nicaragua.
In addition, Honduras has
significant deposits of lead, zinc, copper, and low-grade iron ore, and Nicaragua has
large deposits of natural gas offshore in the Pacific. Large nickel deposits
are in the vicinity of Izabal in Guatemala, and the country also has
substantial reserves of petroleum, including those near Chinajá. Panama has considerable deposits of copper at
Agriculture Farming is by far the leading economic
activity in Central America. The principal
cash crops, such as coffee, bananas, sugarcane, and cotton are typically
produced on large landholdings, and a substantial proportion
are exported, mainly to the United States
and Europe. Food for local consumption is
raised mainly on small farms; most of it is consumed by the farm families, and
relatively little is marketed. The chief subsistence food commodities are corn,
beans, bananas, manioc, rice, and poultry. Cattle are raised on big ranches
located mainly in the drier regions of western Central
America. Modern farming methods are used on the large
landholdings, but the small farmers generally use relatively simple techniques
that hold down productivity.
Forestry and Fishing About 40 percent of Central America is
forested. The early years of European activity in Belize, for example, revolved
around the extraction of dyewoods, and later mahogany, chicle, and pine timber
were produced. British timber companies also cut mahogany and cedar along the
greater Caribbean coast. Today, forestry is a
relatively unimportant aspect of the Central American economy. Pine is the main
wood harvested, and some hardwoods, such as cedar, mahogany, and rosewood, also
Fishing too is a comparatively
minor economic activity in Central America.
Shrimp and spiny lobster, caught off the coasts of Belize,
El Salvador, and Panama, are mostly exported to the United States.
Since the mid-1960s Panama
has developed a fish-meal and fish-oil industry. Central
America has a low rate of per capita fish consumption.
Mining The mineral output of Central America is small. El
produce limited quantities of silver, gold, lead, copper, and antimony. In the
early 1980s Guatemala
began to export small quantities of crude oil.