South America, the fourth largest of the
earth's seven continents (after Asia, Africa, and North
America), occupying about 17,819,100 sq km (about 6,880,000 sq
mi), or about 12 percent of the earth's land surface. It lies astride the
equator and tropic of Capricorn and is joined by the Isthmus of Panama, on the
north, to Central and North America. The
continent extends about 7400 km (about 4600 mi) from the Caribbean Sea on the
north to Cape Horn on the south, and its maximum width, between Ponta do
Seixas, on Brazil's Atlantic coast, and Punta Pariñas, on Peru's Pacific coast,
is about 5160 km (about 3210 mi).
Drainage and Water Resources The
greater part of South America is drained to the Atlantic Ocean by three river
systems: the Amazon, Orinoco, and Paraguay-Paraná.
Each of these large rivers also provides access to the interior. The smaller Sao Francisco River
drains northeastern Brazil.
Numerous lesser rivers drain the Caribbean and Pacific flanks of the Andes. The most important of these is the Magdalena River
and its tributary, the Cauca
River. This system, which
drains north through Andean valleys in western Colombia
to empty into the Caribbean Sea, has also
provided a traditional access route to the interior. Scores of short Andean
streams have sustained agriculture for centuries in Ecuador,
Peru, Chile, and northwestern Argentina.
Considerable hydroelectric power potential exists in the streams of the Andes
and in those of the Guiana and Brazilian
Highlands. The Mantaro Valley
hydroelectric scheme in the Andes of Peru provides most of Lima's electricity. South America has
few large lakes. Many of the large permanent lakes are situated at relatively
high elevations in the Andes. Among the
largest are Lake Titicaca and Lake Poopó in Bolivia; Buenos Aires, Argentino
and Nahuel Huapí lakes in Argentina; and Lake Valencia in Venezuela.
Vegetation The vegetation zones of South America correspond closely with the climatic zones.
The areas of wet tropical climate have a dense cover of rain forest, or selva.
The largest forest area in the world, this rain forest covers much of
equatorial South America, including the Brazilian coast and the lower slopes of
the Andes, and contains tropical hardwoods,
palms, tree ferns, bamboos, and lianas. Open forests and brushlands are found
in the areas of winter drought chiefly on the Venezuelan coast, in northeastern
Brazil, and on the Gran Chaco. Between these drier areas and the rain forest
are zones of tall grass (savannas, or campos) and of scrub and grass (campos
cerrados). Mixed (containing both deciduous and evergreen trees) and
deciduous forests occur in southern Brazil
and along the slopes of the Andes. In Brazil the
forest grades, to the south, into areas of rolling prairie interrupted by
wooded hills. The Gran Chaco is characterized
by grassy plains and open thorn scrub forest. The flat Pampas of east central Argentina is the largest midlatitude grassland
of South America. To the south a zone of scrub
steppe (monte) marks the transition to the low brush and bunch grass
that cover the drier and cooler Patagonia
region. Along the Pacific coast, the vegetation grades northward from forest to
open woodland, to shrubs and grass in central Chile,
and eventually to the scrub and desert vegetation that prevails into northern Peru and up to
the mountain flanks.
America, Central America, the lowlands of Mexico,
and the West Indies may be classified as a
single zoogeographic region usually called the Neotropical Region. Fauna is
characterized by variety and a singular lack of affinity with the fauna of
other continents, including North America
north of the Mexican Plateau. Found throughout are families of mammals
absolutely confined to the region, including two unique species of monkey,
bloodsucking bats, and many unusual rodents. The
region has only one kind of bear, the spectacled bear; no horses or related
animals, aside from one species of tapir; and no ruminants, except lamoids
(members of the camel family), which include alpacas, llamas, and vicuñas. Also
characteristic of the continent are jaguar, peccary, giant anteater, and coati.
Birds display still greater isolation and singularity. About 23 families and
about 600 genera of exclusively Neotropical birds occur, as well as the greater
part of other important families, such as those of the hummingbirds (500
species), tanagers, and macaws, together with a great variety of sea fowl. The
largest birds include the rhea, condor, and flamingo. Reptiles include boas and
anacondas; iguanas, caimans, and crocodiles are found in many areas. Freshwater
fish are varied and abundant. Regional exclusiveness also characterizes insects
and other invertebrates. On the whole, South American fauna is more local and
distinct than that of any continent other than Australia; probably more than
four-fifths of its species are restricted to its zoogeographic boundaries. The
Galápagos Islands are the habitat of reptiles and birds that are unknown
elsewhere, including the Galápagos giant tortoise, Darwin's finches, and the Galápagos penguin.
Mineral Resources South America has
diverse mineral resources, many of which have not been extensively exploited.
Mineral deposits are widely distributed, but certain areas of the continent are
particularly renowned for their wealth. In the Andes placer gold has been worked in various
areas since before the colonial era. The mountains between central Peru and southern Bolivia produced silver and mercury
in the colonial era, and such industrial minerals as copper, tin, lead, and
zinc today. Copper is worked at large deposits in northern and central Chile and in central and southern Peru. A highly
mineralized area containing bauxite, iron ore, and gold lies between Ciudad
Bolívar and northern Suriname,
near the northern margin of the Guiana Highlands.
In east central Brazil
rich gold and diamond strikes occurred in the colonial era, some of these mines
are still producing. Although South America is
a major producer of rare metals, the large reserves of high-grade iron ore and
smaller reserves of bauxite are more important to the emerging industrial power
of the continent.
South America is lacking in large coal reserves. Coal is found in
scattered and relatively small deposits in the Andes and in southern Brazil.
Coal has been an important fuel for industry and transportation primarily in
Chile, Colombia, and Brazil. Petroleum, however, is widely distributed. Most of
the continent's reserves of petroleum and natural gas lie in structural basins
located mostly along the eastern margins of and in the Andes, from Venezuela to
Tierra del Fuego. The largest known fields are in the Lake Maracaibo area of
Venezuela. Other deposits occur in northern Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, south
of the Andes in eastern and central Venezuela, and just east of the mountains
in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile.
Agriculture Most crop
and livestock production in South America is
for home consumption and domestic markets. Nevertheless, revenues from
agricultural exports are very important in many South American countries. The
processing, internal marketing, and exporting of
agricultural products account for a substantial part of commercial and
manufacturing activity. Although agriculture, together with hunting, fishing,
and forestry, accounts for about 12 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP)
within the continent, it accounts for more than 30 percent of the labor force
in Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, and Ecuador, between 20 percent and 30 percent in
Colombia, Brazil, and Guyana, and less than 20 percent in Suriname, Chile,
Uruguay, Venezuela, Argentina, and French Guiana. The most intensive forms of commercial agriculture are
concentrated near cities. Perishables, such as vegetables, fruits, and dairy
items, are the principal products here. The production of such staples as root
crops, beans, and corn is more dispersed. In many areas these crops are raised
by subsistence farmers under unfavorable climatic or soil conditions. Wheat and
rice tend to be produced wherever conditions are most suitable. The nonexport
beef-cattle industry is dispersed widely; the raising of beef cattle for export
is of particular importance in Argentina,
Uruguay, Paraguay, and Colombia. Export-oriented
agriculture is pursued in the tropical areas and midlatitudes, where arable
land and access to ports are optimal. Among the tropical crops, coffee is the
most important. It is produced in the highlands, chiefly in southeastern Brazil and in west central Colombia. Cacao
is important in eastern Brazil
and west central Ecuador.
Bananas and sugarcane are produced throughout the Tropics, mostly for domestic
markets. Bananas are grown for export in Colombia
and western Ecuador; sugar
is produced for export in coastal Peru,
Guyana, and Suriname.
Cotton has been produced for export for many decades in coastal Peru. Cotton
and sugarcane are also raised (both for export and domestic markets) in
northeastern and southeastern Brazil.
In southeastern Brazil
soybeans have, since the 1970s, become an important export crop. Soybeans are
less important in Argentina,
where fertile prairie soils have long supported grain and livestock industries
of worldwide importance. Argentine wheat, corn, linseed, beef, mutton, hides,
and wool are important items of international trade. Uruguay has a long-standing export
trade dominated by wool and hides.
Forestry and Fishing Although
the continent is 50 percent forested and is surrounded by seas rich in marine
life, the forestry and fishing industries in most South American nations are
small and oriented toward domestic markets. Some tropical hardwoods and
softwoods are exported, however, much of the wood
coming from the Amazon
Basin, where large tracts
of forest are being cleared for conversion into range and cropland. Also
exported is pine lumber from southern Brazil
and south central Chile,
together with some pulpwood. Significant areas of commercial forest have been
planted in Chile and Brazil. The
widespread planting of eucalyptus trees for firewood, for timbering, and for
use in rough construction has historically been important.
South America's most important commercial fisheries are the Pacific
coastal waters. Large amounts of anchovies for fish meal are caught off the
Peruvian and Chilean coasts, though overfishing has depleted recent harvests.
Tuna are taken off the Ecuadorian and Peruvian coasts. Crustaceans are an
important catch in Chilean, Brazilian, and Guianese waters.
mining for export is on a large scale. The long history of foreign corporate
control of South American mining operations is waning because of national
political pressures. Petroleum, copper, bauxite, and iron ore are the principal
commodities in value and volume, but mineral exports are greatly diversified. South America is an important world producer of lead,
zinc, manganese, and tin. Although all South American countries have some
mineral production, Venezuela's
oil and gas account for more than half the total value of the continent's
output. Mineral production is of great importance to several national
exports are dominated by crude and refined petroleum, and derivatives; while
the dependence on mineral exports is somewhat less in Suriname, Bolivia,
Peru and, in recent years, Ecuador, have
relied heavily on the sale of minerals. Such exports generate government
revenue, but mining contributes little to continental GDP and employment.
Nevertheless, mineral commodities are important to the continent's growing