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The Andes Mountains
The diverse physical and human geographies of Latin America—from the
peaks of the Andean range to the low, moist floors of the rainforests—
create physical barriers to overcome. Before the completion of the
Panama Canal in 1914, economies located in the Andes Mountain region
were seriously disadvantaged due to their distance from trade markets.
These mountains cut Andean communities off from other Latin American
societies by preventing the construction of roads, railroads and
communication lines. Moving a ton of goods from Lima, Peru to Bogota,
Columbia cost about $75 as compared to $3 to Buenos Aires, Argentina
or Montevideo, Uruguay. Trade with coastal cities promoted overseas
trade in a region where overland shipping could be as expensive as
sending goods halfway around the world. In Bolivia and Ecuador, for
example, costs from coastal ports to the capital city were between four
and five times the cost of shipping from England. The cold climate and
lack of fertile soil made agriculture difficult in this region so Andean
communities were dependent on mining to fuel their economy.
However, mines were typically opened by multinational businessmen with
little commitment to sustainable environmental policy. For example,
when a New York firm was allowed to mine in a region of Peru’s Central
Andes, it constructed a network of roads, railroads, smelters, mining
camps, hydroelectric plants. These activities promoted deforestation and
polluted air and rivers. Products were sold globally, but the devastation
was local.
Tropical Rainforests
European colonizers avoided living in the harsh conditions of the tropical
Central American countries and Brazil where malaria and extreme
humidity made work difficult. However, these European settlers did not
want to miss out on the opportunity to enrich themselves on the regions
rich natural resources. The resources and climate of the tropical regions
of Latin America were perfect for growing cash crops* like sugar,
bananas and coffee for export. The crops grown in the tropical regions
required a lot of labor; however the native population was almost wiped
out by European disease, which caused European colonizers to depend
on imported African slaves until the late 19th century. The negative
effects of an economy driven by agricultural exports* extended beyond
the use of slaves. The environmental costs were also severe. The
Central American region was transformed from subtropical forest to an
agricultural export economy by clearing and planting, pushing the
frontier, and exhausting the soil. In Brazil, trees in the tropical rainforest
were burned in short-term effort to increase soil fertility and because
they were believed to compete with coffee for water.
*Cash Crops: A crop grown for immediate sale.
*Exports: Goods or services sold to a foreign country.
Panama Isthmus
The Isthmus of Panama is a thin strip of land that extends from the
border of Costa Rica to the border of Colombia and connects North and
South America. It separates the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Panama.
Historically, this landform allowed plants and animals to migrate between
the two American continents. In more recent history, the isthmus has
served as an important trade link that colonial powers have fought over.
Under Spanish colonial rule, the region was an important economic
center, especially after a railroad was built in the mid-1800s. The Panama
Canal was completed and opened by the United States in 1914 and only
increased the economic and strategic importance of the region by
opening a direct trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Amazon River
The Amazon River carries more water than any other river in the world,
and is responsible for about one-fifth of the fresh water that flows into
the world’s oceans. The total length of the river from Southern Peru to
where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean on the northeastern coast of
Brazil is at least 4,000 miles which makes it only slightly shorter than the
Nile River. Historically, this river has enabled transportation, trade and
communication across South America. However, since the later decades
of the 20th century, human activities have increasingly threatened the
equilibrium of the forest’s highly complex ecology. As new highways and
air transport facilities are built along the Amazon River’s banks,
deforestation and pollution threaten the biodiversity that lives within the
its waters.
The Pampas
The Pampas are a grassland biome in Argentina and Uruguay, extending
over an area of 300,000 square miles. They are flat, fertile planes with a
humid and warm climate. The humid Pampas ecosystem is one of the
richest grazing areas in the world. Because of its temperature climate and
rich, deep soil, most of the Pampas has been cultivated and turned into
croplands. Crop and beef productivity have been growing steadily at
increasing rates, and this has resulted in increased surpluses to fulfill
domestic and export needs. The expansion of cultivation is causing rapid
simplification of the rural landscape, especially in continuously cropped
lands. Unfortunately, domestic livestock and farming has severely affected
the Pampas, and it is considered to be one of the most endangered
habitats on earth. The persistent conversion of natural grasslands into
cultivated lands, the extensive use of fire for managing rangelands and
grasslands, the introduction of grazing cattle, and the spreading of nonconservative tillage operations have triggered frequent soil erosion
episodes and transformed a carbon sequestering region into a carbonemitting one.
Yucatan Peninsula
The Yucatan Peninsula separates the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of
Mexico with the northern coastline of the Yucatan Channel. It comprises
a significant proportion of the ancient Maya Lowlands and there are many
Mayan archaeological sites throughout the peninsula. The peninsula is
composed of limestone bedrock and has very little surface water. Caves
and sinkholes cover most of the surface. Where lakes and swamps are
present, the water is marshy and undrinkable. The Yucatan Peninsula is
home to many rainforests and jungles and the climate is tropical,
consisting of wet and dry seasons. Traditionally, the Yucatan Peninsula
was largely a cattle ranching, logging, chicle (natural gum) and henquen
(agave) production area. Since the 1970s, the Yucatan Peninsula has
reoriented its economy towards tourism, with millions of tourists visiting
the area every year. Tulum and Cancun are the most popular cities.
Tierra Del Fuego
Tierra del Fuego, archipelago, at the southern extremity of South
America. The physical features of Tierra del Fuego are varied. Most of
the northern portion of the main island, consisting of glacial topography,
mainly lakes and moraines, is under 600 feet (180 metres) in height, and
the Atlantic and Strait of Magellan coasts are low-lying. In contrast, the
southern and western parts of the main island and the archipelago are a
prolongation of the Andes, with peaks exceeding 7,000 feet, notably
Monte Sarmiento (7,550 feet [2,300 metres]) and Monte Darwin (7,999
feet [2,438 metres]), and mountain glaciers.
The climate of Tierra del Fuego is predictably cool in summer and cold in
winter, with great contrast in annual rainfall, from 180 inches to 20
inches. In the exposed southern and western areas, vegetation is limited
to mosses and stunted trees. The central part of the main island has
deciduous beech forests, and the northern plains have a tussock grass
The archipelago was discovered by the navigator Ferdinand Magellan in
1520, when he sailed through the strait named after him and called the
region Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire). Various navigators traversed the
area, but no systematic exploration was attempted until the British
Admiralty undertook a thorough survey of the entire archipelago
between 1826 and 1836.