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5.3: Central America

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Describe how the physical environment has affected human activity in Central America.
    2. Outline the various ways in which the United States has affected the region.
    3. Explain the similarities and the differences among the Central American republics.
    4. Understand how the Panama Canal came to be constructed and what role the United States has played in Panama.

    Physical Environment

    Central America is a land bridge connecting the North and South American continents, with the Pacific Ocean to its west and the Caribbean Sea to its east. A central mountain chain dominates the interior from Mexico to Panama. The coastal plains of Central America have tropical and humid type A climates. In the highland interior, the climate changes with elevation. As one travels up the mountainsides, the temperature cools. Only Belize is located away from this interior mountain chain. Its rich soils and cooler climate have attracted more people to live in the mountainous regions than along the coast.

    Hurricanes, tropical storms, earthquakes, and volcanic activity produce recurring environmental problems for Central America. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch swept through the region, devastating Nicaragua and El Salvador, which had already been devastated by civil wars in previous years.

    The volcanic activity along the central mountain chain over time has provided rich volcanic soils in the mountain region, which has attracted people to work the land for agriculture. Central America has traditionally been a rural peripheral economic area in which most of the people have worked the land. Family size has been larger than average, and rural-to-urban shift dominates the migration patterns as the region urbanizes and industrializes. Natural disasters, poverty, large families, and a lack of economic opportunities have made life difficult in much of Central America.

    Altitudinal Zonation

    High mountains ranges run the length of Central and South America. The Andes Mountains of South America are the longest mountain chain in the world, and a large section of this mountain range is in the tropics. Tropical regions usually have humid type A climates. What is significant in Latin America is that while the climate at the base of the Andes may be type A, the different zones of climate and corresponding human activity vary as one moves up the mountain in elevation. Mountains have different climates at the base than at the summit. Type H highland climates describe mountainous areas that exhibit different climate types at varying degrees of elevation.

    Human activity varies with elevation, and the activities can be categorized into zones according to altitudinal zonation. Each zone has its own type of vegetation and agricultural activity suited to the climate found at that elevation. For every thousand-foot increase in elevation, temperature drops 3.5 ºF. In the tropical areas of Latin America, there are five established temperature-altitude zones. Elevation zones may vary depending on a particular location’s distance from the equator.

    1. Tierra caliente (hot land): Sea level to 2,500 feet
    2. Tierra templada (temperate land): 2,500 to 6,000 feet
    3. Tierra fria (cold land): 6,000 to 12,000 feet
    4. Tierra helada (frozen land): 12,000 to 15,000 feet
    5. Tierra nevada (snowy land): Above 15,000 feet

    Figure 5.17 Altitudinal Zonation System in Latin America


    Tierra Caliente (Hot Land): Sea Level to 2,500 Feet

    From sea level to 2,500 feet are the humid tropical lowlands found on the coastal plains. The coastal plains on the west coast of Middle America are quite narrow, but they are wider along the Caribbean coast. Vegetation includes tropical rain forests and tropical commercial plantations. Food crops include bananas, manioc, sweet potatoes, yams, corn, beans, and rice. Livestock are raised at this level, and sugarcane is an important cash crop. Tropical diseases are most common, and large human populations are not commonly attracted to this zone.

    Tierra Templada (Temperate Land): 2,501 to 6,000 Feet

    From 2,500 to 6,000 feet is a zone with cooler temperatures than at sea level. This is the most populated zone of Latin America. Four of the seven capitals of the Central American republics are found in this zone. Just as temperate climates attract human activity, this zone provides a pleasant environment for habitation. The best coffee is grown at these elevations, and most other food crops can be grown here, including wheat and small grains.

    Tierra Fria (Cold Land): 6,001 to 12,000 Feet

    From 6,000 to 12,000 feet is the highest zone found in Middle America. This zone is usually the limit of the tree line; few trees grow north of this zone. The shorter growing season and cooler temperatures found at these elevations are still adequate for growing agricultural crops of wheat, barley, potatoes, or corn. Livestock can graze and be raised on the grasslands. The Inca Empire of the Andes Mountains in South America flourished in this zone.

    Tierra Helada (Frozen Land): 12,001 to 15,000 Feet

    Some classify this as the “Puna” zone. At this elevation, there are no trees. The only human activity is the raising of livestock such as sheep or llama on any short grasses available in the highland meadows. Snow and cold dominate the zone. Central America does not have a tierra helada zone, but it is found in the higher Andes Mountain Ranges of South America.

    Tierra Nevada (Snowy Land): Above 15,000 Feet

    There is little human activity above 15,000 feet. Permanent snow and ice is found here, and little vegetation is available. Many classification systems combine this zone with the tierra helada zone.