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6.1: Introducing the Realm

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Summarize the main physical features and characteristics of South America.
    2. Explain how European colonialism dominated the realm and divided up the continent.
    3. Describe the ethnic, economic, and political patterns in the Guianas.
    4. Outline the main cultural realms of South America. Describe each realm’s main ethnic majority and explain how colonialism impacted each region.
    5. Summarize how the South American countries are attempting to integrate their economies.

    The continent of South America has a wide diversity of physical landscapes, from the high Andes Mountains to the tropical forests of the Amazon Basin. This assortment of physical features offers many resource bases, allowing people to engage in economic activity, gain wealth, and provide for their needs. The long range of the Andes holds mineral riches that have been being extracted since ancient times. Precious metals have been mined from the mountains to grant great opportunities for those fortunate enough to be recipients of its wealth. Fossil fuels have been found in abundance in the far northern regions of Venezuela and Colombia. The Amazon Basin has been a source of hardwood lumber and, more recently, extensive mineral wealth. Some of the largest iron-ore mines in the world are located here. The massive plains of Brazil and the rich soils of the Pampas allow for enormous agricultural operations that provide food products for the continent and for the world. Even the inhospitable Atacama region in northern Chile holds some of the world’s largest copper reserves. In addition, the wide variety of climate zones allows a diverse range of species to develop. The extremes in physical geography in South America have created both barriers and opportunities to those who live there.

    Before the era of European colonialism, many local groups organized themselves into states or empires. The Inca Empire was the largest in existence at the time the Europeans arrived. The early empires developed massive structures that required huge cut stones weighing many tons to be moved into place without the benefit of modern tools or technology. European colonialism altered the continent in several ways. Not only did the Europeans defeat and conquer indigenous Amerindian groups such as the Inca, but cultural exchanges also took place that altered the way of life for countless South Americans. Colonialism created many of the current country borders and influenced trade relationships with the newly created colonies. The plantation system and the introduction of slaves from Africa drastically changed the ethnic makeup of the people living along the eastern coast. After slavery was abolished, indentured servitude brought workers from Asia to support the labor base.

    Indentured servants were usually poor individuals who agreed to work for an agreed upon period of time, usually less than seven years, in return for the necessities of life such as lodging, food, and transportation or clothing. These individuals did not usually receive a salary but may have received a lump sum payment upon completion of the agreed upon service. Under favorable conditions indentured servants were treated like relatives and gained important experience and job skills to provide for their future. Many situations were much less favorable and resembled a form of slavery where individuals did not survive their servitude but succumbed to disease, harsh conditions, or death.

    The physical environment and the influence of colonialism were both responsible for the cultural attributes of the regions of South America. The continent can be divided into regions by ethnic majorities influenced by early colonial development. The mixing of ethnic groups from Europe, Africa, and Asia with each other or with the indigenous population has created a diverse cultural mosaic. For example, most people in Guyana and Suriname are from Asia, most people in Argentina and Uruguay are from Europe, most people in Peru and Bolivia are Amerindian, and most people in many areas along the eastern coast of Brazil are of African descent. A large percentage of the population of South America is of a mixed ethnic background. Understanding the cultural geography of South American supports comprehension of the realm’s human development patterns.

    South America’s modern economic development has helped integrated it with the global economy. The levels of economic development vary widely within the realm. There are clear indications of core-peripheral spatial patterns within various regions of the continent, and rural-to-urban shift has been strong in many areas. The rural regions in the Andes or the interior suffer from a lack of economic support needed to modernize their infrastructure. At the same time, metropolitan areas are expanding rapidly and are totally integrated with global markets and the latest technologies. Most of the large cities are located along the coastal regions. This pattern of urbanization is mainly a result of colonial activity and influence. The countries of South America are working among themselves to network trade and commerce activities. Trade agreements and economic unions have become standard methods of securing business partnerships to enhance the realm’s economic opportunities.

    Physical Geography

    The far-reaching Andes Mountains and the massive Amazon River system dominate South America’s physical geography. The five-thousand-mile-long Andes Mountain chain extends along the entire western region of the continent from Venezuela to southern Chile. The Andes are the longest mountain chain on Earth and the highest in the Americas. The Andes Mountain range has more than thirty peaks that reach at least twenty thousand feet in elevation, many of which are active volcanoes. The Andes has provided isolation to the Inca Empire, mineral wealth to those with the means for extraction, and a barrier to travelers crossing the continent. The Andes’ minerals include gold, silver, tin, and other precious metals. Mining became a major industry in the colonial era and continues to the present.

    At the core of the continent is the mighty Amazon River, which is more than two thousand miles long and has an enormous drainage basin in the largest tropical rain forest in the world. The Amazon’s many tributaries are larger than many other world rivers. Flowing parallel to the equator, the Amazon is in contention with the Nile as the longest river in the world. In 2007, a dispute arose over the actual length of the Amazon River. Brazilian scientists using satellite imagery and teams on the ground using a global positioning system (GPS) calculated a new length for the Amazon. Using similar methods, the Nile River also had a new length calculated. Both were determined to be longer than originally measured. At this time, the actual length of each river is openly disputed. The most accurate statement is that the Amazon River has the greatest discharge of any river in the world, and it is potentially also the longest river in the world.

    The Amazon carries about a fifth of all river water in the world. The Amazon and its many tributaries drain the entire interior region of the continent, covering 40 percent of South America. During the rainy season, the Amazon River can be more than one hundred miles wide. No bridges span the Amazon River. Its source is a glacial stream located high in the Peruvian Andes, about 150 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

    The Amazon’s extended tributaries—such as the Rio Negro, the Madeira, and the Xingu—move massive amounts of water through the Amazon Basin and are major rivers in their own right. The Amazon has more than 1,100 tributaries; a dozen are more than one thousand miles long. Hydroelectric dams are located on the tributaries to produce electricity for the region’s fast-growing development. South America has additional large rivers that drain the continent, including the Orinoco, which flows through Venezuela; the Sao Francisco, which flows through southeast Brazil; and the Paraguay and the Paraná Rivers, which flow south from Brazil into the Rio de la Plata between Argentina and Uruguay.

    Lake Titicaca rests in the middle of the Altiplano Region of the Central Andes on the border between Peru and Bolivia. The Altiplano Region is a wide basin between two main Andean mountain ranges. The word altiplano means “valley” in Spanish. There are a substantial number of altiplanos in South America. They provide for agricultural production and human habitation. The Altiplano Region has been home to ancient civilizations that date back to early human settlements. Lake Titicaca is a large freshwater lake about 120 miles long and 50 miles wide. The surface is at an elevation of about twelve thousand feet above sea level, and the lake is more than nine hundred feet deep in some areas. Usually at such high elevations, the temperature would dip below freezing and restrict agriculture. However, the large lake acts as a solar energy collector by absorbing energy from the sun during the day and giving off that energy in the form of heat during the night. The energy redistribution allows for a moderate temperature around the lake that is conducive to growing food crops. With abundant fresh water and the ability to grow food and catch fish, the Altiplano Region has supported human habitation for thousands of years. On the Bolivian side of the lake is the ancient stone site of Tiahuanaco, which has had some artifacts dated to 1500 BCE or earlier. People continue to live around and on Lake Titicaca and maintain a subsistence lifestyle.

    Figure 6.2 Lake Titicaca with Traditional Reed Boat Made by Amerindian Locals


    Lake Titicaca is the highest-elevation navigable lake in the world.

    Benedict Adam – Peru – CC BY 2.0.

    Across the Andes Mountains from the Altiplano Region is the Atacama Desert. The Atacama is one of the driest places on Earth: in some parts, no rain has fallen in recorded history. In normal circumstances, the Atacama would be a desolate region without human activity, but that is not the case. Some of the world’s largest copper reserves are found here. Nitrates, which are used in fertilizers, are also found in large quantities. Mining the Atacama has brought enormous wealth to people fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of the profits. The rain shadow effect is responsible for the extraordinary dryness of the Atacama. The Andes are quite high at this latitude, and the winds blow in rain clouds from the east. When the clouds reach the mountains, they ascend in elevation, releasing their precipitation without ever reaching the western side of the Andes.

    South America has large agricultural plateaus east of the Andes, such as the Mato Grosso Plateau, which includes a portion of the great cerrado agricultural region of central Brazil. The Cerrado is a vast plain that has been developed for agriculture and produces enormous harvests of soybeans and grain crops. Bordering the Cerrado to the southeast are the Brazilian Highlands, an extensive coffee-growing region. The Pampas in eastern Argentina, Uruguay, and southernmost Brazil is another excellent agricultural region with good soils and adequate rainfall. Farming, cattle ranching, and even vineyards can be found here, making the Pampas the breadbasket of the Southern Cone. To the south of the Pampas is the lengthy expanse of Patagonia, which covers the southern portion of Argentina east of the Andes. Patagonia is a prairie grassland region that does not receive a very much rainfall because of the rain shadow effect of the Andes to the west. The main activities in Patagonia are the raising of cattle and other livestock. The region is starting to attract attention for the extraction of natural resources such as oil, natural gas, and valuable minerals.

    To the northern part of the continent in Venezuela and Colombia, sandwiched between the Andes Mountains and the Guiana Highlands, is a grassland region with scrub forests called the Llanos. The human population is small because of the remoteness of the region along the Orinoco River basin. The Guiana Highlands of southeast Venezuela and the Guianas are an isolated set of mountainous plateaus mixed with rugged landscapes and tropical climates. Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, with a free fall of more than 2,647 feet and a total drop of about 3,212 feet (more than half a mile), is located here. To the northwest of the Llanos and the Guiana Highlands in Venezuela is Lake Maracaibo, a large inland lake open to the Caribbean Sea. A coastal lake, Maracaibo rests atop vast oil reserves that provide economic wealth for Venezuela.

    European Colonialism

    South America’s colonial legacy shaped its early cultural landscape. The indigenous people, with their empires and local groups, were no match for the Iberian invaders who brought European colonialism to the continent. South America was colonized exclusively by two main Iberian powers: Spain colonized the western part of the South America, and Portugal colonized the east coast of what is present-day Brazil. The only region that was not colonized by those two powers was the small region of the Guianas, which was colonized by Great Britain, the Netherlands, and France.

    Figure 6.3 Colonial Activity in South America


    Everything changed with the invasion of the Iberian colonizers. The underlying tenets of culture, religion, and economics of the local indigenous people were disrupted and forced to change. It is no mystery why the two dominant languages of South America are Spanish and Portuguese and why Roman Catholicism is the realm’s dominant religion. Colonialism also was responsible for transporting food crops such as the potato, which originated in the Peruvian Andes, to the European dinner table. Today, coffee is a main export of Colombia, Brazil, and other countries in the tropics. Coffee was not native to South America but originated in Ethiopia and was transferred by colonial activity. The same is true of sugarcane, bananas, and citrus fruits; oranges were not native to South America, but today Brazil is the number one exporter of orange juice. Colonialism was driven by the desire for profit from the quick sale of products such as gold or silver, and there was a ready market for goods not found in Europe, such as tobacco, corn, exotic animals, and tropical woods.

    Plantation agriculture introduced by the Europeans led to a high demand for manual laborers. When the local populations could not meet the labor demand, millions of African workers were brought through the slave trade. These African slaves introduced their own unique customs and traditions, altering the culture and demographics of the Western Hemisphere. The current indigenous Amerindian population, a fraction of what it was before the Europeans arrived, makes up only a small percentage of South America’s total population. Europeans colonizers generally took the best land and controlled the economic trade of the region. The acculturation in South America is directly related to the European colonial experience.

    The Inca Empire and Francisco Pizarro

    Not long after Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec Empire of Mexico in 1521, a young Spanish conquistador named Francisco Pizarro, stationed in what is now Panama, heard rumors of silver and gold found among the South American people. He led several sailing excursions along the west coast of South America. In 1531 CE, he founded the port city of Lima, Peru. Since 1200 CE, the Inca had ruled a large empire extending out from central Peru, which included the high-elevation Altiplano Region around Lake Titicaca. The Inca Empire dominated an area from Ecuador to Northern Chile. The Inca were not the most populous people but were a ruling class who controlled other subjugated groups. Pizarro, with fewer than two hundred men and two dozen horses, met up with the Inca armies and managed to defeat them in a series of military maneuvers. The Inca leader was captured by the Spanish in 1533. Two years later, in 1535, the Inca Empire collapsed.

    Figure 6.4 Colonialism in South America


    The two main colonizers in South America were Spain and Portugal. The Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro defeated the Inca Empire.

    The Inca Empire was significant thanks to the high volume of gold and silver found in that region of the Andes. The story is told that Pizarro placed the captured Inca leader in a small room and told him that if the room was filled with gold to the top of the Inca leader’s head, Pizarro would let the Inca leader go free. Gold was summoned from the people and the countryside, and the room was filled. The conquistadors forced the Inca leader to convert to Catholicism and be baptized and then killed him. The gold was melted down and transported back to Spain. The mineral wealth of the Andes made the conquistadors rich. Lima was once one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Europeans continued to dominate and exploit the mining of minerals in Peru and Bolivia throughout the colonial era. European elites or a Mestizo ruling class has dominated or controlled the local Amerindian groups in the Andes since colonial times.

    Figure 6.5 The Jesuit Church of La Compañia de Jesús on the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco, Peru


    The original church was constructed in 1571 on the site of the ancient Incan palace. The earthquake of 1650 caused severe damage to the building, so it had to be reconstructed in about 1688. Many Catholic cathedrals in Latin America were built with stones from ancient sites. This cathedral is claimed to be the Western Hemisphere’s most ideal example of colonial baroque architecture.

    James Preston – La Compania de Jesus, Cusco – CC BY 2.0.

    Many Amerindian groups inhabited this region before the Inca Empire, such as the people who built and lived in the ancient city of Tiahuanaco, which could have bordered Lake Titicaca during an earlier climate period, when the lake was much larger. Clearly, humans have lived in South America for thousands of years. There is speculation that travel between South America and the Mediterranean region occurred earlier than current historic records indicate. Many of the ruins in the western region of South America have not been thoroughly excavated or examined by archaeologists, and the size and scope of many of the stone structures stand as testimony to the advancements in engineering and technology employed in an era that, according to historical records, had only primitive tools.

    The Iberian Division of the Continent

    The Spanish conquistadors were not the only European invaders to colonize South America. Colonial influence—which forced a change in languages, religion, and economics—also came from the small European kingdom of Portugal. Portuguese ships sailed along the eastern coast of South America and laid claim to the region for the king. The Portuguese did not find large gold or silver reserves, but they coveted the land for the expansion of their empire. Soon the Spanish and the Portuguese were fighting over the same parts of South America. In 1494, the issue was brought before the Roman Catholic Church. The Tordesillas Line was drawn on a map to divide South America into the Spanish west and the Portuguese east. The region that is now Brazil became the largest Portuguese colonial possession in South America, a center for plantation agriculture similar to that in the Caribbean. For this reason, a large African population lives in Brazil, and most of the people in Brazil speak Portuguese and are Roman Catholics.

    Independence did not come for the Spanish colonies until 1816 and 1818, when Chile and Argentina broke away in an independence movement in the south. Simón Bolívar led liberation movements in the north. By 1824, the Spanish were defeated in South America. Brazil did not gain independence from Portugal until 1822, when the prince of Portugal declared an independent Brazil and made himself Brazil’s first emperor. It was not until 1889 that a true republic was declared and empire was abolished.

    Colonialism and the Guianas

    The Guianas in the northeast were the only European colonies in South America that were not under Spanish or Portuguese control. The British, Dutch, and French all held claims to different parts of the Guianas. French Guiana remains a colony (department) of France to this day. The transition from colony to independent state has required persistence, time, and patience. Guyana and Suriname only just received their independence in the latter part of the twentieth century.

    Figure 6.6 The Guianas of South America


    The coastal location of the Guianas provided European colonialists with an excellent site for plantation agriculture. Coastal cities had easy access to the Atlantic trade system. The active slave trade in the Atlantic brought African slaves to the Guianas to work the plantations. When slavery was abolished, indentured servants were brought in from other parts of the world that were colonized by the same European powers. Colonialism and plantation agriculture entirely changed the cultural dynamics of the Guianas. Port cities along the coast are the dominant urban centers. The Guianas follow a pattern similar to that of the rimland of the Caribbean and are included with the Caribbean in many studies. At the present time, bauxite (aluminum ore) mining and oil deposits along the coast provide modest income, and many people make their living in subsistence agriculture.


    Guyana and its neighbors have a tropical type A climate. The main interior regions are covered with dense forests. Some deforestation has taken place in Guyana; even so, forests cover more than 80 percent of Guyana’s land area with a diverse range of forests, ranging from dry evergreen forests to tropical rain forests, and with thousands of species of plants that are only found in this region. Guyana’s natural habitats and biodiversity are unparalleled, which is attributable to the climate, distinctive landforms, and largely well-preserved ecosystems. Its large rain forests play host to a myriad of species not found elsewhere. The interior regions remain more than 70 percent pristine, but this will change if logging, mining, and deforestation are not managed appropriately.

    Guyana was called British Guiana before it became independent in 1966. The region was home to Carib and Arawak groups before the arrival of the Dutch, who established the first colony there in 1616. By 1831, the British had taken control and declared the colony British Guiana. African slaves were the main source of plantation labor until slavery was abolished in 1834. At that point, indentured servants from many countries were targeted for labor; most were East Indians from South Asia. There were also thousands of servants from China and other countries.

    The ethnic background of Guyana’s population, which is less than one million, is a mix of African (36 percent), East Indian (50 percent), and Amerindian (7 percent). The remainder are mixed and European. The religious background of the East Indians includes both Hindus and Muslims. About 50 percent of the population has converted to Christianity. Ethnic divisions create difficulties in organizing politics and social activities. For example, one political concern is that minority groups with greater economic advantages will dominate the political arena without regard to the wishes of other ethnic groups.

    Most of Guyana’s people live in the coastal regions. The almost impenetrable interior has large uninhabited areas with dense tropical forests. To protect its unique biodiversity, large areas have been placed in conservation areas and national parks. More than one million acres have been placed in the Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area (COCA) to help preserve the natural environment and provide a sustainable economic relationship with local Waiwai people. In a similar effort, the government created the Kaieteur National Park, which features the spectacular Kaieteur Falls, which is about five times higher than Niagara Falls in North America. For its size, the falls has an enormous amount of water volume flowing over its crest. Other areas of the Guyana are also being considered for preservation.

    Figure 6.7 Kaieteur Falls, Guyana


    Kaieteur Falls has the largest single-drop waterfall by volume in the world. A national park has been created in this area to include the falls.

    Paul Arps – Kaietur falls from a distance (Guyana 2001) – CC BY 2.0.

    Guyana’s economy is based on agricultural activities and the export of extracted natural resources. Sugarcane is a main cash crop, and timber sales are increasing. Fishing is common in the coastal areas. Bauxite mining has been the main mining activity, and mining of gold and other minerals has only advanced in recent years. Guyana’s economy is similar to that of many islands of the Caribbean, a relationship exemplified by its membership in CARICOM (the Caribbean Community). CARICOM’s headquarters is located in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana.


    Suriname’s colonial name was Dutch Guiana. The name was changed when independence was granted in 1975. The cultural background of the colony is as diverse as its history. Dutch Guiana was divided between British and Dutch colonists. Slavery and plantation agriculture were introduced in the colonial period, and the harsh conditions of slavery caused many slaves to escape the plantations and live in the forests. These runaway slaves, called Maroons, eventually organized into viable independent groups. Peace treaties were finally made with the Maroons to grant them legitimate rights. After slavery was abolished, indentured servants from South Asia and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) were conscripted into the colony’s labor base.

    Most of the half-million people who live in Suriname today reside along the coast. The ethnic background of the people includes East Indian (37 percent), Creole (31 percent), Indonesian (15 percent), African (10 percent), Amerindian (2 percent), Chinese (2 percent), and European (about 1 percent). All three of the Guianas are ethnically diverse, and in this setting, the diversity creates tensions related to social and economic stability. Guyana and Suriname are the least Latin regions of South America; the Creoles, for example, are mainly a mix of African and Dutch mixed with Asian or Amerindian. Establishing a stable government and conducting civil affairs are often complicated by the ethnic groups that vie for power and political control. The religious background in Suriname includes Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and a mix of African religions such as Winti.

    Figure 6.8 Ethnic Groups of Suriname by Percentage of the Population


    Data courtesy of CIA World Factbook 2010.

    Suriname depends on agriculture and natural resources as its two main economic activities. Suriname has the smallest physical area of all the independent South American states, and it has a limited ability to provide opportunities and advantages for its growing population. Bauxite is the country’s main export product. In 1941, during World War II, the United States occupied the country to secure the valuable bauxite mines that were critical to the war effort. Suriname has also been expanding its gold mining, oil extraction, logging, and fishing industries. To protect its natural environment and its extensive biodiversity, the country has established national parks and created the large Central Suriname Nature Reserve, which UNESCO has named a World Heritage Site. Suriname hopes to benefit from these measures to create an ecotourism market.

    Both Guyana and Suriname have had border disputes with their neighbors. Guyana has been locked in a challenge with Venezuela over its western region, which Venezuela claimed during the colonial era. A 1905 treaty ruled in Guyana’s favor, but a small portion is still under dispute. The corner of Surname that borders Brazil and Guyana has been an issue of contention fueled by the potential for mining of gold and other minerals in the area. The maritime boundary between Suriname and Guyana is also a point of contention. Suriname’s border with French Guiana has a disputed area along the southern corner next to Brazil. These disputes emerged out of colonial agreements and poorly defined treaty boundaries.

    French Guiana

    French Guiana is still a colony (department) of France. With fewer than 250,000 people in an area slightly smaller than Kentucky, this is a sparsely inhabited area. Half the population lives in the capital city of Cayenne. Most of the population is Creole, mainly a combination of African and French with various Asian groups mixed in. The people work in subsistence agriculture or for the French government. A noted feature of the colony’s heritage is the former off-shore prison on Devil’s Island, which France used to secure its most undesirable prisoners. More than fifty thousand French prisoners were delivered to the Devil’s Island facility during the colonial era, but less than 10 percent survived. The prison was closed in 1951.

    Figure 6.9 The Ariane 42P Carrying the TOPEX/Poseidon Spacecraft


    This Ariane 42P was launched from the European Space Agency’s Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, on August 10, 1992.

    Photo courtesy of NASA – public domain.

    The European Space Agency maintains a launch center in French Guiana because of its favorable climate and launch conditions. France maintains the facility and has highly subsidized the department’s economy. This European support provides the population with a higher standard of living than in many other South American countries. Economic activities have included fishing, agriculture (bananas and sugar), and logging. Deforestation from the sale of hardwood lumber has become a problem throughout the Guianas as it leaves the soil open for erosion. Logging endangers the area’s fragile but extensive biodiversity. Roads, dams, and gold mining have also contributed to the erosive destruction of the environment.