• South America: Human Geography

    South America's human landscape is deeply influenced by indigenous and immigrant populations and their connection to the physical environment.

    Map by the National Geographic Society

    Largest Urban Area
    Sao Paulo, Brazil (11,016,703 people)

    Highest Elevation
    Aconcagua, Argentina (6,962 meters/22,841 feet)

    Largest Watershed
    Amazon River (6,145,186 square kilometers/2,372,670 square miles)

    Population Density
    22 people per square kilometer

    Amount of Renewable Electricity Produced
    52% (top producer of renewable energy: Paraguay, 100%)

    South America, the fourth-largest continent, extends from the Gulf of Darién in the northwest to the Tierra del Fuego archipelago in the south. Along with the islands of Tierra del Fuego, the continent includes the Galápagos Islands (Ecuador), Easter Island (Chile), the Falkland Islands (United Kingdom), and the Chiloé and Juan Fernández archipelagos (Chile).

    South America and North America are named after Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci, who was the first European to suggest that the Americas were not part of the East Indies, but an entirely separate landmass. The portions of the landmass that lie south of the Isthmus of Panama became known as South America.

    Today, South America is home to the citizens of Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, the Falkland Islands, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay.

    South America’s physical geography, environment and resources, and human geography can be considered separately.

    South America’s human landscape is deeply influenced by indigenous populations and their connection to the physical environment. These deep relationships continue to flourish on the continent through celebration, religion, and political action.

    Cultural Geography

    Historic Cultures
    The historic cultures of South America developed in connection with distinct regional landscapes. The three principal regions of early development were the Pacific coast, suited to fishing and trading societies; the major rivers of the Amazon basin, with abundant water, plant, and animal resources; and the Andes, where mountains provided security.

    The Incan Empire is the most well known indigenous culture of South America. The Inca Empire was established in 1438 in the Andean city of Cuzco, Peru. Over a period of 100 years, the empire expanded to include parts of present-day Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, and Colombia.

    In order to communicate throughout this vast region, the Inca built an expansive network of roads. This network was made up of two main north-south roads, one running along the Pacific coast and another through the Andes. Many east-west roads connected the two. The Inca built forts, inns, food storage facilities, and signal towers along this impressive “foot highway.” These sites, and the highways that connected them, facilitated the Inca’s domination over most of the western part of the continent.

    The importation of African slaves represented a major shift in the cultural landscape of South America. Most slaves were brought to Brazil. Their unique cultural practices were integrated with indigenous Indian beliefs as well as European rituals.

    The religious practice of Candomblé, for example, is a uniquely Afro-Brazilian cultural tradition. Candomblé is a combination of traditional beliefs from the Yoruba, Fon, and Bantu cultures of Africa. Priests and other followers of these religions interacted with one another in large Brazilian slave communities. These faiths are polytheistic, meaning they honor many gods and goddesses. Slave owners and church leaders put slaves under intense pressure to convert to Catholicism, a monotheistic, or one-god, religion. Over time, the Candomblé faith incorporated parts of Christianity, such as saints and the display of crucifixes.

    Other historic cultures of South America developed with the physical, as well as cultural, landscape. A distinct gaucho (or “cowboy”) culture developed in the Pampas, for instance. In the mid-18th century, gauchos hunted herds of wild horses and cattle that roamed freely on the extensive grasslands. They then sold their hides and tallow—waxy fat used in making candles and soap—at a high price to European traders.

    Much like the North American cowboy, the gaucho was praised as free-spirited, strong, and honest. A popular culture of songs, stories, and films developed around the gaucho image. Gaucho culture still persists, especially in Argentina and Uruguay, where gaucho dress, song, and food are used to evoke national pride.

    Contemporary Cultures
    South America’s rich history is explored by contemporary cultures. Organizations are reaching a broader global audience in order to spread social and political messages, and bring in revenue from tourism and investment.

    Indigenous societies continue to have a strong presence in South America. COICA, the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, integrates nine organizations that represent each country of the Amazon region. COICA protects indigenous practices, focusing on sustainable use of resources. The group has worked on issues such as environmental legislation, cultural representation, and leadership training for indigenous peoples.

    Religious practices remain the backbone of many South American cultures. While Catholicism dominates the continent, other spiritual beliefs have influenced both spiritual and secular activities.

    The Carnival of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a festival held every year about 40 days before Easter, is an important example of a religious celebration that has been adopted by secular culture. It is both an important event in the Catholic calendar and one of the largest revenue generators in Rio.

    The Rio Carnival is the largest carnival event in the world, attracting millions of Brazilian and foreign tourists. During Carnival season, hotel prices are often four times higher than average. Some tourists pay hundreds of dollars to participate in the parade.

    Most participants, however, are Brazilian. The Rio Carnival incorporates two important social groups—samba schools and blocos. Samba schools are large social groups, often with thousands of members, which create elaborate floats and costumes for the Carnival parade. Blocos are smaller groups that often gather in neighborhoods to dance during Carnival festivities.

    Political Geography

    Political geography is the internal and external relationships between governments and citizens. South America’s history and development have been shaped by its political geography.

    Historic Issues
    The European colonization of South America defined the continent’s early political geography. The Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 granted Spain and Portugal the exclusive right to colonize all lands outside of Europe. The treaty also established a line of demarcation, which gave all land west of the line to Spain and all land east of the line to Portugal. Spain colonized the majority of South America and Portugal colonized present-day Brazil.

    The dominance of the Spanish and Portuguese languages on the continent is a result of Catholic missionaries’ educational work. They also developed writing systems for native oral traditions such as Quechua, Nahuatl, and Guarani.

    Marriages between European colonizers and native populations established the mestizo class. Mestizos are people of mixed indigenous and European ancestry. Today, mestizos make up large parts of the populations of many South American countries, such as Paraguay (95 percent), Ecuador (65 percent), and Colombia (58 percent).

    Mestizos were at the heart of South America’s revolutionary movement. Inspired by the American and French Revolutions, mestizos fought in several wars of independence from 1806 to 1826. These wars and other regional conflicts established the relatively stable boundaries of South America’s present-day countries. Among the revolutionary leaders were the Venezuelan Simón Bolívar and the Argentinean José de San Martín. Bolívar and San Martín remain among the most recognized and respected figures in South American history.

    South America has also suffered violent political transitions, especially during the 1960s and 1970s. These decades were defined by the Cold War, a global struggle between democratic Western nations and repressive nations with communist economies.

    The successful Cuban revolution of 1959 brought communism to Cuba. The United States and other western nations feared that communism would spread throughout Latin America, which includes Central and South America and parts of the Caribbean. Communist leaders did, in fact, gain some power in South America during the 1960s. Hoping to destroy the communist presence, U.S.-backed military dictatorships overthrew the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

    These dictatorships detained tens of thousands of political prisoners. Many of them were tortured and killed. These nations’ current democratic governments continue to investigate the atrocities that occurred during the dictatorship era.

    Contemporary Issues
    Today, South America’s political geography can be defined by a desire to reduce foreign influence. The nationalization and privatization of industry, as well as the influence of indigenous groups, are the primary political issues affecting South America.

    Nationalization is a type of ownership where the state controls an industry, as opposed to private companies. Some South American nations have nationalized industries, such as electricity or oil production, in order to encourage economic development.

    Chile nationalized its copper mines in 1971, for instance. Before nationalization, Chilean copper mines were controlled by large foreign companies. Today, CODELCO, the National Copper Corporation of Chile, is the largest copper company in the world, with more than $12.1 billion worth of sales in 2009.

    Two important leaders of the current trend of nationalization are Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Bolivian President Evo Morales. Chávez enacted a Hydrocarbons Law in Venezuela, which took effect in 2002 and nationalized all oil production and distribution activities. Morales has nationalized the oil and natural gas industry of Bolivia. Morales also bought water distribution rights in the capital of La Paz from a private French company. Other leaders, such as Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, have threatened to nationalize industries if foreign companies do not respect the rights of the countries they are doing business in.

    Many believe that nationalization has improved the lives of local populations, and the poor of Venezuela and Bolivia strongly support Chavez and Morales. Others argue that nationalization has worsened the quality of services and given too much control to the government. Chávez and Morales are well-known around the globe, seen as both popular leaders and power-hungry dictators.

    Some South American countries have done the opposite of nationalization—they have privatized industries. In these countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, the government has sold industries to mostly foreign investors and companies.

    Much like nationalization, privatization has had mixed results. Many industries are now more efficient producers of resources such as steel. Services such as water and sewage are also more reliable under private ownership. However, privatization has contributed to higher unemployment rates and increased the costs of goods and services.

    Indigenous populations of South America have aimed to increase their local and global influence. In 2009, for instance, Bolivia passed an important new constitution. It guaranteed political representation of indigenous groups, recognizes their communal forms of property, and grants them the right to use indigenous justice systems. The Bolivian Education Ministry is expanding its native-language programs. President Morales, an Aymara Indian and the nation’s first indigenous president, has been central to the increased representation of Bolivia’s indigenous majority.

    In 2006, two indigenous women, Hilaria Supa and María Sumire, became the first two people to be sworn into the Peruvian Congress using an indigenous language, Quechua. Their work to support the rights of indigenous people has led to the creation of many Quechua-language materials and media, including Quechua versions of the Google search page and the Microsoft Windows software system.

    Future Issues
    Urbanization will define the human geography of South America in years to come. Latin America is the most urbanized of the world’s developing regions. It is the only developing region with more poor people in cities than in rural areas. Individuals and families face increasing job insecurity, lower wages, and a reduction in social services such as electricity and water.

    Urbanization and industrialization are also destroying the unique biomes of South America. The Amazon rain forest is being burned at a rate of one acre every second. Trees are harvested for the timber industry, while the plains of the rain forest are turned into ranches, farms, and towns. This development is increasing the amount of air and water pollution in the Amazon basin and elsewhere.

    South America’s rural areas will suffer as more and more investment is made in the continent’s cities. In rural areas, poor people face the consequences of geographic isolation and limited public investment in education, health care, and housing. The continent’s poorest communities are indigenous populations in remote mountain areas in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.

    Another important predictor of South America’s political and financial future is its efforts to minimize the effects of climate change.

    The regulation or reduction of carbon emissions is perhaps the most important part of reducing global warming, the most recent period of climate change. As part of the 2009 international agreement known as the Copenhagen Accord, some South American countries agreed to reduce emissions. Brazil, a rising industrial power, agreed to reduce emissions by 36.1 percent by 2020. The oil-rich countries of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, however, have decided not to engage with the Copenhagen Accord.

    In fact, Bolivian President Morales and Venezuelan President Chávez were some of the most vocal critics of the Copenhagen Accord. They argue that the agreement was drafted by a small group of powerful countries. They say developed countries such as the United States and those in the European Union already developed their industries and infrastructure in the 20th century, without concern for carbon emissions. The Copenhagen Accord, they say, is unfair to underdeveloped countries that would face the challenges of development with greater responsibilities.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    atrocity Noun

    cruel or horrible act.

    basin Noun

    a dip or depression in the surface of the land or ocean floor.

    Encyclopedic Entry: basin
    biome Noun

    area of the planet which can be classified according to the plant and animal life in it.

    Encyclopedic Entry: biome
    bloco Noun

    local groups that gather to celebrate and participate in Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

    Candomble Noun

    faith based on African, Brazilian, and European religious traditions.

    carbon emission Noun

    carbon compound released into the air through the burning of fossil fuels such as coal or gas.

    Carnival Noun

    season in the Christian religion with many parties.

    Catholic Adjective

    having to do with the Christian denomination with the Pope as its leader.

    climate change Noun

    gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate change
    coast Noun

    edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: coast
    Cold War Noun

    (1947-1991) conflict between the Soviet Union (and its allies) and the United States (and its allies). The two sides never confronted each other directly.

    colonization Noun

    spreading of a species into a new habitat or ecosystem, and establishing a healthy population there.

    communal Adjective

    shared.

    communicate Verb

    to exchange knowledge, thoughts, or feelings.

    communist economy Noun

    system where the distribution of goods and services, as well as prices, are largely determined by the government. Also called a managed economy.

    constitution Noun

    system of ideas and general laws that guide a nation, state, or other organization.

    continent Noun

    one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: continent
    convert Verb

    to change from one thing to another.

    democratic Adjective

    having to do with a government led by its citizens, who vote for policies and/or representatives.

    dictator Noun

    person with complete control of a government.

    distribution Noun

    the way something is spread out over an area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: distribution
    East Indies Noun

    southeast Asia.

    electricity Noun

    set of physical phenomena associated with the presence and flow of electric charge.

    environment Noun

    conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

    facilitate Verb

    to help or make easier.

    fort Noun

    military outpost, area, or set of buildings.

    gaucho Noun

    South American cowboy.

    global warming Noun

    increase in the average temperature of the Earth's air and oceans.

    Encyclopedic Entry: global warming
    government Noun

    system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

    grassland Noun

    ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

    health care Noun

    system for addressing the physical health of a population.

    herd Noun

    group of animals.

    hide Noun

    leather skin of an animal.

    human geography Noun

    the study of the way human communities and systems interact with their environment.

    Incan Empire Noun

    (1438-1533) empire stretching along the coastal highlands and Andes mountains of South America.

    indigenous Adjective

    native to or characteristic of a specific place.

    industrialization Noun

    growth of machine production and factories.

    industry Noun

    activity that produces goods and services.

    infrastructure Noun

    structures and facilities necessary for the functioning of a society, such as roads.

    integrate Verb

    to combine, unite, or bring together.

    investment Noun

    money or another good devoted to a particular purpose.

    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    Latin America Noun

    South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico.

    mestizo Noun

    Latin American person with European and Native American ancestry.

    military Noun

    armed forces.

    minimize Verb

    to make smaller.

    monotheistic Adjective

    having a belief in a single god or goddess.

    mountain Noun

    landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.

    nationalize Verb

    to transfer ownership of a company, factory, or piece of land from private owners to the government.

    navigator Noun

    person who charts a course or path.

    neighborhood Noun

    an area within a larger city or town where people live and interact with one another.

    Encyclopedic Entry: neighborhood
    oil Noun

    fossil fuel formed from the remains of marine plants and animals. Also known as petroleum or crude oil.

    oral tradition Noun

    history, characteristics, and mythology of a culture transmitted through vocal, not written, methods.

    Pampas Noun

    flat grasslands of South America.

    physical geography Noun

    study of the natural features and processes of the Earth.

    political geography Noun

    study of the spatial relationships that influence government or social policies.

    political prisoner Noun

    person detained by a government because of their political opinion.

    pollution Noun

    introduction of harmful materials into the environment.

    Encyclopedic Entry: pollution
    polytheistic Adjective

    having a belief in many gods and goddesses.

    privatization Noun

    process of selling a public service, such as electricity, to a company.

    rain forest Noun

    area of tall evergreen trees and a high amount of rainfall.

    ranch Noun

    large farm on which livestock are raised.

    religion Noun

    a system of spiritual or supernatural belief.

    repress Verb

    to subdue or control.

    resource Noun

    available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

    revenue Noun

    income, or money earned before production costs are subtracted.

    right Noun

    specific freedom or opportunity granted to an individual or organization based on the law.

    ritual Noun

    series of customs or procedures for a ceremony, often religious.

    samba school Noun

    large club or organization focused on the Afro-Brazilian dance the samba, and marching in Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

    secular Adjective

    not having to do with religion or spirituality.

    sewage Noun

    liquid and solid waste material from homes and businesses.

    slave Noun

    person who is owned by another person or group of people.

    software Noun

    electronic programs of code that tell computers what to do.

    state Noun

    nation or national government.

    steel Noun

    metal made of the elements iron and carbon.

    sustainable Adjective

    able to be continued at the same rate for a long period of time.

    tallow Noun

    fatty tissue of animals, used to treat leather and make candles and soap.

    torture Noun

    inflicting pain to force a victim to provide information.

    tourism Noun

    the industry (including food, hotels, and entertainment) of traveling for pleasure.

    unique Adjective

    one of a kind.

    urbanization Noun

    process in which there is an increase in the number of people living and working in a city or metropolitan area.

    wage Noun

    money or goods traded for work or service performed.

Tell us what you think