South America’s population is only sightly larger than the population of the United States, 385 million v. 310 million. For a continent, South America is pretty sparsely populated. Africa, in contrast, has about 3x’s as many people
South America is well-known for its natural resources. Brazil, along with about 9 other countries, are home to the world’s largest rain forest, the Amazonian rain forest basin. Some people still think the Nile is the world’s largest river. According to Brazilian scientists, who have charted the headwaters with both satellite imagery and ground crews, the Amazon river is now the world’s longest river, and also the river with the greatest discharge. Brazil is also the world’s leading producer of beef, and Argentina is a close second. Brazil is also a world leader in soybeans, and citrus fruit, and the world’s 5th largest state in area. Quiet and subdued, South America is a global leader in numerous sectors.
South America is a world leader in cocaine exports to the United States, too, unfortunately. But you try to police the growth of coca (not cocoa, from which chocolate comes – big difference) in rugged and mountainous tropical areas. Imagine eastern Kentucky only with mountains like the Rockies. Our own ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) and FBI has problems in eastern Kentucky and Appalachia where federal law enforcement people are unwelcome. Imagine a country like Bolivia, Peru, or Colombia that has a very rugged terrain, a population that supports the rural farmers whose only source of livelihood may be the production of coca, and weak governments whose administrators might be in the pockets of the drug cartels. The problem is not simply the drug economy in Latin America; one cannot simply examine the “factory” without also scrutinizing the “consumer market,” drug users in the United States and Canada.
And oil. South America has enough oil. Ask Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela. Chavez has started nationalizing Venezuela’s oil industry (like Oliver Stone has suggested the U.S. should do) so now parts of the oil industry belong to the government of Venezuela, and thus, so do the profits. Venezuela is also one of the Top 5 oil-producing states that exports oil to the United States. Nationalization of industries, as a rule, is a horrible idea. Governments rarely invest in technology, research and development, maintaining or updating equipment. As a result, the facilities begin to fail after a number of years, production slips, prices increase, and the money that should have been used to reinvest in the industry was used in other places. Venezuela is now facing this, after wrestling control of the oil facilities away from such companies as Exxon and Conoco-Phillips.
South America is as diverse a realm as any we will study. The largest population of Japanese living outside of Japan is found in Brazil. Peru once had a person of Japanese ancestry as president, who is credited with turning his country’s economy around. Germans, Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, all find home in South America. French Guiana is not even part of South America – I mean, physically it is, but in fact, French Guiana is not a country at all – it is a province of France, and operated by the French government. The European Space Agency has their launch facilities located here. French Guiana is the best place to launch a satellite into space, by the way.
With the diversity comes a cost, diversity at the expense of the indigenous populations, in many countries. Early European settlers brought diseases indigenous populations were not immune to. Some estimates place death tolls close to 97% in some areas, entire populations wiped out, mostly by smallpox.
South America has the world’s largest rain forest, world’s largest river, world’s highest desert (Atacama), the world’s highest capital city (11,900ft, La Paz, Bolivia), and the world’s longest mountain range, the Andes.
Twelve countries with populations as diverse as any place on the planet.