South America might be described as the continent with the widest diversity—diversity of culture, with dozens of ethnicities from indigenous to European and African; diversity of animal life, with thousands of species from insects to birds and so much in between; and a diversity of landscapes, from humid tropical Amazonia to dry and cold 20,000 foot Andean mountain peaks.
Within these broad ranges of diversity must be included the continent’s natural resources. From timbers to minerals, from base metals to precious metals, from petroleum to gas, South America has it all—and in abundance at that.
Since the days of European colonization, cash crops have been the continent’s best known and perhaps most enjoyed exports—coffee, cocoa, and sugar to name the most intoxicating.
Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador are among the leading producers of these in the region. These same tropical and wetter climates also produce popular exotic fruits, such as avocado, guava, papaya, and pineapple.
In the temperate climates further south, starting from about midway down the continent, daily temperature changes dip a little lower into the cooler end of the thermometer. Yet the nutrient rich soils near the slopes of the Andes mountain chain and its major rivers feed an equally important cattle industry. While Brazil is the largest exporter of beef, Argentina in particular is renowned the world over for the quality of its beef and leather.
Yet ranching also includes the raising of exotic animals indigenous to South America, including the llama and alpaca, known for their thick warm wool. In recent years, llama and alpaca ranches have been opened in North America as petting zoos for the animals’ soothing gentility and amiable disposition.
Along the Andean mountain range the climate falls considerably colder, as the chain rises to well above 20,000 feet above sea level, forming the second tallest mountain chain on the planet.
Though this region is extremely dry, important crops such as the potato and the quinoa grain do grow there easily, having fed indigenous cultures for millennia as far back as the Inca, the Aymara before them, and older inhabitants of the range dating back thousand of years.
Some 99% of all potato variations trace their lines back to just one potato species from the Chiloé Archipelago—a cluster of islands along the middle coast of Chile—more than 10,000 years ago.
But once in the high mountains, the vast wealth of the Andean chain shines brilliantly in all its glory in the form of gold, silver, and other industrial metals such as copper, tin, lead, and zinc.
Bolivia has long been a leading producer of silver, with the famous Potosí mines financing much of colonial Spain’s conquests. Incalculable amounts of gold and silver were transported from the Andes to the coasts of Columbia and Venezuela, where they were loaded aboard galleon treasure ships destined for Spain, only to be attacked and plundered by British pirates patrolling the many island waterways of the Caribbean.
And completing our quick tour of the American Subcontinent at these northern coastal regions, we find vast offshore petroleum reserves that have propelled Venezuela to a four-way-tie at the third spot of OPEC leading oil producers.
Yet in proven oil reserves, Venezuela sits alone at the top spot in the world at 24%, the OPEC Annual Statistical Bulletin 2012 shows. Other fuel deposits include large quantities of natural gas scattered about the many swamplands of Amazonia.
Sadly, though, with so much resource wealth at their feet, the continent’s economies and peoples are not as prosperous as they could be, but are instead among the least developed and poorest in the world.
Nature has dealt the South Americans a very good hand. But in this writer’s opinion, a whole host of mismanagement issues from incompetence to corruption have impeded the region’s economic progress to a crawl.
As with many countries that have fallen behind, isolation and lack of awareness have largely been the reasons. But with more and more South Americans being swept away by the tidal wave of social forums spreading throughout the globe, their eyes are slowly opening not just to where the rest of the world is, but also to where they themselves are by comparison.
And perhaps this will fire up the spirits of an ambitious new generation to make better, fairer use of their precious resources, and ensure every South American citizen is empowered to benefit.