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Central America

There are 26 million people in Central America. Mestizos of mixed white and Indian heritage make up one half of the population. Indians, who make up one fifth, are concentrated in Guatemala. Whites are dominant in Costa Rica, and blacks and mulattos in Panama and the Caribbean coastal plains. Central America extends for a distance of 1,200 miles east southeastward from Mexico to South America. Its wider western half is occupied by the nations of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The republics of Costa Rica and Panama occupy the narrower eastern half.

Central America is an isthmus, or narrow strip of land connecting two larger bodies of land, in this case North and South America. A row of volcanoes runs along the pacific shorelines of much of Central America. Inland lies a rugged upland surface produced by earlier volcanic activity. Nearly three quarters of the population live within the volcanic regions and the narrow pacific coastal plain that has been built up of materials derived from the volcanic upland. While the Pacific side is primarily of volcanic origin, the Caribbean side is dominated by a land in which is packed into parallel ridges and valleys. This rough land extends in an east-west arc across northwestern Central America. The Caribbean shoreline is less heavily populated and generally more isolated, it contains greater mineral resources than the volcanic regions to the south. Although, Managua and Nicaragua are limited in area, they serve in the production of cotton, sugar, cattle, and bananas, which are four of the five major agricultural exports.

Although Central America is thought of as being tropical, one third is more than 3,000 feet high and, so, has temperate too cool climates. Four of its seven capital cities and nearly two thirds of its population live in the cool uplands. Rainfall varies considerably. While seasonal rainfall on the pacific coastal plain provides perfect weather for the production of sugar and cotton, year-round rainfall on the Caribbean plains supports tropical rain forests and support the production of bananas. Central America also has periodic droughts as well as storms that may produce severe flooding. Hurricanes can cause serious destruction.

Aside from the climate and the geography of Central America, the people and culture are also interesting. At the time of the arrival of Europeans in the New World in 1492, Central America contained a population of approximately 5 million Indians. Most of these lived within the Mesoamerican region of advanced culture ruled in part by the Mayan Indians. Mayan culture had begun to weaken after AD 900, possibly due to overpopulation, stresses in the social structure, and deforestation. The Indians formed together into villages and towns. They were transformed to Roman Catholicism. They were taught how to use metal tools such as hoes, plows, and saws, and they were taught how to craft products of fiber, clay, leather, and metal. The arrival of the Spanish triggered a swarm of diseases such as measles, smallpox, and malaria. Their numbers decreased dramatically so that by 1600 no more than 1 million Indians remained. Their populations stabilized near that level for the following two centuries. It was not until the early 1800 s that the population began to increase again.

Around 1850 a need for labor for the construction of the Panama Canal and railroads, as well as the organization of banana farms on the Caribbean coastal plain, brought the importation of several hundred thousand blacks, largely from Jamaica. The population of Central America did not return to its pre-Columbian level of five million until 1930. Thereafter it increased rapidly to 12 million in 1950 and 26 million by 1985. This rate of growth has significantly increased population density, particularly in Guatemala and El Salvador, which contain 53 percent of the population of Central America. El Salvador, with no empty frontier region for an expanding population, has a density of 680 persons per square mile. This is by far the highest for any Central American nation.

The nations of Central America share many cultural characteristics. Except in Belize, where Spanish is the common language, Roman Catholics make up between 85 and 95 percent of the population, and masses of rural poor people live on what they can grow on the land. In Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, people tend to be poorer. A greater proportion of their population lives in rural areas. Far fewer people can read and write than in Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama.

As a colonial possession of Spain, Central America had few resources to offer. There was a limited supply of gold and silver. The export of the vegetable dyes indigo and cochineal provided limited sources of income. It was not until the mid-1800 s after freedom from Spain, that exports from Central America began to enter world markets and provide resources necessary for modernization. In the latter half of the 1800 s coffee production spread rapidly throughout the volcanic uplands. Shortly before the turn of the century, banana plantations were established in the Caribbean lowlands. Railroads and ports were constructed to handle exports. Cotton appeared as a major export in the 1950 s. In the 1970 s, beef became a major export. The three new exports came from coastal lowlands predominantly along the Pacific. Although business has developed quickly, it is strong mostly only the capital cities. Even though, farming is decreasing in importance, farmers continue to make a significant contribution to the national economy of each nation. They produce mostly corn, beans, and squash, which make up a large part of their diets. Depending on the climate, farmers may also produce grains, fruits, vegetables, and meat products for the commercial market. Moreover, the subsistence farmer is critically important as a source of cheap labor during the seasonal harvests of coffee, sugar, and cotton.

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