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Central America
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Central America, region of the western hemisphere, made up of a long, tapering isthmus that forms a bridge between North and South America. Central America, which is defined by geographers as part of North America, has an area of about 523,000 sq km (about 201,930 sq mi) and includes the countries of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. The region has a population of approximately 31.3 million (1993 estimate). l5k4kc
THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT In strictly geological terms, Central America begins at the narrow Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in southern Mexico. That narrow section divides the volcanic rocks to the northwest from the folded and faulted structures of Central America. The southernmost geological limit of Central America is the Atrato River valley, in Colombia, South America, just east of the Panama border.
Rivers and Lakes The longest rivers of Central America flow to the Caribbean, and many small streams drain into the Pacific. Longer rivers include the Motagua of Guatemala; the Ulúa, Aguan, and Patuca of Honduras; the Coco, which forms part of the Honduras-Nicaragua boundary; the Rio Grande and Escondido of Nicaragua; and the San Juan, which forms a section of the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border. Some of the rivers flowing to the Caribbean are navigable by small craft, but the streams flowing to the Pacific are too steep or too shallow for navigation.
Central America has three large lakes—Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua in Nicaragua and Gatún Lake in Panama. Part of the Panama Canal, a great commercial waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific, is in Gatún Lake.
Vegetation Central America is essentially a land bridge uniting two previously isolated ecosystems. As a result, a mixture of both North and South American plant and animal species are found here. The lowland rain forest of the Caribbean and Pacific coasts resembles the selva, or tropical rain forest, of South America. This is especially true below an elevation of about 1000 m (about 3280 ft), with large numbers of palms, tree ferns, lianas, and epiphytes (air plants) reflecting the high rainfall and humidity of the region. Vegetation at altitudes of about 1000 to 1600 m (about 3280 to 5250 ft) shows ties with North America. The pine and oak forests of these highlands are like those of the Mexican highlands. High-altitude regions of Guatemala contain grasses like those of Mexico and the United States, and at about 3100 m (about 10,170 ft) in Costa Rica are tall grasses similar to those growing above the tree line in the Andes Mountains of South America.




Animal Life Most of the animal life of Central America is similar to that of South America, but some animals have ties with North America. The marley and opossum have links with South America, as do the jaguar, ocelot, jaguarundi, and margay, which are members of the cat family. In contrast, the puma, gray fox, and coyote are of North American origin. The armadillo, anteater, and sloth have ties to the south, deer to the north. The large manatee, an aquatic plant eater, survives in the isolated lagoons of eastern Central America. Other food sources are the large green turtle and the iguana. Central America provides a habitat for numerous snakes such as the boa constrictor and the bushmaster. Parrots, the quetzal, toucans, and fish are common; notable are the landlocked sharks of Lake Nicaragua.
Mineral Resources The minerals of Central America were an early lure for European settlers, especially the gold and silver found in Honduras and the highlands of Nicaragua. In addition, Honduras has significant deposits of lead, zinc, copper, and low-grade iron ore, and Nicaragua has large deposits of natural gas offshore in the Pacific. Large nickel deposits are in the vicinity of Izabal in Guatemala, and the country also has substantial reserves of petroleum, including those near Chinaja. Panama has considerable deposits of copper at Cerro Colorado.
Agriculture Farming is by far the leading economic activity in Central America. The principal cash crops, such as coffee, bananas, sugarcane, and cotton are typically produced on large landholdings, and a substantial proportion are exported, mainly to the United States and Europe. Food for local consumption is raised mainly on small farms; most of it is consumed by the farm families, and relatively little is marketed. The chief subsistence food commodities are corn, beans, bananas, manioc, rice, and poultry. Cattle are raised on big ranches located mainly in the drier regions of western Central America. Modern farming methods are used on the large landholdings, but the small farmers generally use relatively simple techniques that hold down productivity.


Forestry and Fishing About 40 percent of Central America is forested. The early years of European activity in Belize, for example, revolved around the extraction of dyewoods, and later mahogany, chicle, and pine timber were produced. British timber companies also cut mahogany and cedar along the greater Caribbean coast. Today, forestry is a relatively unimportant aspect of the Central American economy. Pine is the main wood harvested, and some hardwoods, such as cedar, mahogany, and rosewood, also are cut.
Fishing too is a comparatively minor economic activity in Central America. Shrimp and spiny lobster, caught off the coasts of Belize, El Salvador, and Panama, are mostly exported to the United States. Since the mid-1960s Panama has developed a fish-meal and fish-oil industry. Central America has a low rate of per capita fish consumption.
Mining The mineral output of Central America is small. El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua produce limited quantities of silver, gold, lead, copper, and antimony. In the early 1980s Guatemala began to export small quantities of crude oil.





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