Chile, Geography

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Chile, Geography

With 16,284,741 inhabitants (2007 estimate), Chile stretches from tropical (17 degrees south) to subantarctic (56 degrees south) latitudes. Between the high summits of the Andes and the shores of the Pacific Ocean, Chile occupies a narrow fringe of land with a minimum width of 7 miles and a maximum width of 220 miles. Despite the fact that most of the country's northern segment lies within the tropical belt, the influence of the cold Humboldt Current (Peruvian Current) lowers temperatures considerably, so that most of the country has a temperate climate. Rainfall, however, varies from almost none in the extremely arid and always sunny climate of the north to quite a bit in the humid areas of the south. Toward the central part of the country the humidity is moderate, caused mostly by winter rains. As one progresses southward, the rainy season grows longer and includes a good part of autumn, all of winter, and most of spring. Finally, in the high latitudes, it rains all year long as the humid air masses are carried to the continent by the constantly blowing westerly winds.

The great variability in rainfall means that there is a corresponding variability in vegetation. In the northern segment of the country, desert conditions dominate. Along the coast, the desert climate is mitigated by fogs, but they never render any real precipitation. The desert extends into the interior, with the exception of some piedmont oases that are fed by ground water generating from the snowmelt of numerous volcanoes. Advancing south, shrubs and cacti dominate the landscape as humidity increases. In central Chile, the Mediterranean region of the country, the winter rains and constant snowmelt from the Andes contribute to maintain a vegetation consisting of hardwoods, shrubs, and winter grass. Farther south, with more rainfall, the hardwoods give way to the evergreen and deciduous trees of the temperate rain forests. In the southern extreme of the country, cooler temperatures and perennial rains favor the growth of large coniferous trees that are interspersed with dense rain forest.

Given the extensive desert regions, the high mountains, and the boggy land under the southern rain forests, only 27 percent of the territory is considered habitable. In this area, which stretches between latitudes 27 and 42 degrees south, 90 percent of the national population is concentrated. Even within this ecumene there are considerable variations: Metropolitan Santiago is home to nearly 39 percent of the Chilean population; another 13 percent live in the neighboring region of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar. Eighty-four percent of all Chileans live in urban centers. This increasing urbanization of the population is probably responsible for the modern demographic character of the country. The population growth rate is .916 percent, fertility is 1.97 children per woman, life expectancy is 77 years, and infant mortality is 8.4 per thousand—the lowest in Latin America.

The national economy depends on three major activities: industry, services, and agriculture; these provide 49 percent, 45 percent, and 6 percent of the gross domestic product, respectively. The highest percentage of employment, at 63 percent, is in the service sector, followed by 23.4 percent in industry, and nearly 14 percent in agriculture. Mining comprises much of the industrial sector and hinges on the production of copper (Chuquicamata, Salvador, Río Blanco, and El Teniente), iron ore (Romeral), and nitrate (mines in the provinces of Tarapacá and Antofagasta). The agricultural activities are concentrated in the temperate Central Valley, where grapes, apples, and wine are major export commodities. With its planted pine and natural forests, Chile has been a leading exporter of timber and paper pulp in Latin America since the 1980s. Fishing is a dominant activity in the north, yielding sardines, anchovies, and jack mackerel, most of which goes into the production of fish meal and fish oil for export; farmed species are also important. These are indicators of the strong export economy that was initiated by General Augusto Pinochet during his rule (1973–1990) and that has continued since.

Traditionally Chile has been divided into six regions: (1) the Norte Grande (Great North), the region of deserts, mining settlements, and coastal towns dedicated mostly to fishing and the shipping of minerals; (2) the Norte Chico (Little North), a transitional region in which greater precipitation allows the growing of fruit but where mining is still a strong supporter of the economy; (3) the Central Region, which encompasses most of mediterranean Chile (the core of the temperate zone), the capital city, and the large conurbations of Valparaíso-Viña del Mar and Concepción-Talcahuano, where most of the industrial establishments are concentrated; (4) La Frontera (the Frontier), a region of predominantly Mapuche ethnic composition, which was incorporated and colonized only after 1881; (5) Los Lagos (the Lakes Region), a territory mostly colonized by Europeans, where dairy products, sugar beets, and grains are the main commodities and tourism is one of the major assets; and (6) the Great South, which comprises the islands, fjords, channels, and rain forests of the Strait of Magellan, Chilean Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego, formerly inhabited by Alakaluf and Fuegino Indians. Citizens of Punta Arenas must contend with UVB radiation caused by the Antarctic ozone hole.

The central valley of Chile is the name given to a central depression extending between the Andes and the Coastal Range (Cordillera de la Costa), latitudes 33 to 41.5 degrees south. This tectonic trench has been filled by volcanic, fluvial, and glacial materials carried from the Andes by numerous torrential rivers, among them, the Mapocho, Maipo, Cachapoal, Maule, Ñuble, Bío-bío, and Toltén. Owing to its good soils and adequate irrigation facilities, the Central Valley is the core of the agricultural region, which specializes in grapes, wine, dry fruits, wheat, cattle, and vegetables. In colonial times a string of agricultural settlements—Rancagua, Curicó, Talca, Linares, Los Angeles, Temuco, and Osorno—was established and in 1921 was connected by a railway line that runs between Santiago and Puerto Montt, at the southern extreme of the Central Valley. Originally the region was occupied by large haciendas and was considered the cradle of the landowning aristocracy. In the 1960s large landed estates were expropriated, and most of the land was given to the workers by the agrarian reform implemented by presidents Eduardo Frei and Salvador Allende. The best wines are produced in the Maipo, Cachapoal, and Teno river valleys. In the Bío-bío segment, sandy volcanic soils are excellent for growing pine trees, which support the paper pulp and lumber industries. The southern portion of the Central Valley is predominantly dedicated to dairy farming.

Historically, Chile was the name given by Peruvians to the country between the Aconcagua and Maule rivers settled by friendly Indians. To the south lies Araucania, the territory of the belligerent Mapuches. Just after the conquest of the country, colonization efforts by Spaniards incorporated Cuyo, on the east side of the Andes. The Governancy of Chile also claimed jurisdiction over the Strait of Magellan and Terra Australis (the name given to Tierra del Fuego and the lands thought to expand to the south). After the War of the Pacific (1879–1884) against Bolivia and Peru, Chile occupied the Bolivian segment of the Pacific coast and the southern Peruvian department of Tarapacá. In the South Pacific, Easter Island became a dependency in 1889, after three decades of French missionary presence on the remote island.

See alsoIndigenous Peoples; Volcanoes.


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Vío, Dionisio. "Geografía de la actividad agropecuaria," in Geografía de Chile, vol. 17 (Santiago, 1987).

                                          CÉsar N. Caviedes