Uruguay, Geography

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Uruguay, Geography

Uruguay's official name, the Oriental Republic of Uruguay, reveals that it was once the eastern part of the former United Provinces of the Río De La Plata created in the Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata at the time independence from Spain was declared in 1810. The country stretches between the Uruguay River in the west and the coast of the Atlantic in the east, and from the Cuareím creek, the Cuchilla de Santa Ana, and the Yaguarón River in the north to the shores of the Río De La Plata estuary. With an area of 68,038 square miles, Uruguay is the second-smallest country in South America, after Suriname. The relief features of the country are not greatly defined. The highlands of the country's core are the Plateau of Haedo, with several out-reaching ridges (or cuchillas), and the Cuchilla Grande, or Central Hills. They never rise above 1,320 feet and divide the country into three distinct plains. To the east extends the low-lying, humid Atlantic coastal plain; to the south the narrower Platine River plains are interrupted by rocky outcrops such as the classic "sighted hill," from which the city of Montevideo took its name; to the west slopes the broad fluvial plain of the Uruguay River, dominated by the valley of the Río Negro, the main watercourse of central Uruguay, fed and maintained by several streams arising in the Haedo Plateau.

The climate is temperate and humid, with higher summer temperatures and precipitation in the northwest due to continental warming in the Uruguay River basin. In the Río de la Plata estuary, cold winds from Argentine Patagonia can bring winter temperatures down to freezing, but along the Atlantic coastal plains the tempering influence of the sea makes for pleasant winters and mild summers. The vegetation reflects the climate and the topographic conditions: forested areas are scarce and restricted to patches along the major watercourses and to the wetlands that border on southern Brazil, where hardwoods alternate with palm stands. Native trees include the algarobo, the nandubay, and the quebracho. In the southern plains and central hills, shrubs and grassland (Pampas) dominate the scenery. These are the regions where most of the cattle ranches and wheat-growing farms are located. Large-scale eucalyptus tree plantations for paper-mill factories cover hundreds of miles in the country's western region and have generated great controversy over their use of fresh water.

The country is organized into nineteen departments, each of them administered by an intendente (governor) directly elected by the people every five years. In 2005 Uruguay's population reached 3.4 million. Population imbalances across the country are reflected in the makeup of the departments: the capital, Montevideo, with 1.34 million (2005) inhabitants, contains 40 percent of the Uruguayan populace, whereas the department of Flores (in the southwest) has a mere 25,528 people. Sixty-seven percent of the population lives in a belt that runs along the Río de la Plata from the department of Maldonado to that of Colonia, encompassing the capital. Correspondingly, approximately 80 percent of the manufacturing establishments, 95 percent of the service industries, and 87 percent of the administrative and cultural institutions are also located in this belt. This concentration of resources and population has worked in favor of cultural homogeneity and has created strong demographic conditions in Latin America. Life expectancy is 75.6 years, the daily calorie intake is 2,860 per person, infant mortality is a low 12.02 per thousand, and the birthrate is 14.3 per thousand. In the early twenty-first century the country experienced an economic crisis to the detriment of social indicators.

After its separation from the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata in 1828, Uruguay continued with its traditional colonial ranching activities, as close to three-quarters of the country is grassland, ideal for cattle and sheep raising. But along the Río de la Plata, European immigrants embarked on nontraditional agricultural pursuits, creating a dichotomy in the primary activities of the country that has persisted to the present. In republican times, the quality of the cattle improved through better pasturage, and beef became suitable for export. In the central part of the country, large sheep-raising establishments produced wool as a major export commodity. Land dedicated to the production of wheat and flax expanded in the southwestern area of Uruguay, and forage covered all remaining grazing areas. Thus, the bases of the agrarian export economy were established, and the social and political peace that reigned during the rule of José Batlle y Ordónez (1903–1907 and 1911–1915) fortified the development of the country. While industries of primary products, such as flour mills, packing plants, textile mills, and leather tanneries, became the pillars of the national economy, many manufactured goods as well as gasoline and natural gas had to be imported. For as long as exports equaled imports, Uruguay functioned as a welfare state and strove for modernization, but when the demand for foreign goods increased and exports of traditional items declined in the 1960s and early 1970s, the country fell into a period that culminated in the collapse of democracy in 1972. Since 1985 Uruguay has enjoyed civilian rule.

See alsoPatagonia; Río de la Plata; United Provinces of the Río de la Plata; Uruguay River.


The classic historical geography of the country is W. H. Hudson, The Purple Land (New York, 1927). Other works include Marvin Alisky, Uruguay: A Contemporary Survey (1969); Jorge Chebataroff, Tierra uruguaya (Montevideo, 1954); Ernst Griffin, "Testing the Von Thunen Theory in Uruguay," in The Geographical Review 63 (1973): 500-516, and "Causal Factors Influencing Agricultural Land Use Patterns in Uruguay," in Revista Geográfica (Mexico), 80 (1974): 13-33; Jaime Klaczko and J. Rial Roade, Uruguay: El país urbano (Montevideo, 1981); and J. M. G. Kleinpenning, "Uruguay: The Rise and Fall of a Welfare State Seen Against a Background of Dependency Theory," in Revista Geográfica (Mexico), 93 (1981): 101-117.

Additional Bibliography

Azcuy Ameghino, Eduardo. La otra historia: Economía, estado y sociedad en el Río de la Plata colonial. Buenos Aires: Imago Mundi, 2002.

Domínguez, Ana, Ruben Gerardo Prieto, and Marcel Achkar, et al., eds. Perfil ambiental del Uruguay: 2002. Montevideo: Nordan Comunidad, 2002.

Golin, Tau. A fronteira. 2 vols. Porto Alegre, Uruguay: L&PM Editores, 2002.

Kleinpenning, Jan M. G. Peopling the Purple Land: A Historical Geography of Rural Uruguay, 1500–1915. Amsterdam: CEDLA, 1995.

Santos, Carlos, et al. Aguas en movimiento: La resistencia a la privatización del agua en Uruguay. Montevideo: Ediciones de la Canilla, 2006.

                                        CÉsar N. Caviedes