South America’s abundant and diversified biological reserves have been described previously. These resources, however, are unevenly distributed throughout the continent; for example, the only large areas suited to wide-scale agriculture are found in the Argentine Pampas, central Chile, southeastern Brazil, and the littoral of Uruguay.
Pre-Columbian cultures domesticated numerous plants, such as corn (maize), potatoes, cassava, and beans, which, when introduced into the Old World, became dietary staples there and revolutionized the world’s food supplies. In addition, a great number of South American plants provide valuable drugs, including quinine (obtained from the bark of several trees of the genus Cinchona, indigenous to the eastern slopes of the Andes) and cocaine (extracted from the leaves of the coca shrub, found in the eastern Andes from Peru to Bolivia).
The extensive forests that cover about half of the continent constitute South America’s richest natural resource. With more than 1.5 million square miles of tropical rain forest, Brazil is the most densely forested country in the region. However, since the 1980s rapid deforestation in the Amazonian rain forest has become a worldwide concern because of its effects on the environment, including the loss of biodiversity and potential climatic change. Softwood forests, though much more limited, are extensive south of the Biobío River in Chile and in the southern Argentine Andes, as well as from Paraná southward in Brazil. Tropical grasslands, such as the savannas of the Llanos of Colombia and Venezuela, Brazil’s Mato Grosso Plateau, and the Argentine Pampas, a temperate grassland, represent South America’s second major botanical resource.
Animal resources constitute a major portion of the economies of most South American countries. In pre-Columbian times, relatively few animals were domesticated, and almost none of them extended beyond the geographic limits of their wild ancestors. An exception was the Muscovy duck. Llamas and alpacas were domesticated in the high Andes in Inca times and probably earlier. Guinea pigs were domesticated as a meat source in pre-Inca times in the Andean highlands from Colombia to Argentina. Among animals introduced to the continent were cattle, horses, goats, sheep, and pigs, all of which adapted rapidly and thrived in the New World. Cattle have become especially important in areas such as the Llanos in Venezuela and Colombia, the Argentine Pampas, and the rolling plains of Uruguay, while sheep and goats predominate on the drier, colder grazing lands of the Patagonian plains. Game is plentiful in most habitats, though mammals are few and specialized. Deer are represented by several species. A variety of parrots, snakes, and iguanas are exported as pets or for zoos.
Several Neotropical animals provide world-famous fur or wool. Chinchilla, native to the high Andes from Peru to northern Argentina, were hunted for their delicate gray fur to the point of near extinction. Vicuñas continue to be hunted despite protective laws and a ban placed on the trade of their fur. Efforts are being undertaken to increase their numbers by “ranching” vicuñas. The giant otter of the Amazon, several spotted cats such as the ocelot and jaguar, and rodents like the nutria also provide highly prized furs.
The colonies of seabirds along the Peruvian and Chilean coasts produce an accumulation of dung (guano) which is an important fertilizer. Pinnipeds (a suborder of aquatic carnivorous animals, including seals and walruses) are exploited for their oil and furs, particularly in Uruguay. Fur seals and sea lions are found along the southern coasts of South America, although their numbers have been reduced by hunting. "South America" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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