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A blessing and a curse

Latin americans can thank their geography for much that is useful and beautiful in their diverse region. But in several crucial ways, geography has presented this part of the world with some major challenges that it must work to overcome.

Tropical crop yields are "starkly lower" than temperate yields, according to the new IDB report. The authors concede that the phenomenon can only partly be attributed to natural causes. In fact, some of the world’s most productive and important food crops, such as maize and potatoes, originated in the American tropics. Therefore, a good part of the reason for low yields must be the low level of technology used to produce them—the lack of fertilizers, improved seed, and mechanization. Poor agricultural output, the report says, is at least in part caused by poverty rather than being a cause of poverty.

Tropical areas are poorer than temperate areas in part because of a heavier disease burden. The authors cite vector-borne diseases such as malaria, hookworm and schistosomiasis which cause great suffering and loss of productivity in the tropics, but which have been relatively easy to control in temperate areas because of clearly defined seasons. Although poverty is a cause of poor health, direct geographical influences also have a powerful effect. Controlling for female literacy and income, the authors found that life expectancy is seven years lower in the wet tropics than in the humid temperate zone.

Natural disasters.
Between 1900 and 1995, nearly 640 natural events in Latin America caused severe economic and social hardship. These accounted for 23 percent of disasters worldwide; only Asia had more. One reason for this disproportion is the region’s location on four active tectonic plates, which cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Another reason is a volatile climate, where the El Niño weather phenomenon produces severe droughts and flooding, and tropical storms cause catastrophic damage. Here again, poverty magnifies the destructive power of these events, as do migration to vulnerable areas, poor quality housing and environmental destruction. But the decisive influence of location cannot be denied.

Access to markets.
"Only world markets provide the scale, degree of competition, and access to technological and organizational changes needed to efficiently produce most goods," states the IDB report. A country’s proximity to Europe, North America and Japan, and the access of its manufacturers to the sea, are vitally important. Landlocked Bolivia and Paraguay are obviously at a disadvantage. But less obviously, Colombia, with coastline on both the Atlantic and the Pacific, until recently lacked good roads linking its geographically separated regions. As late as 1930 the main link between the country’s capital and the outside world was a 12-day boat trip down the Magdalena River.

Latin America is a region of "primal" cities. The percentage of each country’s population living in its main cities is larger in Latin America than in any other region. These are the urban giants that give nightmares to city planners because of their pollution, traffic jams and high crime. But large cities also create economies of scale, providing education, health and other basic services at lower cost for more people. They also give rise to large markets, which encourages division of labor and lowers transport costs.

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