Colombia is a country in South America in the northwestern part of the continent. Colombia has a lot of natural resources, including beautiful beaches, dramatic mountains, and lush rain forests, but it is known for its political unrest and the violent influence of powerful drug cartels. Despite a long history of democratic government, Colombia has one of the most rigidly stratified class systems in Latin America. Colombia is the only country in South America with coasts on both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Its neighbors on the east are Venezuela and Brazil; on the south, Ecuador and Peru; and to the northwest, Panama. The capital and largest city is Bogota. Colombian society is divided between the upper and lower classes, with a large and growing gap between them. A substantial middle class developed during the 20th century, a product in part of fairly widespread land ownership associated with the country’s coffee economy.
Many of the attitudes that led to Colombia’s sharp class divisions originated in 16th-century Spain and became ingrained in Colombian society during the colonial period. Family lineage, inherited wealth, and racial background continue to be powerful determinants of status. Economic progress during the last 100 years has been substantial, but political, social, and economic power continues to be concentrated in the hands of the small upper class. Since the mid-20th century, Colombia has been torn by violence. Struggles between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups, and the Colombian armed forces have convulsed much of the countryside. Colombia has also been plagued by an illegal drug trade that flourished in the country as a consequence of the growing demand for narcotics, particularly cocaine, in the United States and other rich, industrialized countries. The Colombian government has attempted to limit drug production and negotiate a peaceful settlement with the rebel forces.
At the beginning of the 21st century, however, Colombia still experienced upheaval, and violence had become a daily experience for many Colombians. The total land area of Colombia is 440,831 sq mi. Colombia lies almost entirely in what is known as the Torrid Zone, the area of the earth’s surface between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. The climate, however, varies with elevation. The low regions along the coast and the deep Pata and Magdalena river valleys are extremely hot, with average annual temperatures of 24 deg; to 27 deg C (75 deg; to 81 deg F). From about 500 to 2,300 m (about 1,500 to 7,500 ft) the climate is subtropical, and from about 2,300 to 3,000 m (about 7,500 to 10,000 ft) it is temperate. Above about 3,000 m (about 10,000 ft) is the cold-climate zone, where temperatures range from -18 deg to 13 deg C (0 deg to 55 deg F). About half of Colombia’s land is forested. To the north and west of the Andes, tropical forests line the major rivers and fringe the coastal areas.
East of the Andes, the forests become denser as they approach the Orinoco and Amazon rivers. Pastureland occupies about 40 percent of the country and is mostly located in the basins between the Andean highlands. Cropland accounts for a mere 4.1 percent of the land, with no more than 1.7 percent supporting permanent crops. Most of the arable land is found in patches on the Andean mountainsides. The mineral resources of the country are varied and extensive. Colombia ranks as the world’s major source of emeralds, most of which are mined in the western department of Boyac. Other significant reserves include petroleum and natural gas, located mostly in the northeast.
Most coal deposits are located on the Guajira peninsula on the country’s northeast coast. Gold and silver are found dispersed in veins throughout the central highlands. Iron ore, salt, platinum, and uranium are other important natural resources of Colombia. Colombia contains several fertile low-lying valleys, but only 4.1 percent of the country’s land area, chiefly at higher elevations, is cultivated. The country’s agricultural regions suffer from soil exhaustion and erosion. These problems stem largely from slash-and-burn farming methods, in which forestland is cleared by cutting down and burning the existing plants.
Colombia is divided into 32 departments and one capital district. Colombia’s capital and largest city is Bogota, an industrial center with a population (2000 estimate) of 6,422,198. Located on a mountain plateau in the Cordillera Oriental, it is the heart of cultural and political life in Colombia. Cali (2,128,920) lies in the Cauca Valley. The city began as a center for coffee production, but it later developed as the commercial heart of the entire southern region. Medellín (1,885,001), situated in a highland valley of the Cordillera Central, ranks as the most important economic area. Originally settled by migrants from Cartagena, Medellín grew into a gold-mining town, a general commercial settlement, and finally an important manufacturing center. Other important commercial cities include Barranquilla (1,549,197), which boasts a seaport and a major international airport, and Cartagena (829,476), a seaport and oil pipeline terminal. The Colombian population has a diverse racial makeup.
About 58 percent of the people are mestizo (of mixed European and Native American ancestry), about 20 percent are of unmixed European ancestry, and about 14 percent are mulatto (of mixed black and European ancestry). Blacks account for 4 percent of the population, mixed black and Native Americans for 3 percent, and unmixed Native Americans for 1 percent. The main religion in Colombia is Roman Catholicism; about 96 percent of the people are Roman Catholics. Although it is not the official state religion, Roman Catholicism is taught in all public schools. Small Protestant and Jewish minorities exist. Coffee is still Colombia’s principal crop, although Colombia was recently surpassed by Vietnam as the second largest coffee producer in the world after Brazil. Colombia remains the world’s leading producer of mild coffee, but in the mid-1990s petroleum became the country’s largest source of foreign income.
In the mid-1970s coffee accounted for 80 percent of Colombia’s export earnings; by the early 2000s coffee brought in less than 10 percent of export earnings. High production costs and low international prices combined to reduce the earnings of Colombian coffee growers. Coffee is cultivated chiefly on mountain slopes from about 900 to 1,800 m (about 3,000 to 6,000 ft) above sea level, principally in the departments of Caldas, Antioquia, Cundinamarca, Norte de Santander, Tolima, and Santander. More than 150,000 mainly small coffee plantations extend over approximately 1 million hectares (approximately 2.5 million acres). Coffee output totaled 702,000 metric tons in 2003, with most of the exported coffee going to the United States. While coffee is Colombia’s leading agricultural product, the country’s diverse climate and topography permit cultivation of a wide variety of other crops. Annual production of principal cash crops in addition to coffee includes cacao beans (47,000 metric tons), sugarcane (36.6 million), tobacco (29,000), cotton (100,000), bananas, and cut flowers.
Chief food crops are rice (2.5 million), cassava (1.8 million), potatoes (2.9 million), and plantains. Plants producing pita, sisal, and hemp fibers, used in the manufacture of cordage and coarse sacking material, are also cultivated. The livestock included cattle, hogs, sheep, and horses. The production of drug-related crops took on significant proportions starting in the 1970s with the cultivation of marijuana. Although Colombia has become notorious for its cocaine supply, the processing of coca leaves was more significant than actual coca plant cultivation in the country until the mid-1990s. As the supply of coca, primarily from Peru and Bolivia, was disrupted, coca growing in Colombia increased significantly. Opium poppies, used to make heroin, also became a significant source of revenue despite government efforts to stop their cultivation. It was estimated that from 1980 to 1995 the value of illegal drug exports amounted to almost half the value of Colombia’s legal exports.
Colombia’s government has undergone several changes since the mid-20th century. One of the most significant was the adoption of a new constitution in 1991. The new constitution replaced the 1886 constitution and provided for a more decentralized, pluralistic, and democratic government. Colombian governments also had to contend with major changes in the national economy. After 1980 Colombia began exporting large amounts of illegal drugs, primarily cocaine. The estimated value of illegal drug exports amounted to almost half the value of Colombia’s legal exports from 1980 to 1995. Earnings from the drug trade helped Colombia avoid the debt crisis that afflicted much of Latin America during the 1980s. But by cheapening the dollar and thereby overvaluing the Colombian peso, the drug trade also undermined the competitiveness of Colombia’s legal exports by making them more expensive than similar exports from other countries.