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A brief overview of the South American export economy

Published October 27, 2014 by Nick Dall

While researching a recent post on bananas, I discovered that Ecuador is responsible for 29% of world banana exports. Since then I’ve been every recess of the internet in search of other interesting titbits about South American exports. Here’s what I’ve found out so far…
Metals and ores

  • 32% of the world’s copper comes from Chile and a further 7% comes from Peru. Escondida mine in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile is the world’s largest copper mine, producing 1.1 million tonnes annually. This one mine produces almost as much as the entire US copper industry, and it accounts for 5% of global production.
  • Copper isn’t the only mineral that’s important to the South American economy. Brazil is the world’s third-largest producer of iron ore and Peru is third on the list of global silver production.

Crude oil

  • Although South America doesn’t have a massive slice of global production, crude oil is such big business that those countries with significant reserves rely heavily on it for revenue. Venezuela (3.5% of global production) is the continent’s biggest producer while Brazil (3%), Colombia, Argentina and Ecuador are also quite dependent on oil.

Beef

  • Although everyone talks about Argentine beef, Brazil is actually the world’s largest exporter of beef (ahead of India, Australia and the United States) while Argentina is only 11th on the list. The reason Argentine beef is so famous is its quality: most of its cattle graze on high-quality natural grass pastures, as opposed to grain given to them in feedlots.
Cows on the pampas Marcelo Romeo
Cows on the pampas. (Picture: Marcelo Romeo)
  • For decades, Argentina had far and away the highest per capita consumption of beef in the world, but they have recently fallen to second place on this list, behind neighbouring Uruguay. Argentineans still eat 129 pounds of beef per year (Americans only eat 58 pounds) but this figure is way lower than the 222 pounds achieved in 1956. Here’s a very well-researched article about the decline of the Argentine beef empire.

Soy

  • Somewhat ironically, the world’s biggest producers of beef also have the lion’s share of soybean production. Most soybeans, however, are not consumed by humans as a vegetarian alternative to beef but are rather processed to yield oil and soy meal – which is then used as a feed for livestock. Between them, Argentina and Brazil accounted for 51% of global soybean production in 2013, but Argentina exports a far greater share of its soy than Brazil – an interesting insight on the opposing methods of beef production in these two countries.

Coffee

  • About 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide every single day, and about 32% of them have their origins in Brazil. Being a bit of a coffee fundi I already knew that Brazil was the world’s biggest producer, but I had always assumed that most of its production was of the inferior Robusta bean. Not so: 77% of Brazil’s coffee is in fact Arabica.
  • Brazil may dominate the coffee market, but quite a few other South American countries are also major players on the global stage – especially when it comes to Arabica production: Colombia is second on the list, Peru is fifth and with the exception of Ethiopia all of the other nations in the top 10 are from Central America.

Other interesting snippets and links

  • Between them Colombia, Peru and Bolivia are responsible for the majority of global cocaine production. The final stages of production usually take place in Colombia, but cultivation of coca leaves happens throughout the Andean regions.
  • Paraguay is the world’s second largest producer of marijuana, and the primary supplier to Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. Mexico is first on this list and the US is third. Here’s a good article on the topic.
Oranges Guilherme Tavares
Picture: Guilherme Tavares
  • Brazil produces more than 50% of the world’s orange juice, and a staggering 98% of this goes to the export market. This piece breaks it down nicely.
  • Argentina is 6th on the list of world wine producers and Chile is 8th. Check out our recent blog on South American wine for dummies.

The list above is by no means exhaustive, it is instead a summary of the most interesting stuff I was able to glean from my research. I’d love to receive your input about other exports that should be included on the list – expanding our collective knowledge of South America is what our blog site is all about.