Colombia's cultural heritage blends tradition and modernity

Blessed with a rich cultural and natural heritage, Colombia is also strategically located at the crossroads of South and Central America, and is the only South American country with both Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Moreover, it is something of a contemporary paradox in that it has both a long tradition of democratic institutions and an abiding history of internal political conflict. However, with the signature of a landmark peace agreement between the national authorities and the armed insurgency group known throughout the world as FARC in 2016, hopes that the country could now achieve a lasting peace are on the rise.

Population

With an estimated population of 49m, Colombia is the 28th most populous country in the world, and the third in Latin America after Brazil and Mexico. Yet given its vast territory and challenging terrain, Colombia’s relatively low population density is understandable. With just 44 people per sq km, Colombia ranks only 173rd globally in terms of population density, with most of the population concentrated in the Caribbean coast and the Andean highlands.

The country underwent rapid urbanisation between 1960 and the early 1990s, after which the rate slowed, resulting in more than three quarters of the population living in urban areas. Bogotá alone has 7.9m people, while other major cities include Medellín (2.5m), Cali (2.4m) and Barranquilla (1.2m). As a legacy of five decades of civil conflict, Colombia is home to the largest population of internally displaced persons of any country, numbering 6.9m in 2016.

Colombia also boasts a rich ethnic heritage; in fact, the most recent census notes that 3.4% of the population is indigenous Amerindian, 10.5% is Afro-Caribbean, 30.7% is white European, while 53.5% is mestizo (of mixed European and indigenous heritage). According to the World Bank, life expectancy at birth reached 78 years in 2015, up from 71 at the turn of the century.

Geography

Colombia is bordered by Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Brazil, while having extensive coastline on both the Pacific Ocean (1448 km) and Caribbean Sea (1760 km). With an area of 1.14m sq km, Colombia is the 25th-largest country in the world by landmass, and much of its territory is dominated by the Andes mountain range and surrounding foothills, which also contain the country’s largest urban centres. Lying at approximately 2600 metres above sea level, Bogotá is the highest city of its size in the world. Almost equal in elevation, around 5775 metres, Pico Cristóbal Colón and Pico Simón Bolívar are the country’s highest peaks.

The country is extraordinarily diverse in terms of both terrain and wildlife. For a start, it enjoys six distinct natural habitats: Andean, Pacific coastal, Caribbean coastal, plains, Amazonian rainforest and islands. With this range of geographical variation, and with more than half its territory covered by forest, it is unsurprising that Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, second after Brazil. The country boasts more than 130,000 species of plants, and it has more bird species and more orchid species than any other country on the planet. To ensure this natural heritage is protected, about one eighth of the Colombian territory is integrated into an extensive National Park System.

Climate

Given that it sits on the equator, Colombia is considered to be a tropical country; however, its eclectic topography gives rise to significant climatic diversity across and even within its geographic regions. In the tropical mountain region, for example, where much of the population is located, altitude plays a big role in determining the prevailing climate. Bogotá is situated in a cold altitudinal zone, between 2000 and 3000 metres in elevation, with average temperatures ranging between 10°C and 17°C and annual rainfall of 2 metres. Medellín is in a temperate altitudinal zone, between 1000 and 2000 metres. The latter is warmer and wetter, with average temperatures between 17°C and 22°C, and annual average rainfall of 2 to 2.5 metres.

Cali’s elevation, similar to that of 80% of the Colombian landmass, is below 1000 metres, putting it in the warm climate altitudinal zone, where temperatures are above 24°C. Along the Caribbean coast, where the port cities of Barranquilla and Cartagena de Indias are located, the weather is hot and tropical, with the annual average rainfall between 2 metres and 2.5 metres, concentrated during the rainy season that lasts from May to November. Average temperatures are relatively stable in this zone, about 25°C year-round.

Natural Resources

In addition to being blessed by a climate and geography favouring agriculture in general, and coffee production in particular, Colombia benefits from a wide range of mineral and hydrocarbon deposits. These natural resources have, in turn, dominated the country’s exports. Chief among these exploited natural resources is oil, of which Colombia produced an average of 885,000 barrels per day in 2016. Low oil prices in recent years have curbed investment in exploration and production, and reserves have declined to 2bn barrels as of the end of 2015. The country also possesses the biggest coal reserves in Latin America and one of the largest open-pit coal mines in the world, located at Cerrejón. In 2016, it extracted 87.2m tonnes of coal, with production foreseen to reach 105m tonnes by 2020. Colombia also produces a small amount of natural gas; however, after decades of self-sufficiency, it has in recent years come to depend on imports from neighbouring Venezuela. The country is also the biggest producer of emeralds and has large deposits of gold, silver, nickel, platinum and iron ore.

History

Due to its pivotal location, Colombia was once the gateway for migrants moving south to inhabit other regions of South America, while the Bogotá region is understood to have been first inhabited around 10,000 BCE. By about 1000 BCE, groups of Amerindians had begun to develop pyramidal political systems known as cacicazgos, a social structure that survived intact until the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century. They established their first permanent settlement at Santa Marta in 1525, and later founded Cartagena in 1533.

Known as New Granada in the 16th century, Colombia was first ruled from Lima under the Viceroyalty of Peru, before the 18th century establishment of the Viceroyalty of New Granada – comprising parts of modern-day Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela – with Santa Fé de Bogotá as its capital. Under the leadership of Simón Bolivar and Francisco de Paula Santander, independence from Spain was declared in 1819 after a decade of rebellion. Gran Colombia was then split into New Granada, Ecuador and Venezuela in 1830, with New Granada becoming the Republic of Colombia later in the 19th century. The country was affected by several civil wars, out of which the most notable was the Thousand Day War of 1899-1902, soon after the Department of Panama became an independent nation. Violent civil conflict would return to the country periodically, including the FARC insurgency from 1964 onwards, and the peak influence of drug cartels in the late 1980s.

Languages & Culture

After Mexico and the US, Colombia is home to the third-largest number of Spanish-speakers in the world. For the vast majority of Colombians, Spanish is their first language; the government also recognises 65 Amerindian or tribal languages, as well as Creole English and Palenquero, with about 850,000 native speakers. English is the official language of the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and the Santa Catalina islands, while a small number of the population also speak Romani.

Until the adoption of the 1991 Constitution, Roman Catholicism was Colombia’s official religion. Even though there is no longer an official national faith, and the census no longer gathers data on religious practice, surveys suggest the vast majority of the population, some 85%, still remains Roman Catholic, whereas a further 5% is Christian of some other denomination, 3% is atheist or agnostic, while the remaining 7% is made up of a variety of other religions.

Pre-dating the arrival of Spanish colonists, Colombia boasted proud artistic traditions, with evidence suggesting it was the location of the first production of ceramics in the Americas. The Tumaco people became known for fine gold craftsmanship from 325 BCE onwards, but in modern times the country has given rise to pre-eminent literature, led by 1982 Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, and visual arts, exemplified by the sculpture and painting of Fernando Botero.

Government

Based on the 1991 constitution, Colombia is a unitary presidential constitutional republic, in which the president, elected for a period of four years, is both head of state and head of government. Having experimented with renewable presidential terms, whereby the incumbent and his predecessor were re-elected, in 2006 and 2014, respectively, the position will now be non-renewable from the 2018 election onwards. The country is divided into 32 departments, each of which elects a governor, and 1122 municipalities headed by an elected mayor.

Colombia has signed 16 free-trade agreements involving over 50 countries, and in 2011 co-founded the Pacific Alliance with Chile, Mexico and Peru. As of 2017, it is also poised to become a member of the OECD.

 

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This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Colombia 2017. Explore other chapters from this report.