An Overview of Central and South America

Central America
The eight countries on the land bridge between North and South America sit on a strategic trade route between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. The region has many resources, including water, timber, oil and metals. However, it is also prone to natural disasters. It lies directly in the path of many hurricanes and tropical storms. Hurricane Mitch, for example, devastated both Honduras and Nicaragua, destroying much of their infrastructure. It also sits on top of the Caribbean Plate and is geologically active, with periodic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Earthquakes in 1931 and 1972 heavily damaged Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, and earthquakes in 2001 devastated El Salvador. 

From 135 million people in 2000, the population is projected to grow to 186 million by 2025. The population is moderately urban, found in five megacities and several moderately large towns. There are dozens of large minority groups that are for the most part unreached, including Arabs, Indians and Chinese as well as indigenous tribal groups. However, because there has been significant racial intermingling, distinguishing specific ethnic groups is problematic.

Attempts to unite the region politically during the nineteenth century were all unsuccessful. During the 1980s and 1990s, the region was politically unstable (note particularly the civil war in El Salvador, Guatemala and the conflicts in Nicaragua and Panama). Today, it is largely at peace and is likely to remain so. Governments are democratic in name but have some authoritarian tendencies.

The economies of the region are mixed. Some of the countries (such as Costa Rica and Mexico) have increasingly strong, diversified economies, while others (like Nicaragua and Guatemala) are very poor. All have wide gaps between the rich and the poor and poverty is widespread. Still, Central America produces twenty-two percent of Latin America's total GNP.

Belize and Guatemala are both dealing with small-scale AIDS epidemics. The drug trade and illegal immigration both continue to be problems.

Christianity in Central America
The nations of Central America are strongly Roman Catholic, but Protestant and particularly evangelical growth has been rapid. There are hundreds of ministries focused on mission to Central America and large international mission networks that are part of COMIBAM (such as COMIMEX). Syncretism and Christopaganism are challenges, but the growing mission movement in Central America is already making a substantial impact abroad. For example, a significant project arising out of COMIMEX is aiming to provide profiles of all the world’s people groups via the Internet, and missionaries from the region are already at work in the Muslim world. No longer is missionary research and action limited to the West alone.

Statistics for the Eight Countries of Central America 


P'00  P'25 C'00  % C '25 % 75-00 00-25 Issues affecting the future
Belize 0.2 0.4 0.2 91% 0.3 90% +- +- Hurricanes, AIDS, debt, unemployment, poverty
Costa Rica 3.9 5.5 3.8 96% 5.3 95% +- +- Political stability, strong economy, stalled churces, mission sending
El Salvador 6.3 9.1 6.1 98% 8.7 97% +- +- Many natural disasters, rich/poor gap, poverty, civil war 1980s
Guatemala 11.2 19.2 10.9 97% 18.5 97% +- +- AIDS, civil war 1990s, poverty, rich/poor gap, Christopaganism
Honduras 6.2 10.2 6.2 97% 9.9 96% +- +- Rich resources, Hurricane Mitch devastation, AIDS, poverty, missions
Mexico 100.1 129.4 96.1 96% 122.1 94% +- +- Vibrant economy, much poverty, COMIMEX mission movement
Nicaragua 5.0 7.7 4.8 96% 7.3 95% +- +- Poverty, massive underemployment, debt, Hurricane Mitch
Panama 3.0 4.3 2.6 88% 3.7 87% +- +- Growing economy, unemployment, poverty, great potential

South America
South America is home two of the world’s largest countries: Brazil and Argentina. The Amazon rainforests are a particularly rich ecosystem, containing a large portion of the species on Earth. The continent has large concentrations of resources such as gold, silver, copper, iron, tin and oil. Unfortunately, many of the countries have focused on only one product and have failed to diversify their economies.

The countries of South America have a combined population of 315 million, up from forty million in 1900. The region is the second most heavily urbanized (eighty-eight percent) in the world (after Australia-New Zealand, ninety-six percent); a tenth of the world’s city dwellers live in the megacities and large towns of the region.

Historically, South America was home to numerous native civilizations, including the Incas. European colonization in the 1500s introduced both diseases and slavery, both of which decimated the indigenous populations. African slaves were brought to replenish the slave populations. Intermarriage led to significant racial mixing. Today, it is difficult to identify specific people groups in this area. However, there are large numbers of unreached minorities; including, the millions of Chinese, Japanese and Jews. Although the numbers of Arabs and Asian Muslims (particularly Javanese) are smaller, they are rapidly increasing. Poverty is endemic to South America; the per capita GNP of US$3,600 puts the region in the bottom economic quarter. Nevertheless, this represents an economy worth over $1.3 trillion (making up most of Latin America’s GNP, ahead of all Asian regions except East Asia, twice that of Africa). The two largest economies are Brazil (US$660 million) and Argentina (US$315 million); the latter is driven primarily by petroleum wealth. International indebtedness became a notable problem, as most recently illustrated by Argentina’s recent default.

The region continues to be plagued by many seemingly unstoppable social ills. The drug trade and the related problems of gang warfare, corruption and violence continue to wreak havoc, despite billions of dollars spent to combat them. Political issues related to the indigenous peoples have likewise been particularly thorny for mission agencies. Although HIV/AIDS is not as prevalent in South America as elsewhere, it is present.

During the twentieth century, many of the governments of South America were victims of Cold War politicking. Civil war, unrest, violence and political suppression were all common. With the 1980s and 1990s came a wave of democratization, yet allegations of corruption are frequently still heard. Recently, South American governments have been drifting toward socialism, and there are increasingly overtones of autocratic rule; yet for the most part, free markets remain the norm. Attempts to unify the region politically failed in the nineteenth century; however, with the founding of the South American Community of Nations, South America is starting down the road of economic integration, with plans for European Union-style political integration in the non-distant future.

Christianity in South America
With the exception of Guyana, the countries of South America are strongly Roman Catholic. The Catholic charismatic movement has played a significant role in the region. Further, Protestants (particularly evangelicals) and Independents have been growing rapidly. South America’s contribution to the mission movement has been substantial and is increasing. Since COMIBAM 1987, many new initiatives have been launched to reach the unreached. From research to funding to workers, Latin America is providing significant mission resources.

Statistics for the Thirteen Countries of South America 


P'00  P'25 C'00  % C '25 % 75-00 00-25 Issues affecting the future
Bolivia 8.3 12.4 7.8 94% 11.5 93% +- +- Poverty, unemployment, aid-dependent, drugs, corruption
Brazil 173.9 227.9 159.0 91% 204.8 90% +- +- Wealthy, rich/poor gap, corruption, debt, ecology, poverty, missions
Chile 15.4 19.3 13.7 89% 16.8 87% +- +- Stable, poverty, immigrants, unemployment
Colombia 42.1 57.7 40.8 97% 55.6 96% +- +- Drugs, corruption, continued fighting, poverty, some improvement
Ecuador 12.3 16.8 12.0 97% 16.2 96% +- +- Political instability, poverty, debt, unemployment, economic reforms
Falkland Islands 0.0 0.0 0.0 84% 0.0 76% +- Relative wealth, political uncertainty
French Guiana 0.2 0.3 0.1 85% 0.2 81% +- +- Unsettled wilderness, unemployment, resources
Guyana 0.7 0.7 0.4 52% 0.3 47% +- Resources, AIDS, unemployment, debt
Paraguay 5.5 9.1 5.2 96% 8.6 95% +- +- Political stability, debt, corruption, poverty, unemployment
Peru 26.0 36.2 25.1 97% 34.7 96% +- +- Political instability, corruption, poverty, severe crime, war rebuilding
Suriname 0.4  0.5 0.2 51% 0.2  48% ++ +- Resources, high poverty, unemployment
Uruguay 3.3  3.8 2.2 65%  2.4  63%  +- +-  Relative wealth but many poor, unemployment, debt, politically stable
Venezuela 24.4  35.4  23.1  95%  33.2  94%  +-  +-  Oil, widespread poverty and unemployment, illegal workers 

Key to the above charts:
P’00 – Population, AD 2000
P’25 – Population, AD2025
C’00 – Christianity, AD 2000 (followed by the percentage of the overall population)
C’25 – Christianity, AD2025 projection, World Christian Database (followed by percentage of overall population)
75-00 – Growth rate. The first (+/-) indicates whether Christianity is growing or declining; the second (+/-) indicates whether it is growing faster or slower than the population (thus whether Christianity’s influence is growing or declining). (+-) means Christianity is growing, but not as fast as the population, and so is declining as a share of the country.
00-25 – Growth rate projected for AD2000-2025
Issues – A brief encapsulation of the issues affecting the growth of Christianity in the nation


(Note: These articles are also available through Missiopedia, a new open-source reference on global Christianity and Christian mission hosted by Momentum Magazine. Go to:

Laurie Fortunak Nichols is editorial coordinator of Lausanne World Pulse. She also serves as editorial coordinator for the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and managing editor and book review editor of Evangelical Missions Quarterly (EMQ). She has edited a number of books, including the recent Extending God's Kingdom: Church Planting Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, with A. Scott Moreau and Gary R. Corwin.