Will Latin American stay underpopulated for another century?

Think of how many people live in Asia, and how few, relatively speaking, live in Latin America.

Latin America has (mostly) beautiful weather, lots of natural resources, and attractive cultural amenities.  Mock the living standard all you wish but even Bolivia has higher per capita income than the much better publicized “Asian tiger” Vietnam.  The region simply isn’t that poor by global standards.

Crime is a problem but likely will fall, due to aging, better policing, and perhaps lead removal.

What does a Coasian bargain between parts of Asia and Latin America look like?  Will many Chinese and Indians end up in Ecuador and Honduras?

I would bet no, but still I wonder.  Often we overvalue the permanence of the status quo and the region has seen some major inward migrations in times past.


I used to work with a man who was half Indian/half Chinese from British Guyana. I think there are quite a few Asian communities in the Carribean and S. America.

Yes, but those are English speaking or, on a much smaller scale, Dutch speaking (with Hindi/Urdu still maintained).

There were many japanese immigrants in Brazil after WWII, and also some koreans. If you walk the streets in São Paulo you'll see lots of japanese descendants. And recently it's not that hard to find a chinese in any big city.

As far as I know, countries at the Pacific Coast also have relevant asian communities, specially Peru and Chile.

The Indians and Chinese were brought over as indentured servants. They did not form their own colonies.

Africa famously had a higher living standard than South Korea... but not recently.

Much of Latin America, including Bolivia, have the kind of governments that don't produce prosperity in the long term.

Indentureship was tried a while ago but the gains from trade all went to Europe, particularly the UK.

Well... I guess India did get chili peppers and that established the most perhaps the indelible characteristic of South Asian food.

In any event, the boat sailed along time ago when desis started learning English. Somehow I cannot see desis speaking Spanish (although I hear that there are few scattered through Central America). The trick would be to get the Hondurans and Ecuadorians to adopt English.

Perhaps the regions isnt that poor precisely because it isn't overpopulated.

Ever thought about that?

"Perhaps the regions isnt that poor precisely because it isn’t overpopulated"

Clearly not. If your vision of paradise is shantytowns, such ideas will never occur to you. Quote from Tyler

"While I think we are underinvesting in shantytowns, the permissible percentage is not very high and almost certainly falls short of fifteen percent."

In truth, Latin America has more or less consistently failed to create an economy that generates prosperity from value-added in manufacturing or services. Instead the emphasis has always been on capturing natural resource rents.

Given that rents are relative fixed, dividing them among a greater population is a losing proposition.

How are the rents fixed? Even in this oversimplified view of the South-American economy out per capita can grow as long as the population grows slower than the prices of resources appreciate in real terms.

Latin America's endowment of natural resources (minerals) was fixed by geology millions of years ago. Latin America's endowment of agricultural resources is not quite as fixed, but still constrained by climate, soil quality, terrain, etc. Real resource prices change over time. However, many are lower today than they were after WWII (2000 was a historic low point, 1814 may have been the historic high).

Betting on population/economic growth, sustained by perpetual growth in real resource prices, would appear to define crazy.

Remember the line about "no tree grows to the sky"?

"In truth, Latin America has more or less consistently failed to create an economy that generates prosperity from value-added in manufacturing or services. Instead the emphasis has always been on capturing natural resource rents."

Do current trends support this? Certainly manufacturing and service industries are growing much faster in Mexico than extraction industries. That trend has been going on long enough (20+ years) that it seems to be more than a temporary blip. Indeed, I suspect cheap Chinese labor temporarily suppressed the manufacturing growth curve in Mexico. I would further assume that the increasing cost of Chinese labor will make Mexico labor costs more competitive and further drive their manufacturing sector.

"Do current trends support this? Certainly manufacturing and service industries are growing much faster in Mexico than extraction industries."

Things in the future are hard to predict. What is clear, is that Latin America has never produced a Japan, S. Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc. How many S. Korean companies are world leaders in electronics, consumer goods, shipbuilding, etc.? How many Latin American companies make the same list?

Will this still be true in 20 years? I would guess that the answer is yes.

It's worth noting, that every successful Asian country has converged on U.S. per-capita GDP over the last few decades. As best I can tell, no Latin American country has done the same thing.

Chile has converged on US GDP. SInce 1970 they have almost tripled GDP per capita, while the US has double theirs. (source Penn World Tables)

Mexico does have a fair number of globally competitive multinational companies. Cemex and Bimbo come to mind.


"Chile has converged on US GDP. SInce 1970 they have almost tripled GDP per capita, while the US has double theirs. (source Penn World Tables)"

Not quite. Check out
http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/PGD2USCLA621NUPN and

As you can see, Chile's per-capita GDP declined as a percentage of the U.S. from 1951 (25.73%) to 1985 (13.66%). It then rebounded but was still below the 1951 level as late as 2004. The last data point is for 2010 at 33.9%. Obviously the global commodity boom has lifted Chile's fortunes of late.

Examining the charts for many Latin American countries shows a similar pattern. Periods of "convergence" associated with commodity booms followed by long subsequent declines.

For real convergence, see Korea as an example. The link is http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/PGD2USKRA621NUPN

Shanty Town Shortage Threatens Vibrancy of Latin America!


Latin America is already badly overpopulated if you want the region to remain rich. Being more like Bangala-Desh should not be every nation's ambition.

Populations are finally stabilizing with Argentina, Chile, and Mexico reaching below replacement fertility and Brazil and others not too far behind. There are some worrying signs in Guatemala and the like, but the overall picture is good. Encouraging mass immigration and population replacement from the East would be very bad for the existing inhabitants.

But Vietnam, for instance, has grown its population rapidly as its economy has grown rapidly.

I call this bollocks, Vietnamese population growth does not correlate at all positively with economic growth, go check your facts.

spandrell's contention was that overpopulation was the precise reason for the gap in living standards between Vietnam and Bolivia, to choose one pair. But the gap has been closing as Vietnam has been becoming more populated, like over the last twenty years, which seriously challenges spandrell's thesis (though, admittedly, not disproving it).

Bollocks indeed.

Past immigration has not gone over particularly well with the native population. In a region that is increasingly democratic, my guess is that large-scale immigration would not be a very popular policy, although it probably would bring benefits to all involved parties.


See the references to Amy Chua below.

Although white middle/high-class brazilians (those who shape "public opinion" here) are almost all second to fourth generation of migrants, they have a quite conservative view on immigration today in general. They are dirty, will take brazilian jobs, become criminals, etc. Hard to imagine some broad policy to attract immigrants. Even ideas to attract qualified europeans have resistance, imagine trying to bring poor uneducated non-white people, not politicaly viable.

And any eventual illegal immigration from Asia to Latin America is unlikely to have any relevant demographic impact, given all the difficulties of the task.


Arguably highly skilled immigrants would be even worse politically. The last thing Latin America needs is a Market Minority" that is both successful and racially distinct from the rest of the population. People need to read "World on Fire". It's actually Amy Chua's best book. Far better than Tiger Mom even though the latter is much better known.

To some extent, whites are already a "market minority" in many parts of Latin America with predictably doleful consequences. Making the situation worse via immigration would be folly on an immense scale.

Good point, but maybe it is more valid in countries like Bolivia, where whites are about 5% of the population and where qualified workers are really scarce.

In Brazil, Chile, Argentina, whites are far from "minorities" in any practical sense, and there are already a good number of qualified workers where the newcomers would mingle. South-europeans specially have many racial-linguistic-cultural similarities, they can be naturally absorbed and, as europeans, would have more political acceptance among white middle classes, and consequentely the rest of the people.

Bringing chinese and indians would be more problematic. With all the social problems, why bring more poor uneducated people who look different and speak very different languages? That would scare the poor and would give way to the usual social-racial prejudice by the latin-american elites, which is probably unmatched worldwide.

If Brazil had a liberal immigration and business policy, Rio could empty Houston of its gas and oil employees.

They would, of course, by a "Market Minority" of the worst type.


Turning Brazil's oil resources over to U.S. based multinationals might bring a few thousand Texans to São Paulo. That won't happen of course (Petrobas will remain in charge). However, even if it did, Houston wouldn't exactly be empty as a consequence..

Political instability has always been the fly in the ointment. That situation is improving in some places and deteriorating in others. But until Latin American politics stabilize a bit, it will always spook potential immigrants and investors.

There is a recent post about rules, stability, and institutionalization in LAC here (in Spanish):

What we really should be asking is whether Latin America is actually underpopulated. Most of Latin America isn't temperate and doesn't have soil conditions appropriate for intensive cultivation. If it did, the Amazon jungle would have been replaced by farms centuries ago. It didn't happen for reasons transcending economics, politics, and immigration policy.

Does anyone argue that the Sahara desert is underpopulated? Lots of land and not too many people. Like it or not, much of Latin America faces different, but quite real obstacles to intensive development. There are real reasons why Argentina and Iowa are highly productive agriculturally and Mexico and Idaho are not.

Ho! Spoken as a true city slicker. The reason Iowa is productive is nitrogen fertilizer. It's been found that you can indeed grow in poor soils (which are just a substrate, Google hydroponics) if you use fertilizer. But traditionally, prior to the Green Revolution, as I think J. Diamond would agree, "you are correct". BTW some dude named Simpson got rich selling tubers in Idaho.

Simpson eh?

Simplot, not Simpson.


I grew up in farm belt of Indiana and have some familiarity with agriculture. Iowa was brought under the plow and intensively cultivated well before 1880. The Haber (Haber Bosch) process was invented in 1909 and commercialized in 1913. Large scale exploitation took decades. Fertilizer has certainly raised crop yields worldwide over the last 100 years. However, some regions remain far better suited to intensive farming than others.

The Green Revolution was very important in much of the developing world. However, the details count. The core of the Green Revolution was developing "Miracle Wheat" and "Miracle Rice". These were short stem (dwarf) varieties of traditional crops. Traditional varieties of wheat and rice were highly susceptible to "lodging" if growth was accelerated using Nitrogen fertilizers. Dwarf wheat and rice are not.

Stated differently, the core of the Green Revolution was developing strains of wheat and rice that could actually benefit from large scale use of Nitrogen fertilizers. However, this didn't change the basic facts. The Green Revolution raised yields in areas that were already intensively cultivated. It did not enable vast new areas to be farmed.

By the way, 91% of Iowa is farmed. 12% of Idaho is farmed.

"The Green Revolution raised yields in areas that were already intensively cultivated. It did not enable vast new areas to be farmed." - post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy here. It could well be that fertilizers were added in precisely those areas already under cultivation, hence what you observe. Thanks for the mini-tutorial, but the Israelis make the deserts bloom, so indeed South America could become a regional breadbasket, notwithstanding what the Iowa Chamber of Commerce types may preach.


The southern cone of South America is already a regional (and global) breadbasket, just as it was 100 years ago... and for the same reasons. Agriculture is slowing spreading north. If most of Brazil had soil and climate conditions suitable for intensive agriculture (which Argentina definitely has), Brazil would have been plowed under by 1900. It wasn't.

By the way, 3.86% of Israel is cropland.

@Peter Schaeffer - you don't need much land to feed a country. I recall that the USSR fed itself with something like a mere fraction of the land collectivized...the small part that was left over was intensively farmed and feed multiples. So 3.86% of Israeli cropland may be enough to export crops all over the world...as I think they do. Sorry Iowans, but you'll be losing out to Bolivia when and if US farm subsidies run out.


From "Food troubles are here to stay" (http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/food-troubles-are-here-to-stay-1.245149). Quote

"With Israel's high dependence on food imports, it is no surprise that prices are rising. The country imports over 90 percent of its cereals, 70-80 percent of its fish and beef, and half of its pulses, oilseeds and nuts. We may soon be relying far more on Israeli potatoes, fruit and vegetables, since the present crisis appears to be part of a worrying long-term trend."

Iowa was highly productive long before farm subsidies. At this point, farm subsidies are only tiny fraction of farm income in the U.S. Gains in crop prices in recent years dwarf all farm subsidies. Check the numbers. Bolivia won't be a global breadbasket any time soon (if ever).

Politics plays a role in all of this. However, soil quality, rainfall, and geography are critical influences. The center of North America is flat with large rivers for cheap transportation. Save for Argentina, South America lacks comparable advantages.

@Peter S: Your article was from 2008, and if you read the whole thing, the authors cite Cuba, which imported food from the Soviet Union until the same collapsed, as a model for what Israel should do to become *self sufficient in food production*. Anyhow, I agree Iowa is more fertile than Bolivia's highlands, but my point is: with science you can grow a lot of stuff nearly anywhere. It may not taste as nice as Iowa corn or beef, but that's a TC gourmet food issue, not a 'feed the masses' issue. But, tell you what: since this forum is not good for long threads, I concede, and "you win" ;-)

Absolutely, positively, unquestionably, completely uninformed opinion based on zero knowledge of soil science. The "A" horizon of these regions is paltry and thin, often less than 6 cm (compare to Iowa or the Loess of Europe, which is 10x greater) and tops a silica rich "B" horizon. Lacking the ability to hold moisture and support necessary soil biome, no amount of nitrogen would be able to overcome those drawbacks. Indeed, adding nitrogen to the soil would acidify further making it less productive, not more.
Interesting you mention potatoes. They are the one crop that is suited for this soil type, as evidenced by their extensive cultivation in similar soil conditions and their origin in the Andes. However, they are a most problematic crop for supporting large populations and are vulnerable to a myriad of pests and crop disease, all of which are in abundance in the region. So unless the goal is to depopulate the region through famine, introducing traditional field crops and nitrogen is not a solution. The cropping of soya and other legumes could have the result of developing a robust "A" horizon; however, that would also demand some sacrifice of the crops to the soil (i.e., plow them under as one does clover or alfalfa) and a substantial amount of time doing so, perhaps 25 years, probably more. Agriculture is more than putting seeds in the ground and hoping they come up, and your response demonstrates that you know next to nothing about the subject.

The other potential problem that I have heard is that in the long term (60 + years) we are running out of phospherous deposits. Spanish Sahara may become worth liberating from the Moroccans.

Here's a recent book from Amazon.com that's rated four stars and looks promising from the title on this topic (not read it): One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (May 30, 2006)

Here is another perspective. World population is likely to peak in 2050 at around 9 billion and then decline. Arguably, the window for massively raising Latin America's population has already closed. The countries with really huge populations in 2000 were already dense in 1800 (the US is an exception, perhaps Brazil is as well). Since Latin America's birth rate is falling, huge population increases would require essentially replacing the existing population with immigrants.

Likely? It's been done of course. However, the primary mechanisms have been war and conquest.

The above comment, was not actually meant as a reply to RL

I have lived in Colombia, I hope that they do not have mass immigration. I would hate to see their nation destroyed the way we in North America are destroying our own nations.

They seem to be perfectly able to do so themselves.


things are looking up in Colombia. In the medium to long term it is a country that has a better future than Canada. They are more unified, more patriotic and further from the United States than we are.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is a masterpiece published in 1967 and helped Marquez win the Nobel prize for literature. It's a treasure. Sorry, but is your post serious?

I was wondering the same thing. If it was an attempt at humor, I implore the author to cease and desist from such attempts.

I thought it was funny.

It was quite funny.

Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish government language promotion arm, put out a press release eaerlier this month that among other things noted that there are 35 Spanish language learning centers in Beijing alone


Even excluding the Andes and Amazonia, Uruguay, Paraguay, mid-west Brazil and much of northern Argentina are wildly underpopulated.

Maybe northeast Brazil interior also could be more populated depending on agricultural technology.

Also I find very sad the way people react to immigration, even here.

Brazil have a quite successful story of Chinese, Korean and Japanese immigration, especially in São Paulo, but in the north also.

I think we would benefit greatly from a large scale Asian immigration to Brazil.

Who is the 'we' who would benefit greatly?

What does LA/SA offer an Indian that Eurasia, Europe, NA, and for that matter Africa does not offer. Give an Indian a choice between Africa and South America, and he will choose Africa. It is closer to home, has large cities with already settled desi populations, English is more widely accepted, (despite Idi Amin) Africans have accepted the Indian businessman, and -- although both are tropical -- the African tropics seem more amenable to Indians. The Andes make much of the world think of South America is inhospitable, high-altitude rock. Central American is susceptible to hurricanes.

Both India and Africa have lions and the really big cats.

Meant elephants and the really big cats.

Will many Chinese and Indians end up in Ecuador and Honduras?

I don't know -- will much of the U.S. also stay underpopulated for another 100 years? Will many (more) Chinese and Indians end up in Michigan? Ecuador has about the same land area but 50% more population (~15M vs ~10M) -- and that's despite much of Ecuador's terrain being either extremely hot (along the coast) or high and rugged (in the mountains).

Sorry - Ecuador has the same land area as which country?

The U.S. state of Michigan. The point being that Ecuador already has a higher population density than many U.S. states and, in fact, has about double the population density of the U.S. overall (59 per square km vs 33 in the U.S.)

In a similar vein, Bolivia is about 3 times bigger than Montana but has 8 times the population. So, I'm not sure it's particularly true to consider South America as underpopulated.

Canada on the other hand is certainly underpopulated and might well benefit from 100 million Asian immigrants or so.

I think Fairfax, Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland should each get about 5 million Asian immigrants.

with STEM qualifications who bet on their beliefs.

Montana is also about the size of Germany, but Germany comes in at more than 80 times the population. Perhaps Germany is grossly overpopulated, but Montana is a decidedly rural portion of the US. I would venture that Bolivia is also heavily rural and probably underpopulated.


Germany has quite a bit more rainfall and arable land than Montana.

Canada is not underpopulated, given that most of the climate in very cold and hostile to agriculture and the dominated by the Canadian Shield with its thin soils.

There's a reason 90% of Canadians live close the the US border.

Thanks for the clarification. For some reason, the comparator wasn't obvious to me when I read your comment. :)


Did you see the recent article in the Globe and Mail saying that we needed a population of 100 million ?

The thing is while this would make the lives of most Canadians much worse (as put an end to the political aspirations of the Indians and Quebecois), there is a lot more prestige to being a cabinet minister/MP/senior civil servant of a country of 100 million that 35 million.

I think the point about crime is much more important than it might seem. My experience with immigration is that personal security is a much stronger motivation than economics, weather or anything else (that is why Mexican immigration to the US is so persistent). Latin America is a lot more violent than Asia, even when you compare it to the very poor countries. People in the US really don't have a clue about the extent of violence in places like Sao Paulo and Rio. Crime statistics also don't translate this very well. You might have people stealing your car in the US but in Brazil they will steal your car while pointing a semi-auto to your head and sometimes shooting for no apparent reason. If I were a poor Asian I would never move to any Latin American country.

why would they go to latin america when they could go to north america, higher standard of living and the population density isn't too far off once you exclude uninhabitable jungle etc.

Could you let us know what factors are used when deciding whether a region is underpopulated / overpopulated?

Now, I DO think you're going to see a shift of population out of Asia to Africa and Latin America, especially from China since it actively supports and encourages chinese businesses in setting up overseas. The Chinese situation aside, it would particularly be because it is cheaper to invest in and move to countries with lower GDP per capita, easier to support yourself on savings, and easier to set up shop.

Isn't the first question, do Central and South Americans think their countries are 'under-populated' and need more Asian immigrants?

I would think Central and South Americans are the people whose opinions matter on this issue. But since American economists in suburban college towns are so smart, apparently they've already answered that one for them. Thus, as far as they're concerned, the only appropriate question for those economically-ignorant Latinos is, how long are you going to be under-populated when there are tons of Asians who could move to your countries?

I imagine this sort of presumption goes over real well in Central and South America like when, for example, American economists try to negotiate tax/regulatory-exempt zones for their wealthy tech-entrepeneur friends.

This trend (although small in absolute terms) is already underway in Suriname, where ~10% of the population (40-50k out of 500k) is Chinese immigrants, most recent arrivals. The country is the size of Florida, but has only a half million citizens. China is currently contributing large amounts (relative to Suriname's budget) in aid to the country. In short: Suriname is likely to become increasingly populated by Asian immigrants in the coming years.

Brazil could receive millions of Indian and Chinese men. While there is an excedent of more than 60 million more men than women in Asia, in Brazil there are almost 5 million more women than men; baby girls are killed there, young men are killed here by motorcycles and guns.
Xenophobia is strong in Brazil, preventing the loosening of imigration laws. The last big wave of imigration happened more than a century ago, with the Japanese. Fertilizers have been allowing the incorporation of millions of hectares to agriculture since the seventies. Crops in the Amazon are not so easy, but the strongest barrier to its occupation today is the ecological movement against the cattle ranchs.

Brazil has more women than men (as does the United States). However, the imbalance reflects greater female life expectancy. Among younger people, men outnumber women (just like the USA). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_sex_ratio for the statistics.

Note that essentially all countries have more men than women until greater female life expectancy starts to shift the balance.

Don't wag your finger at Brazil when restrictive immigration policies are 10 times worse in every East Asian country.

Sorry, friends, but what does "underpopulated" even mean?

Much of South America is at extreme elevation. The locals have become acclimatized to thin air over many generations, but it's tough on sea level women to carry babies to term at over 10,000 feet or so. The Chinese are having problems colonizing Tibet due to the altitude, so much the same would be true of the Altiplano.

much? that only applies for a fraction of Bolivia.

East and South Asians are baby making machines. The world unfortunately now has to deal with these large populations because those in government refuse to close the borders.

East Asians have among the lowest birth rates in the world. South Asians have lower birth rates than much of the world such as the Middle East and Africa.

I'm very skeptical of low birth rate numbers in East Asia. Still, East and South Asia account for over 1 out of 3 people on the planet. That didn't happen from magic. It happened through lots of sex. I know these low birth rate numbers are to give the impression Asians are demure but history shows something completely different.

Take that Harvard dude that wants to recreate cavemen. I see and raise you dictating to other countries what their immigration policy should be!

This is getting too easy.

Anyway, leaving aside the fact that Asians might not want to move to South America, it would appear that they are capable to realizing that with their higher IQ Asians would become a market dominant minority with all the political instability that would entail (see Malaysia).

You can't "see and raise" as two separate actions - that's cowboy movie stuff.

You just "raise," otherwise you could be looking for a tell when you say "see" and make the rest of your action conditional. If you actually try it, the dealer will reject your raise and it will be as if you had just called.

I see and raise you autistic nerd status one upmanship.

Autistic Nerd Upmanship Status needs an acronym.

I thought it was interesting info. Autistic nerds are probably more successful than the typical person anyway, so it's not exactly clear in what sense this is an insult.

Is per capita income useful at gauging overall prosperity in Latin America? Heavy income inequality characterizes most of these countries, so you could still have a large part of the population that is highly poor.

While overpopulation is with respect to some limiting resource, underpopulation is usual with respect to the population itself. It's not about not having enough people to occupy the land, it's about having enough people to do XYZ role in the culture, a problem of population structure, not one of population size.

In roles where global trade of labor can take place, underpopulation may be relieved without migration.

Chile had a very successful experience of massive immigration from Germans in the 19 century and has received lots of immigration from Palestine, Croatia, Italy, Spin, etc. Latin America has a long story of immigration (Japanese in Brazil and Peru, Italian almost everywhere, etc.). There are also inter regional immigration: lots of Peruvians coming to Chile. Despite there are not specific policies from government, immigration is quite active. I think it make no sense to calculate how productive can be the land or try to figure if we in Latin America will mimic Hong Kong or Korea development, regions are quite different so as opportunities. Some countries are strong in mining (Chile, Peru), other in agriculture (Argentina, Brazil) and the international division of labor happen spontaneously, independent of specialists or planners wishes. It is true that bad governments has caused lot of damage, but this happen everywhere, just think in America or Europe today, every day more similar to old Latin American populists, there are a Chilean saying "you should not spat to the sky, it may fall in your face"

The problem with Latin America is that it's filled with Latin Americans.

Fortunately, I can read in Spanish. An essay called "Las venas abiertas de América Latina" by Eduardo Galeano helped me understand why Latin America has this population problem. The English translation would be "Open veins of Latin America".

“History has never been produced in the south,” he told the Chilean diplomat; “the axis of history starts in Moscow goes to Berlin, crosses over to Washington and then goes to Tokyo.” - Henry Kissinger (The original source of this oft-quoted remark is Hersh, Price of Power, 263. Its accuracy was nevertheless confirmed by Ramon Huidobro, who was present at the meeting with Valdés and who personally heard it. See Huidobro interview, 28 October 2004.)

I think it ultimately depends on the country. A lot of Latin Americans have been coming here to Miami.

Excellent post

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