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The continent of South America is characterised by vast geographic and biological diversity. This is mirrored by wide divergences in the social, cultural, political and economic conditions that prevail. Compared with other parts of the world, countries in South America show some of the most extreme discrepancies between the living standards of the rich and poor.
The discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492 was followed by an extended period of colonisation aimed at exploiting the continentís rich natural resources. A degree of political independence was attained by most South American countries in the 19th century. Nevertheless, they remained largely subject to the economic domination of Europe and, later, the United States. In the late 20th century, South America was a central battlefield in the Cold War, creating widespread political and economic instability throughout the region. In a number of countries this resulted in takeovers of the political institutions by the military. Since the 1980s most countries have adopted democratic forms of government. The high level of public debt in many countries led to a period of obligatory economic liberalisation. Since the beginning of the 21st century voters in South America have shown a marked preference for proponents of strong social policies and leaders highly critical of neo-liberalist economic tendencies.
Gross Domestic Product per capita (2005) in US-Dollars
NCCR North-South activities in South America are overseen by the Regional Coordination Office in La Paz, Bolivia. Research in the region focuses on issues of natural resource governance, bio-cultural diversity, livelihood options of the rural poor and related (social or political) peopleís movements.