Country Listing

Uruguay Table of Contents


Land Use and Settlement Patterns

Uruguay may be divided into four regions, based on social, economic, and geographical factors. The regions include the interior, the littoral, Greater Montevideo, and the coast.

The Interior

This largest region includes the departments of Artigas, Cerro Largo, Durazno, Flores, Florida, Lavalleja, Rivera, Salto, Tacuarembó, and Treinta y Tres and the eastern halves of Paysandú, Río Negro, and Soriano. The topsoil is thin and unsuited to intensive agriculture, but it nourishes abundant natural pasture.

Only 2 to 3 percent of Uruguay's land is forested. An estimated 3 to 4 million hectares (17 to 23 percent of the total land) are arable, but only one-third of this (about 7 percent of the total productive land) was cultivated in 1990. Almost all of the interior consisted of cattle and sheep ranches; pasture accounted for 89 percent of the country's productive land.

Sheep rearing was typically undertaken on medium-sized farms concentrated in the west and south. It began to boom as an export industry in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, particularly following the invention of barbed wire, which allowed the easy enclosure of properties. Uruguayan wool is of moderate quality, not quite up to Australian standards (see Livestock Ranching , ch. 3).

Cattle ranches, or estancias, for beef and hides were typically quite large (over 1,000 hectares) and were concentrated in the north and east. (Dairying was concentrated in the department of Colonia.) Because ranching required little labor, merely a few gauchos, the interior lacked a peasantry and large towns. Despite being sparsely populated, however, the interior was relatively urbanized in that the capital of each department usually contained about half the inhabitants. Social and economic development indicators were lowest for the departments along the Brazilian border to the northeast. Government attempts to encourage agricultural colonization by means of land reform in the interior had largely failed in economic terms, as had the promotion of wheat production. One exception, rice, most of which was produced in the east, had become a major nontraditional export in recent years (see Crop Production , ch. 3).

Data as of December 1990