About Brazil - Geography

Brazil is divided into five different regions, politically and geographically distinct, which nevertheless share certain physical, human, economic and cultural characteristics. Each of the five regions - North, Northeast, Southeast, South and Midwest - is limited by the borders belonging to its states. These are the criteria that the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics uses to collect and process official statistics for the Brazilian Government(1).


With an area of 3,869,637.9 km2, totalling 45.27% of Brazil's territory, the Northern region includes the states of Acre, Amapa, Amazonas, Para, Rondonia, Roraima and Tocantins. Its geographical limits are the Guyanas massif to the North, the central tableland to the South, the Andes mountains to the West and the Atlantic Ocean to the Northeast. It has an equatorial climate, and harbors the large rivers that form the Amazon and the Tocantins basins. It has three basic land profiles at different altitudes: igapos ( marshy forests), flatplains, and low plateaus or dry land. These types of land vary according to river water levels determined by rainfall. The igapos are permanently flooded areas with vegetation that has underwater roots.

Flatplains are higher lands which are only flooded by the rivers during flood season. Rubber trees are a good example of flatplain woods species. Low plateaus, or dry lands, are the highest lands, and are not affected by river floods. Hardwoods and nut trees grow on this type of land.

The northern region's 10,597,305 inhabitants - 7% of the country's total - make it the most sparsely populated region with 2.73 inhabitants per km2. Most of its population (57.8) is urban, and Belem - capital of the State of Para - is the region's largest city.

The Northern region's economy is based on the tapping of forest resources such as latex, acai (a fruit used for making juice), nuts and timber; on mineral extraction (gold, diamonds, cassiterite and stannite); and on large-scale extraction of ore, especially iron, in the Carajas sierra, State of Para, and manganese in the Navio sierra, State of Amapa. Mineral extraction sites are served by two railroad systems: the Carajas railroad, which connects Maraba in the State of Para, to Sao Luiz, capital of the State of Maranhao (Northeastern region) and the Itaqui and Ponta de Madeira ports; and the Amapa railroad, which carries manganese exctracted in the Navio sierra to the port of Santana, in Macapa, capital of the State of Amapa.

In some areas of this region energy is provided by hydroelectric power plants, and in others, by diesel-powered generators. The region's largest hydroelectric station, Tucurui, is on the Tocantins river, in the State of Para. There are also smaller stations, such as Balbina, on the Uatama, State of Amazonas, and Samuel, on the Madeira river, State of Rondonia.

The Federal Government offers incentives for the creation of industries in the State of Amazonas, specially electronics assembly plants. This process is managed by the Superintendence of the Manaus Foreign Trade Zone, and the incentives will be in force at least until the year 2003.


(Woods Zone, Agrestal, Sertao, Drought Polygon)

This region comprises the states of Maranhao, Piaui, Ceara, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraiba, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe and Bahia. Its surface area is 1,561,177.8 km2 - 18.26% of the country's total. Most of this region's territory belongs to a vast stretch of tableland, which is ancient and smoothed by erosion. The Norhteast region is composed of four physically different sub-regions: Zona da Mata (Woods Zone), Agreste (Agrestal), Sertao (Dry Lands) and Poligono das Secas (the Drought Polygon).

The transitional area between the semi-arid Northeast sertao and the Amazon region is called Middle-North. Its climate gets more humid and its vegetation gets thicker towards the West. Palm tree woods are this area's natural vegetation, and include the babacu palm. Its oil is used for manufacturing cosmetics, margarines, soaps and lubricant. Local economy is basically agricultural, with a predominance of rice plantations in the more humid valleys of the State of Maranhao. During the 1980's, however, this area started to become industrialized, with the creation of industries that appeared as a consequence of mineral extraction projects in the Amazon.

The Northeastern region's economy is based chiefly on the sugar and cocoa agroindustries. A development program for fruit growing aiming at exportation was implemented a few years ago in the Sao Francisco river valley, in the States of Bahia and Pernambuco. Petroleum is tapped on sea rigs and land wells and processed in the Landulfo Alves refinery, in Salvador, and in the Camacari Petrochemical Complex, both in the State of Bahia. The tourism sector, which offers great potential for the region's development, has grown considerably over the past few years and offers promising prospects for the future.

The Northeastern region has a population of 43,792,133 inhabitants, which represents 28.9% of the country's total. Populational density is equal to 28.05 inhabitants per km2., and a larger part of the population (60.6%) is to be found in the urban areas. Its most important cities are Salvador, capital of the State of Bahia; Recife, capital of the State of Pernambuco; and Fortaleza, capital of the State of Ceara.


- It goes from the State of Rio Grande do Norte to the South of the State of Bahia, forming a 200-kilometer-wide coastal band. Its climate is tropical humid. Rainfall is greater during autumn and winter, except for in the South of the State of Bahia, where it is stable all year round. The soil of this area is fertile, and native vegetation, called Mata Atlantica (Atlantic Woods), has almost become extinct, having been substituted by sugar-cane plantations since the beginning of the country's colonization.


- This area is transitional between the Woods Zone - humid and swampy - and the semi-arid sertao. In this sub-region, the most fertile lands are used for small farming, with a predominance of subsistence crops and dairy cattle production. Sertão

- A vast semi-arid area which extends to the coast, in the States of Ceara and Rio Grande do Norte. Lands in this sub-region are flat and stony, and rainfall is scarce and irregular. For that reason agricultural activities are greatly restricted. The typical vegetation of the sertao is the caatinga (a stunted type of vegetation). More humid areas have woods of palm trees, specially carnaubeira. All of its parts are used by the local inhabitants.

The Sao Francisco river is the region's largest, and represents the only perennial source of water for riverine populations. Several dams and hydroelectric power plants are found in the Sao Francisco, such as Sobradinho, in Juazeiro, State of Bahia, and Paulo Afonso, on the border between the States of Bahia and Pernambuco. The economy of the northeastern sertao is based on extensive livestock raising and large-property cotton crops with low rates of productivity.


- This area was marked off in 1951 in order to fight the effects of droughts in the region. All of the Northeastern States, except for Maranhao and the East coast of the region are included in it. The 1979-1984 and 1989-1990 droughts affected 1,510 Northeastern Brazilian municipalities. Traditionally, measures taken in times of drought include the construction of water holes and the allocation of funds to the city halls of affected municipalities. Recently, however, the Federal Government has begun to create longer-term projects in the region, with a view to finding a permanent solution for the problem posed by the Northeastern population's co-existence with droughts. One project that stands out from the rest is the Aridas project, which is funded by the World Bank.


It comprises the States of Espirito Santo, Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and totals 10.85% of the Brazilian territory, with an area of 927,286.2 km2 It is located in the highest part of the Southeastern Atlantic Tablelands, which include the Mantiqueira, Espinhaco and Coastal sierras. Typical land formations include stretches of round hills called "mares de morros" ("seas of hills") and granite peaks known as "paes de acĂșcar" ("sugar loaves"). The main type of climate is tropical atlantic along the coast and high-altitude tropical with occasional frosts in the tablelands.

Tropical woods that originally existed along the coastline were laid waste during the colonization period, and replaced by coffee plantations. The main type of vegetation in the State of Minas Gerais is the cerrado (stunted, twisted trees and scrub), with its bushes and grasses, and in the Sao Francisco valley and the North of this State is to be found the caatinga, typical of the Northeastern sertao.

The Southeastern tablelands are extremely suitable for hydroelectric energy production, and good use has been made of this potential. The largest power plant is Urubupunga, located on the Parana river, which is a natural border between the States of Sao Paulo and Mato Grosso do Sul. In the Southeastern region are also to be found the headwaters of two of the country's most important water basins: the Parana river basin, formed by the merging of the Paranaiba and Grande rivers, near the region called Triangulo Mineiro; and the Sao Francisco river basin, whose origin is in the Canastra sierra, both in the State of Minas Gerais.

The Southeastern region is the one with the largest population: 64,603,032 inhabitants, which equals 42.63% of the country's total population. It is also the region with the highest populational density (69.66 inhabitants per km2) and the highest urbanization rate: 88%. The country's two most important cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, capitals of the States which share their names, are to be found in the Southeast region. The city of Belo Horizonte, capital of the State of Minas Gerais, is considered an imporant regional metropolis.

The Southeastern region's economy is the most industrialized and well-developed in all five regions, being responsible for more than half of the country's production. Also, the largest cattle herds are grown in this region, and important agricultural production - including sugar cane, oranges and coffee - is carried out on modern, high-productivity farms. The region also has manganese and iron reserves in the Espinhaco sierra, in the State of Minas Gerais, and a reasonable amount of petroleum, in the Campos basin, in the State of Rio de Janeiro.


Its 577,214.0 km2 make it the smallest region, with an area that totals 6.75% of the Brazilian territory. It comprises the States of Parana, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. Its climate is sub-tropical except in the North of the State of Parana, where a tropical climate is predominant. It is characterized by contrasting temperatures in its different areas. The areas with high plateaux present low temperatures, with occasional snow storms, while pampas (grassy plains) in the South have higher temperatures. Vegetation follows that temperature variation, so that araucaria pine woods grow in the colder areas and gramineae in the warmer ones. The region is highly favourable to hydroelectric energy production, and its most important station is ItaipĂș, in the Parana river, on the border of Brasil and Paraguay.

The Southern region has a population of 22,653,700 inhabitants, which represents 14.95% of the country's population. Populational density is 39.24 inhabitants per km2 and 74.1% of the population live in the city. Immigration from Germany, Italy and the Acores Islands gave this region its own particular set of traits.

The Southern region's economy, once predominantly based on farming, has developed, over the last decades, an important industrial park. Its centers are in the metropolitan areas of the town of Porto Alegre, capital of the State of Rio Grande do Sul, and Curitiba, capital of the State of Parana. Farming production, specially wheat, soybean, rice, corn, beans and tobacco, relies heavily on modern cultivation techniques. European breeds of livestock include hereford and "charolês". Swine stock is raised in the State of Parana and in the West of the State of Santa Catarina. Logging, mainly of pinewoods, is also important in Parana. In the State of Santa Catarina there are coal reserves and a meat-processing industry, which not only supply the State, but are also used for export.


With an area of 1,612,077.2 km2, this region occupies 18.86% of Brazil's territory, and comprises the states of Goias, Mato Grosso do Sul, Mato Grosso and the Federal District. It is located on a vast central tableland, and is characterized by geologically old terrain which has been smoothened by erosion, forming chapadas (leveled plateaux). In western Mato Grosso do Sul and in southwestern Mato Grosso the central depression that forms the Mato Grosso Pantanal (swampland) can be found.

It is crossed by the Paraguay river and flooded during one season every year. The pantanal's vegetation is extremely varied, with a wealth of faunal diversity. The tablelands have their typical cerrado vegetation. The region has a semi-humid tropical climate, with frequent summer rains.

The Middle West has a population of 9,871,279 inhabitants, representing 6.5 of the country's total population, and a populational density of 6.12 inhabitants per km2 81.3% of this population live in urban areas.

Middle West economy was originally based on gold and diamond prospecting, which was gradually replaced by livestock. The transference of the Nation's capital city from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia, in 1960, and the construction of railroads providing access to the West, sped up the region's settlement, contributing to its development. This region posesses the country's largest deposits of manganese, located in the Urucum massif, in the area called Pantanal. Owing to the difficulty in reaching this area, these deposits are still scarcely exploited.

Tourism, as an economic activity, is developing at a fast pace in the region, attracting visitors from all over the world who come to enjoy the beauty of the Pantanal flora and fauna and of the Mato Grosso and Goias landscapes of "chapadas".

(1) Source: Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatistica - IBGE.