Brazil Geography

Brazil Geography and Population


Brazil is only slightly smaller than Europe, and there are large differences in landscape and climate from the tropical rainforest around the Amazon over the semi-arid savannas of the Brazilian Plateau to the subtropical grasslands to the south.

In many millions. years, there has been calm in the earth’s crust, and the country is therefore dominated by low-lying mountains and the depositional areas of the low-lying river basins around the Amazon, the La Plata system and São Francisco.


Brazil is a multi-ethnic nation. It is a widespread notion that there is no racial discrimination, that the races are legally equal. There are many mixed marriages, but modern society still reflects the colonial era, when there was a sharp division between the white colonial masters, their slaves, who were black imported from Africa, and the country’s original residents.

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Today, the descendants of slaves remain the most disadvantaged in the country. Whites make up the majority in Brazil, and their share is increasing – presumably because the many mixed marriages blur the previously sharp divisions between the races. Many of mixed descent can thus be more easily recognized as white, the most socially coveted.

The Indians are almost extinct as a result of genocide and disease. Since the 1980’s, however, for the first time since the European invasion of the continent, there has been an increase in the number of Brazilian Indians. This is partly due to the fact that Native American societies more often organize themselves politically against external threats. Along with continuing bloody conflicts and massacres, many Native American communities in recent years have had their land rights recognized.

The current composition and regional distribution of the population reflect the history of colonization. With the arrival of the Portuguese, the Native American population was slowly pushed away from the shores and followed by the European conquerors who took possession of the country. The most densely populated areas are the areas along the coast that were colonized at the earliest. The big cities are rarely far from the coast and thus the shipping ports towards Europe.

Northeastern Brazil, Nordeste, it was first colonized the area. Here, during the heyday of sugar plantations, the Portuguese introduced several million slaves from Africa. Compared to them, the number of whites was small. Today, the descendants of the slaves make up the majority of the coastal region, while the Indians have been exterminated or displaced. Further inland, where the colonists established extensive cattle breeding, the whites mingled with the Native American population. Now the whites dominate here, but often with pronounced Native American traits (mestizer). For culture and traditions of Brazil, please check calculatorinc.

From the second half of the 19th century, the southern coffee plantations attracted millions of white immigrants from Europe. Here, too, the Indians were displaced, and the white population dominates entirely in southern Brazil. There are also other smaller ethnic groups here: descendants of Japanese immigrants from the early 20th century and Arabs from the interwar period. In general, these groups have created good positions in Brazilian society.

In the Amazon region, where the Portuguese needed Native American labor to collect rainforest products, Native Americans still dominate. The Indians, who did not accept the rule of the whites, fled far up the tributaries and up into the highlands. In these areas, mineral deposits have been found in several places, resulting in new conflicts between whites and Indians.

Developments in the industrial sector have fundamentally changed Brazilian society: economic and political power has shifted from the estates and plantations to the cities. The increased economic activity in the cities attracts millions of small farmers and farm workers who have lost their lands during the modernization process in agriculture.

In 1940, 31 percent lived in cities; in 2005 it was 84 percent, and Brazil contains some of the world’s largest cities (São Paulo about 19 million and Rio de Janeiro about 11.5 million (2006)). The urban industries can absorb only a small part of the many newcomers; most live in extreme poverty as a labor reserve in the slums that spread around all cities.

It causes serious social problems and the rising crime associated with it is officially identified as the biggest threat to Brazilian society.

Population growth has been declining sharply since the mid-1980’s. A large proportion of Brazilian women entered the labor market during this period, and effective child restraint became necessary to ensure women’s earning potential. Society’s lack of action in the field of contraception means that the most common method of contraception is sterilization.

In the early 1990’s, up to 40 percent of all Brazilian women living in relationships were sterilized, in the poor Northeast over 70 percent. At a time when population growth is often highlighted as one of the most serious global problems, Brazil is cited by some as a model for how it is possible to reduce birth rates. Others point out that most women choose sterilization as an emergency solution in a desperate social situation.


With the Portuguese colonization of Brazil, a plantation economy was established; on vast areas, tropical products were produced for the European market.

Industry. The colonial power’s ban on the establishment of iron and textile industries hindered early industrial development. After independence in 1822, the powerful landowners forced a reduction in customs duties to import quality products from the industrialized countries, and open competition from Europe made industrial development difficult.

Both World War I, the crisis of the 1930’s and World War II meant favorable conditions for industry in Brazil. The wars made relations between Europe and Latin America difficult, thus giving more leeway for independent development, while at the same time weakening the economies of the warring industrialized countries and restructuring their production.

From the 1930’s, it became a declared goal of the government that the country should be industrialized. Under the impression of the changed conditions of competition after World War II, a complex strategy was chosen. The government attracted foreign companies with large government investments in infrastructure and high import duties to protect the home industry, combined with favorable investment terms. This led to a tremendous industrial growth, especially in the years 1969-1974, the economic miracle of Brazil .

In the 1990’s, Brazil produced over 95 percent of its own consumption of industrial goods. However, the country remains dependent on imports of high-tech electronics, machinery and equipment.

However, Brazil’s industrial development is not unequivocally a success story. Growth has been driven forward without regard to the environment and nature conservation. In order to provide the industry with the best possible growth conditions, environmental legislation has been very lenient. Several of the country’s industrial centers are among the world’s most polluted areas. Predation on nature’s resources leads to lasting destruction, in the Amazon region.

The severe, persistent economic and political crises also suggest that structural weaknesses are embedded in the development model. The great regional disparities have been greatly deepened with increasing contradictions between country and city and between north and south. The share of the poorest groups in the population is rising, and the external debt is among the largest in the world.

The large loans were used for huge road construction and other infrastructure construction, but also to sustain the country’s economic growth up through the 1980’s despite a growing crisis. The external debt has forced a shift in agriculture from the production of own food to export crops to provide currency to repay the debt.

Another example of restructuring is the so-called alcohol program, which began in the mid-1970’s. To reduce the consumption of oil products, engines powered by alcohol fuel were developed. The automotive industry agreed to modify passenger cars, and the state supported sugar production for the production of alcohol.

As early as 1988, 80 percent of Brazil’s passenger cars ran on alcohol fuel. The program has thus been successfully implemented, but has been criticized for leading to higher food prices due to the conversion of fields to sugar cane production.

Agriculture has traditionally been divided between export-oriented plantations in the coastal areas, large low-productive large estates inland, latifundies, and a large number of minifundies, ie. homesteads where the farming family cannot live off the land alone, but must supplement with farm work on the estates.

The agricultural land is very unevenly distributed: the largest estates, which make up 1.2 percent of the agricultural holdings, own 45 percent of the Brazilian agricultural land. The low productivity of the estates means that more than half of the agricultural area is not actually utilized, and the majority of food production takes place on the many small farms.

10 percent of Brazil is arable land. A quarter of this vast area is cultivated with grain, especially corn. The main export crops are coffee and soy. Furthermore, there is a significant breeding of sugar cane, oranges, bananas etc. Cassava (a tuberous plant) is an important food especially for the small farmers in the Amazon and Northeast. For all these crops, Brazil is one of the world’s main producers.

There are very large differences between agriculture in the north and the south. In the southern states, agriculture has been modernized since the 1970’s using agricultural machinery, fertilizers, and pesticides. This has especially led to an increase in the production of export crops. In parallel, there has been a further concentration of land on fewer properties.

In the northern regions, on the other hand, modernization has not been successful. Here, large, low-productivity latifundies continue to dominate against impoverished minifundies. The living conditions here can be compared to the world’s poorest countries.

The dominance of the Latifunds and the marginalization of the rural population from economic growth are considered to be one of the main reasons why Brazil continues to have a developing country character. Attempts to implement land reforms have so far been stopped by the landowners’ powerful organizations with the support of the military.

Brazil remains one of the countries in the world that has the largest difference between rich and poor: the richest 10 percent of the population accounts for half of the incomes, while the 10 percent poorest account for only 1 percent of the incomes.


An important part of the development strategy from the 1950’s was to strengthen the cohesion of the great country. The various regions were only loosely connected, and a rapidly expanding network of highways was constructed to secure the supply of raw materials to the industrial centers of southeastern Brazil, enable the marketing of industrial products, and unite Brazil into one nation.

Based on the industrial history of the United States, the automotive industry was designated as the “locomotive” of the 1955 five-year plan. Road traffic was given high priority, while the large existing rail network was allowed to decay. With the exception of two tracks, built in the 1980’s for the transport of iron ore, rail transport has completely lost importance.

Before the expansion of the road network, the rivers played a major role in transport within the country; yet it is of importance in the Amazon, where the rainforest makes land traffic difficult. The Amazon can be navigated by ocean-going ships along its entire length in Brazil and on long stretches on the major tributaries, but transportation is slow.

Energy and mining

Industrialization relied almost exclusively on oil as an energy source; the state-owned Petrobrás became a controversial symbol of nationalist industrial policy in the 1950’s. The oil supply was largely based on imports, and after the energy crisis in 1973, major energy programs were launched to reduce oil dependence.

The biggest opportunities lay in the development of hydropower, where Brazil has some of the world’s greatest potentials. With the construction of Itaipú in Paraná (in collaboration with Paraguay and Argentina) and Tucuruí in the Amazon contribute hydropower with about 95 percent of the country’s electricity production.

Oil exploration was intensified during the same period, and several fields were found on the mainland, e.g. with AP Møller – Maersk as a stakeholder and with the use of experience from offshore oil exploration in the North Sea. However, Brazilian oil production remains limited.

As a uranium-producing country, Brazil was able in 1975 by the military government to conclude a contract with West Germany for the purchase of three nuclear power plants for installation outside Rio de Janeiro. Only one of the works has worked satisfactorily.

Critics of the nuclear power program have pointed out that the technology used was already obsolete at the time of the conclusion of the contract and that safety conditions are deficient. The decision can be seen as part of the military’s development of nuclear technology.

In addition to energy raw materials, Brazil has significant mining operations. The iron ore field at Carajás is among the largest in the world, and Brazil is the world’s largest producer of iron ore. A large part of the ore is exported, but the country’s steel production is also significant. Furthermore, there are large deposits of bauxite, manganese, tin and other minerals.

In several places, the exploitation gives rise to conflicts with the Indians; this is especially true of gold mining, where gold fever invasions can occur when thousands of impoverished fortune hunters flock to gold finds in the Amazon rainforest.

Geographical regions

The natural variation, together with the colonial background, has led to great regional differences, economically and culturally. Geographically, the country is divided into five major regions.

The Amazon includes the states that are drained by the Amazon with tributaries. These are Acre, Amazonas, Rondônia, Roraima, Amapá and Pará. Most of the region is covered by tropical rainforest and is very sparsely populated and poor. Most residents live on self-sufficient agriculture or are associated with the extraction of forest products: rubber, Brazil nuts, timber, etc. The rubber collection is still largely based on debt slavery.

Since the 1960’s, large-scale development projects have been launched in the Amazon. Roads are being built through the region, and the forest is being cleared for the benefit of mining projects, cattle farms and agriculture. Financial problems and pressure from abroad have led to a slowdown in the Brazilian state’s colonization projects in the Amazon.

capital city population in mio. (2005) area (km2)
Acre Rio Branco 0.67 153,698
Alagoas Maceió 3.01 29.107
Amapá Macapá 0.59 142,359
Amazon Manaus 3.32 1567,954
Bahia Salvador 13.82 561,026
Dear Fortaleza 8.10 145,694
Federal District Brasilia 2.33 5794
Espírito Santo Victory 3.41 45,733
Goiás Goiânia 5.62 340,166
Maranhão São Luís 6.10 329,556
Mato Grosso Cuiabá 2.80 901,421
Mato Grosso do Sul Campo Grande 2.26 357,472
Minas Gerais Belo Horizonte 19.24 586,624
Pará Belem 6.97 1,246,833
Paraíba João Pessoa 3.60 53,958
Paraná Curitiba 10.26 199,324
Pernambuco Recife 8.41 101,023
Piauí Teresina 3.00 251,273
Rio de Janeiro Rio de Janeiro 15.38 43,653
Rio Grande do Norte Natal 3.0 53,167
Rio Grande do Sul Porto Alegre 10.85 280,674
Rondônia Port Velho 1.53 379
Roraima Boa Vista 0.39 225,017
Santa Catarina Florianópolis 5.87 95,318
São Paulo São Paulo 40.44 248,256
Sergipe Aracajú 1.97 21,863
Tocantins Palmas 1.31 277,322

The northernmost include the states of Maranhão, Ceará, Piauí, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe and Bahia. The region is predominantly tropical savannah and forest. The Portuguese cleared the forest along the northeast coast in the 17th century and planted large sugar plantations; the sugar economy continues to dominate the area.

The semi-arid plateau (sertão) was subdivided into large estates with extensive cattle ranching. The feudal conditions of production still exist in Nordeste’s low-productivity agricultural sector, and the area is Brazil’s poorest.

Southeast Brazil with the states of Minas Gerais, Espirito Santo, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro is Brazil’s richest region. Finds of gold, diamonds, iron and manganese made the region the economic and political center of Brazil from the beginning of the 18th century.

With the establishment of coffee plantations in the second half of the 19th century, great riches gathered in the region. Here was formed the basis of the industrialization that has led Brazil to its present state. No less than 60 percent of Brazilian industrial production is concentrated in a small area in and around the major cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

Modernization of the region’s agriculture has made it the country’s main producer of agricultural products, including coffee, soy, oranges and sugar. The region’s dynamics have largely led to developments in other regions being subordinated to developments in south – eastern Brazil. The economic development here attracts immigrants from the rest of the country.

Region comprises 11 percent of the area of Brazil, but here occupy up to half of the population, and about 2/3 of income earned here. Regional inequality is self-reinforcing: south-eastern Brazil is getting richer and northern Brazil is getting poorer.

Southern Brazil includes the states of Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. Here is a subtropical climate, cooler than in the rest of the country. Originally, the area was covered with grass steppe (a continuation of the Argentine pampas) and coniferous forests.

The European immigrants established agriculture here, which supplied the mining sector of southeastern Brazil with food and livestock. The modernization of agriculture has spread to this region and it is Brazil’s second most important agricultural area.

The Midwest includes the states of the Central Brazilian Plateau: Mato Grosso do Sul, Mato Grosso, Goiás, Tocantins and the capital Brasilia, which has federal district status. Far up in the 20th century, this sparsely populated region was of no significant economic importance. Since the 1960’s, roads have been built, which have opened up for an intense colonization with the creation of large cattle farms and modern agriculture in the savannah-like landscape.

The colonization of the Amazon and the Midwest entails a continued administrative division of Brazil with new states and municipalities. Six of the 26 states have been established since 1960, and in 1960-1990 the number of municipalities almost doubled (to 4491).

Brazil – plant life

In the highlands to the north occurs tropical savannah, campos, with grasses and low trees; a type of vegetation also found in Venezuela and Guyana. Most of the Amazon region is covered by lush, tropical rainforest with many species from the palm family, the banana family and the legume family Chrysobalanaceae, including Chrysobalanus. Many plants live as vines or epiphytes; among the latter especially ferns and species in the pineapple and orchid family. Deciduous trees occur in the drier eastern parts of the Amazon. In stagnant and slow-flowing water, e.g. species of the genus Victoria, “giant water lily”.

In the arid regions of northeastern Brazil, grasses, cacti, thorny shrubs and lower trees, often with swollen trunks, dominate. South of the Amazon region, the inner highlands are dominated by campos and open, deciduous forest, and in the state of Paraná there are remnants of large forests of the distinctive coniferous tree Araucaria brasiliana.

In 1999, a law was implemented which, for the first time, includes deforestation and environmental pollution under the Penal Code. It happened with the intention of slowing down the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Yet road construction through the jungle and the relocation of hundreds of especially foreign sawmills to the region is leading to an increasingly rapid clearing of rainforests.

Brazil – wildlife

In Brazil there are over 1500 bird species, including macaws, toucans and hummingbirds; the vast majority live in the Amazon region, which is also home to the majority of the approximately 250 toad species. The rainforests also have a rich insect life with probably several million species, of which only a small part is still known.

Of mammals there are almost 50 species of monkeys in the rainforests, where tapir and jaguar are also found. In arid areas live giant anteaters, pampas deer and several species of rodents, some of which have a behavior and way of life such as deer and antelopes. Here is also the nandue, a relative of the ostrich.

In the rivers live pirate fish and some close relatives, who are not predatory fish, but who feed on seeds and fruits from the trees in the seasonally flooded forests. In total, approximately 2000 species of fish from Brazil. The rivers are also home to turtles and mammals such as the Amazon dolphin, the Amazon manatee and the giant otters up to 2 m long.

Brazil – language

Brazil’s people have Portuguese as their mother tongue apart from a few immigrant groups and parts of the Native American indigenous population, who speak ge, arawak and tupi-guarani.

The regional language differences are modest but clear, and a common “state Brazilian” norm does not yet exist. The language of Rio de Janeiro has traditionally had the greatest prestige.

Portuguese in Brazil differs from Portuguese in Portugal in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling and grammatical structure. For example, the original pronoun tu ‘du’, like the second person of the verbs, is almost obsolete, as is the case in several Latin American variants of Spanish.

Instead, both in the case of indictment and publicity, the 3rd person is used, eg você vai ‘you go’, cf. ele vai ‘he goes’. As in Danish, a distinction is made between informal and polite indictment: você ‘du’ towards o senhor and a senhora ‘De’.

A spelling convention between Brazil and Portugal from 1945 was only partially implemented, but a reform from 1986 aims to reduce the differences in spelling.

Pronunciation differences between Portuguese in Brazil and in Portugal
sound change sound example Portuguese in Brazil Portuguese in Portugal
weakening of unstressed vowel, especially in the last syllable a preserved as [a] weakened in the direction of [æ]
batata ‘potato’ [baˈtata] [bæˈtatæ]
e weakens to [i] weakens to [ə]
legume ‘vegetable’ [leˈgumi] [leˈgumə]
island weakens to [u] weakens to [u]
bonito ‘beautiful’ [boˈnitu] [buˈnitu]
palatalization in front [i] d to [ʤ] preserved as [d] or [ð]
dia ‘day’ []Ia] [ˈDiæ]
cidade ‘by’ [siˈdaʤi] [siˈðaðə]
de ‘af’ []i] [də]
t to [ʧ] preserved as [t]
tia ‘aunt’ []Ia] [ˈTiæ]
parte ‘del’ [ˈPɑχʧi] [Ɑpɑrtə]
vocalization at the end of the syllable l no vocalization, but velor pronunciation
sal ‘salt’ [sɑw] [sɑɫ]
velarization at the end of the syllable r velært r (Dog alveolært ri São Paulo mv.) alveolar r
mar ‘hav’ [mɑχ] [more]
vocal palatalization of s-sounds at the end of the syllable s/z j-deposit in front of s-sounds
gas ‘gas’ [gɑjʃ] [gɑʃ]
luz ‘lys’ [lujʃ] [luʃ]
consonant palatalization of s-sounds at the end of the syllable s/z no palatalization (However, palatalization in Rio de Janeiro, etc.)
cesto ‘ curve ‘ [Estsestu] [Ʃseʃtu]
mesmo ‘same’ [ˈMezmu] [ˈMeʒmu]

Brazil Geography