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Brazil: Flag and AnthemBrazil: Flag and Anthem
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Introduction; Land and Resources; People and Society; Culture; Economy; Government; History
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Brazil, one of the world’s largest and most populous countries. It is the largest country in South America, occupying almost half of the continent and extending from north of the equator to south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Its largest city is São Paulo, and its capital is Brasília. Brazil’s large size and diverse population provide great variety in the natural environment, culture, and economy.

The nation’s natural beauty is reflected in a wide variety of geographic locations, from the distinctive dome shape of Sugar Loaf Mountain in the city of Rio de Janeiro, to the magnificent Iguaçu Falls in the far south, to the strange limestone formations in the state of Minas Gerais in the Southeast region. A broad contrast exists between the nation’s two main physical features: the densely forested lowlands of the Amazon Basin in the north and the generally open uplands of the Brazilian Highlands to the south. The climate is generally tropical, but areas located at higher elevations or farther from the equator tend to be more temperate. Vegetation varies from rain forests to pine forests to savannas and semiarid scrub. The forests are a rich source of timber, and the country sustains a diverse agriculture, producing tropical crops such as sugar and coffee. In recent years environmentalists have become increasingly concerned over the future of the Amazon region, where human encroachment has threatened the world’s largest intact rain forest.

Brazil’s population is very diverse. This diversity is the result of intermingling between Native Americans, Portuguese settlers, and African slaves, which produced a society of racial and ethnic complexity. Brazil is the only Latin American country settled by the Portuguese. Before the Portuguese arrived in 1500, many Native American tribes sparsely populated the country. In the mid-16th century the Portuguese began to import African slaves to work on agricultural production. The ethnic mix between these three groups, along with other European peoples who immigrated to Brazil after 1850, has contributed to some distinctly Brazilian cultural forms, especially in music and architecture. Distinct cultures also continue to survive among Afro-Brazilians, non-Portuguese immigrants from Europe and Asia, and isolated pockets of Native Americans. However, Portuguese cultural influences remain strong, with Portuguese as the primary language and Roman Catholicism as the principal religion.

The economic development of Brazil has been strongly influenced by a series of economic cycles in which different resources were exploited in different parts of the country. The first commodity to be exploited was the dyewood pau brasil (brazilwood), from which the country takes its name. In the mid-16th century colonists introduced sugar cultivation, taking advantage of the good soil and tropical climate along the Northeast coast. Gold was discovered in the 1690s in what became the state of Minas Gerais. This provoked a gold rush that brought the first significant settlement of the interior and shifted the country’s economic focus and population center from the Northeast to the Southeast.

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The gold began to be exhausted in the late 18th century, and there was a gap before the next, but most important, economic cycle. Coffee production dominated the economy from about the mid-1800s to the 1930s. It was particularly important in São Paulo, and was closely linked to the building of railways into the interior. Since the 1940s Brazilian society has undergone dramatic changes due to efforts—largely encouraged by government policy—to boost industrialization and to diversify the economy. Brazil is now one of the most industrialized nations in South America, with a rapidly modernizing economy and a largely urban population. Tropical crops and minerals remain significant exports, but manufactured goods are increasingly important. Brazil has by far the largest economy in South America.

Although Brazil holds the potential to become an economic powerhouse, social conditions stemming from Brazil’s early years as a plantation society have continued to cause inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power. A small and wealthy elite still controls most of the land and resources, and much of the population continues to live in poverty, especially in rural areas. Extensive slums have sprouted up on the outskirts of the larger cities as rural workers move to these areas seeking employment.

Until the 1960s the majority of the people lived in rural areas rather than in cities or towns, but that situation is now reversed. Some 82 percent of the population is now classed as urban, and in 2001 Brazil had an urban population of 141 million.

Brazil was a Portuguese colony from 1500 to 1822, when it achieved independence. Unlike many Latin American countries, Brazil’s transition from colony to independent nation was a relatively peaceful process that spared the country bloodshed and economic devastation. After becoming independent, Brazil was ruled by an emperor. The abolition of slavery took place in 1888. The following year a bloodless revolution led by army officers overthrew the emperor and established a federal republic.

Wealthy landowners in the economically powerful states of Southeastern Brazil dominated the republic until 1930, when another revolution established a provisional government and led to a military-backed dictatorship; this dictatorship lasted from 1937 to 1945, when democracy was restored. Economic problems and political tension led to another military coup in 1964. The military regime remained in power until 1985, ruling with particularly repressive methods from 1968 to 1974. The regime began to relax its controls in the early 1980s and moved to restore democracy. Since then Brazil has worked to reestablish democratic institutions.

IILand and Resources
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Brazil occupies an immense area along the eastern coast of South America and includes much of the continent’s interior region. The factors of size, relief, climate, and natural resources make Brazil geographically diverse. Planners divide the country into five macro-regions: (1) North, (2) Northeast, (3) Southeast, (4) South, and (5) Center-West.

The North includes most of the Amazon Basin and covers 45 percent of the national territory, but only 7 percent of the population lives there. The Northeast is the eastward bulge of the country. It was the first area to be settled by Europeans. Its semiarid interior, the sertão, is largely given over to low-density livestock ranching. Much of the population of the Northeast lives in poverty. The mainly upland area of the Southeast is the demographic and economic core of the nation. Brazil’s two largest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, are located here. The Southeast contains only 11 percent of Brazil’s land, but 43 percent of the population lives there. The South is the smallest region. It is distinct not only because of its temperate climate, but also because it was primarily settled by European immigrants in the late 19th century, giving the region a culture that is more European than other areas of the nation. The Center-West is a landlocked, thinly populated region that includes Brasília, the national capital.

Two geographic features dominate the landscape of Brazil: the vast Amazon Basin, which spans the width of northern Brazil, and an extensive highland plateau, known as the Brazilian Highlands, which covers most of the South and Southeast. The Amazon Basin consists of a huge drainage area that contains the world’s largest river and the world’s largest tropical rain forest. The population remains sparse in this region due to thick vegetation and an oppressively hot and humid climate. The Brazilian Highlands is an eroded plateau dotted with irregular mountains and crossed by river valleys. The highlands separate Brazil’s inland regions from a narrow coastal plain that stretches from Ceará in the Northeast to the Uruguayan border in the South.

In spite of Brazil’s size, the broad pattern of climate is less varied than might be expected. The equator passes through northern Brazil, running adjacent to the Amazon River. Because of its equatorial location and low elevation, the extensive Amazon region has a climate with high temperatures and substantial rainfall. Farther to the south, temperatures become slightly more moderate. The state of Rio Grande do Sul in the extreme south exhibits a more temperate climate, with seasonal weather patterns resembling those of the southern United States. Rainfall is plentiful in Brazil, except in the sertão, a semiarid region of the Northeast that is subject to occasional droughts.

Brazil contains a wealth of mineral and plant resources that have not yet been fully explored. It possesses some of the world’s largest deposits of iron ore and contains rich deposits of many other minerals, including gold and copper. Brazil’s fossil fuel resources are modest, but this limitation is offset by the considerable hydroelectric potential of the nation’s many rivers. Although Brazil is an important producer of tropical crops, areas of highly fertile land are limited, and only a small proportion of the land is actually under cultivation. There is substantial livestock ranching, and the forests are important sources of timber, rubber, and palm oil.

ANatural Regions

Much of Brazil lies between 200 and 800 m (700 and 2,600 ft) in elevation. The main upland area occupies most of the southern half of the country. It is an enormous block of geologically ancient rocks that rises from the northwestern region towards the southeast. As a consequence it has a steep edge near the Atlantic coast and in places drops in a single escarpment of up to 800 m (2,600 ft). The northwestern parts of the plateau consist of broad, rolling terrain broken by low, rounded hills. The southeastern section is more rugged, with a complex mass of ridges and mountain ranges reaching elevations of up to 1,200 m (3,900 ft). These ranges include the Serra da Mantiqueira, the Serra do Espinhaço, the Chapada Diamantina, and the Serra do Mar. The Serra do Mar forms a sharp edge along the coast from Rio de Janeiro south for about 1,000 km (about 600 mi) into Santa Catarina. Behind the Serra do Mar, an extensive plateau reaches through the state of São Paulo and into the southern states. The highest points in southern Brazil are the Pico da Bandeira (2,890 m/9,482 ft) and Pico do Cristal (2,798 m/9,180 ft), both in the Serra da Mantiqueira.

In the far north the Guiana Highlands cover only 2 percent of the country. These highlands form a major drainage divide, separating rivers that flow south into the Amazon Basin from rivers that empty into the Orinoco river system of Venezuela to the north. The highest point in Brazil—the Pico da Neblina (3,014 m/9,888 ft)—is in the mountains of the Guiana Highlands.

The most extensive lowland is the Amazon Basin. Most of its terrain is gently undulating, rarely rising more than 150 m (490 ft) above sea level. Seasonal flooding occurs along the Amazon River and its tributaries in stretches of flat, swampy land called varzeas. A second major lowland is the Pantanal in western Mato Grosso near the border with Bolivia and Paraguay. Seasonal flooding occurs in this region along the headwaters of the Paraná and Paraguay river system. It is a significant area for ranching, but has recently come to be recognized as an important wetland environment that needs to be conserved.

The third lowland area is the coastal plain. In the Northeast it may be up to 60 km (40 mi) wide, but in some places it is very narrow, and between Rio de Janeiro and Santos it disappears entirely. This coastal plain has been a major area of settlement and economic activity since colonial times, and 12 of the country’s state capitals are located along it. The plain widens in southern Rio Grande do Sul and extends into Argentina.

BRivers and Lakes

Brazil has a dense and complex system of rivers. The most impressive river system is that of the Amazon and its tributaries, ranked the largest in the world based on the volume of water it drains. The Amazon is the world’s second longest river, after the Nile in Egypt. Its major tributary, the Tocantins, joins the Amazon near its mouth. The second largest river basin in Brazil is that of the Paraná, which flows south between Argentina and Uruguay to empty into the Río de la Plata estuary. It drains much of the Southeast, South, and Center-West. The principal river of the eastern plateau region, the São Francisco, flows north through the highlands in the states of Minas Gerais and Bahia before turning east and entering the Atlantic. The remainder of the country is drained by a series of smaller and shorter rivers along the Atlantic seaboard.

The Amazon is navigable to oceangoing ships as far as Iquitos, in Peru, and its major tributaries are suitable for inland navigation. Parts of the São Francisco and Paraná are also navigable. However, except in the case of the Amazon, river transport is relatively unimportant in Brazil. The rivers are more important as sources of hydroelectricity, which Brazil depends on for economic development because the country is short of solid fuel.

Most of Brazil’s large lakes are created by dams constructed to produce hydroelectric power or to provide water for irrigation. The largest lakes are Sobradinho, on the São Francisco; Tucuruí, on the Tocantins; Balbina, on the Amazon; and Furnas, on the Paraná. The São Francisco is also used for irrigation, and there are a number of reservoirs in the Northeast that provide irrigation and drinking water during the dry season and drought years.


The nature of the Brazilian coastline varies considerably. In the North the mouth of the Amazon is the dominant feature, with major river channels, lowlands subject to seasonal flooding, swamps of mangrove trees, and numerous islands, of which Marajó is the largest. The coast of the Northeast is smoother, with substantial areas of beaches and dunes along the northern strip, and more varied forms—dunes, mangroves, lagoons, and hills—south of Cape São Roque. Major features of this area are the mouth of the São Francisco River and Todos os Santos Bay.

The Southeastern coast is also varied, with lagoons, marshlands, sand spits, and sandy beaches. Particularly in the states of Espirito Santo, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo, and in much of the South, the mountains are very close to the coast, leaving a coastal plain that is narrow or nonexistent. Only in Rio Grande do Sul does the plain widen again. The major natural harbors are those of Salvador, Vitória, Rio de Janeiro, Santos, Paranaguá, and Rio Grande. Portuguese settlers established their first communities along the coast, and most Brazilians still live within about 300 km (about 200 mi) of the coast.


The climatic pattern is largely shaped by Brazil’s tropical location and by topographic features. Most of Brazil has high annual average temperatures, above 22°C (72°F). Only in the South and in the highest elevations does the average fall below this. In the higher elevations, the seasonal variation in temperature is more marked.

A tropical wet climate characterizes much of northern Brazil, with abundant rainfall and little or no dry season. Temperatures average 25°C (77°F), with more significant temperature variations between night and day than between seasons. Rainfall averages about 2,200 mm (about 90 in) a year. Over central Brazil rainfall is more seasonal, characteristic of a savanna climate. Eighty percent of the rain falls in summer (October through March), and there are more seasonal variations in temperature. Here rainfall averages about 1,600 mm (about 60 in) a year. In the interior Northeast, seasonal rainfall is even more extreme. The semiarid region receives less than 800 mm (30 in) of rain, which falls in a period of two or three months. In addition to its scarcity and seasonal nature, the rain occasionally fails completely, causing serious drought conditions.

In the Southeast the tropical climate is modified by elevation, with a winter average temperature below 18°C (64°F) and an average rainfall of about 1,400 mm (about 55 in) concentrated in summer. The South has subtropical conditions, with average temperatures below 20°C (68°F) and cool winters. Rainfall averages about 1,500 mm (about 60 in), with no differences between seasons. The region is also subject to frost, which occurs on average ten days a year and may damage crops. There are occasional snowfalls in the higher areas.

EPlant and Animal Life

The plant life of Brazil depends on climate, elevation, and soil conditions. A broad distinction can be made between the forests and grasslands, but considerable variety exists within these areas. The Amazon rain forest is the largest tropical rain forest in the world. It has luxuriant vegetation, with tall trees and several lower layers of vegetation that include woody vines and unusual varieties of plants that do not root in the soil, but grow by attaching themselves to other plants. The east coast and the uplands in the Southeast also had a tropical forest cover, although less dense and diverse than the Amazon region; however, much of this has been cleared since 1500. In the South, the Araucária pine forest grows under subtropical conditions.

In central Brazil the rain forest gradually gives way in the south to the cerrado, an area of more open vegetation that trends from woodland to a mix of trees, shrubs and grass, and open grassland. In the semiarid Northeast vegetation is adapted to the low rainfall. It consists of low scrub, called caatinga. The trees lose their leaves in the dry season, and cacti and other plants that can survive very dry conditions are common.

The South contains open grassland known as the campos. Other small grassland areas occur in the northern Amazon region and in the mountains. The Pantanal near the border of Bolivia and Paraguay has distinct vegetation of trees, shrubs, and grasses that have adapted to the conditions of seasonal flooding. Along the coast several vegetation types exist, including salt marshes, mangrove swamps, and sand dunes.

The rich wildlife of Brazil reflects the variety of natural habitats. Of an estimated 750 species of mammals in South America, 417 are found in Brazil. Larger mammals include pumas, jaguars, ocelots, rare bush dogs, and foxes. Peccaries, tapirs, anteaters, sloths, opossums, and armadillos are abundant. Deer are plentiful in the south, and monkeys of many species abound in the rain forests. The country has one of the world’s most diverse populations of birds and amphibians, with 1,500 species of birds and 581 species of amphibians. There is a great variety of reptiles, including lizards, snakes, turtles, and alligators. There are estimated to be more than 1,500 species of freshwater fish in Brazil, of which more than 1,000 are found in the Amazon Basin. The number of invertebrates is enormous, calculated at more than 100,000 species, of which 70,000 are insects. However, Brazil’s wildlife remains largely unknown, and new species are found on nearly a daily basis. Scientists estimate that the total number of plant and animal species in Brazil could approach 2 million.

Despite its abundance, Brazil’s animal and plant life are threatened by human activity. Removal of the vegetation cover has been a continual process since the Europeans arrived; people have cut and burned the land to clear it for farming and settlement. Concern about this process intensified as people, settlements, and industry moved into the Amazon rain forest in the 1970s. Clearing land for agriculture and felling trees for timber have reduced the habitats of wildlife. Some species are also threatened with extinction by sport and subsistence hunting and by industrial and agricultural pollution. At the beginning of the 21st century, hundreds of species were considered at risk, including the jaguar, several species of monkey, and Pantanal deer. Numerous birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects are also threatened.

FNatural Resources

In 2000, 63 percent of Brazil was covered in forests, including a large area of tropical rain forests. These rain forests yield not only timber, but also a range of products such as rubber, palm oil, charcoal, and Brazil nuts.

The country also produces many different types of crops and livestock although fertile soil is limited. Despite its importance as an agricultural producer, just 8 (2000) percent of Brazil’s total land area actually produces crops; the remainder is either grassland, woodland, or uncultivated fields.

Mineral resources are particularly important for export and as raw material for industrial use. The most important, in terms of value of output, are iron ore and gold. Copper, zinc, bauxite, manganese, and tin are also significant. Limestone, sea salt, diamonds, and phosphates are leading nonmetallic minerals.

GEnvironmental Issues

Concern for the environment in Brazil has grown in response to global interest in environmental issues. The clearing of forests in the Amazon Basin to make room for agriculture and new settlements has drawn national and international attention over possible damage to the rain forest. Environmentalists are concerned that the extensive loss of rain forest vegetation, which produces large amounts of oxygen, could have a wider impact on the global environment. However, during the 1990s, forests in Brazil disappeared at a rate of 0.4 percent per year.

In many areas of the country, the natural environment is threatened by development. Highway construction has opened up previously remote areas for agriculture and settlement; dams have flooded valleys and inundated wildlife habitats; and mines have scarred and polluted the landscape. Rapid growth of urban areas has also contributed to pollution. There have been some efforts to deal with the problems of urban pollution, including cleaning up Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, the Tietê River in São Paulo, and the heavily polluted industrial town of Cubatão, near São Paulo.

Brazil has many different types of environmental conservation units throughout the country, including national and state parks, reserves, forests, and natural monuments. The first national parks were created in 1937 in an effort to provide environmental protection. The largest national park in Brazil is Jaú in the state of Amazonas, with 2.3 million hectares (5.6 million acres). In 1973 a government department for the environment was established. There is now a wide range of protected areas in addition to the national parks; they include forest parks, ecological parks, natural monuments, biological reserves, and areas of ecological protection. Many state governments have designated protected areas, and land set aside for indigenous peoples also serves as nature reserves.

Designating sites as protected does not necessarily mean that they can be securely preserved, however. The government often lacks the resources or the will to stop ranchers and farmers who move into these protected areas. The country also faces conflicts in reconciling economic development and environmental conservation, and in allocating scarce investment funds to preserving the environment. However, the growth of ecological tourism may be one area in which conservation will be able to generate its own funds.

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