Introduction to Brazil

Brazil, officially Federative Republic of Brazil, the largest and most populous country in South America. It fronts on the Atlantic Ocean and borders all South American mainland countries except Chile and Ecuador. Making up Brazil are 26 states and a federal district, site of the capital, Brasília.

Brazil occupies nearly half of the area of South America. Only Russia, China, Canada, and the United States are larger. In population Brazil ranks fifth among the nations of the world, after China, India, the United States, and Indonesia.

Economically, Brazil is the most advanced and influential country in Latin America. By cultural heritage Brazil is largely Portuguese; the ethnic origins of its people, however, are extremely diverse. Among those who have contributed to Brazil's complex racial and cultural makeup are Portuguese, American Indians, blacks, Italians, Germans, and Japanese.

The name of the country derives from brazilwood, an important export after the settling of the country by Europeans in the 16th century.

Brazil in brief
General information
Capital: Bras~{(*~}lia.
Official language: Portuguese.
Official name: Republica Federativo do Brasil (Federative Republic of Brasil).
Largest cities: (2000 census) Sao Paulo (10,434,252); Rio de Janeiro (5,857,904); Salvador (2,443,107); Belo Horizonte (2,238,526); Fortaleza (2,141,402); Bras~{(*~}lia (2,051,146); Curitiba (1,587,315); Recife (1,422,905); Manaus (1,405,835); Porto Alegre (1,360,590).
Symbols of Brazil:The Brazilian flag is a green flag with a yellow diamond, and a blue circle in the center of the diamond. Across the circle, a green banner bears the motto Order and Progress. The green and golden-yellow colors symbolize forests and minerals. Blue and white are Portugal's historic colors. Brazil's coat of arms commemorates the birth of the republic on Nov. 15, 1889. Branches of coffee and tobacco, two important crops, surround the central emblem.
Land and climate
Land: Brazil is the largest country in South America. It extends over almost half the continent and borders 10 other countries. The world's largest rain forest spreads across most of northern Brazil, and the Amazon and other mighty rivers wind through this region. Majestic mountains rise north of the forests and border the Atlantic Ocean in the southeast. Dry plains stretch across parts of the northeast. The low plateaus of central and southern Brazil form a rich agricultural region. Broad white beaches line seashores on the nation's long Atlantic coast.
Area: 3,287,613 mi2 (8,514,877 km2). Greatest distances~{!*~}north-south, 2,684 mi (4,319 km); east-west, 2,689 mi (4,328 km). Coastline~{!*~}4,600 mi (7,400 km).
Elevation:Highest~{!*~}Pico da Neblina, 9,888 ft (3,014 m) above sea level. Lowest~{!*~}sea level.
Climate: Most of the country has a warm to hot climate the year around. The mountains, plateaus, and some coastal areas are cooler than the lowlands. For example, Menaus, in the central Amazon region, has an average annual temperature of 81 degrees F (27 degrees C). But Sao Paulo, on a plateau, has an average daily temperature of about 73 degrees F (23 degrees C) in July. Rain falls heavily in much of Brazil. The western Amazon region receives over 160 inches (400 centimeters) of rainfall a year.
Form of government: Federal republic.
Head of state and head of government: President.
Legislature: Congress of two houses~{!*~}the Chamber of Deputies (513 members) and the Senate (81 members).
Executive: President (elected by people to four-year term).
Judiciary: Highest court is the Supreme Federal Court.
Political subdivisions: 26 states, 1 federal district.
Population:Current estimate~{!*~}193,540,000. 2000 census~{!*~}169,799,170.
Population density: 59 per mi2 (23 per km2).
Distribution: 84 percent urban, 16 percent rural.
Major ethnic/national groups: About 55 percent of European descent, including Germans, Italians, Poles, Portuguese, and Spaniards. About 6 percent of African descent. About 38 percent of mixed African and European descent. About 1 percent American Indian and other.
Major religions: About 75 percent Roman Catholic and about 15 percent Protestant.
Chief products:Agriculture~{!*~}bananas, cacao beans, cattle, coffee, corn, oranges, rice, soybeans, sugar cane. Manufacturing and processing~{!*~}automobiles, cement, chemicals, electrical equipment, food products, machinery, paper, pharmaceuticals, steel, trucks. Mining~{!*~}bauxite, coal, diamonds, gold, iron ore, manganese, petroleum, phosphates, quartz crystals, tin. Forest products~{!*~}Brazil nuts, carnauba wax, rubber, timber.Fishing~{!*~}characins, croakers, sardinellas, shrimp, swordfish.
Money:Basic unit~{!*~}real. One hundred centavos equal one real.
International trade:Major exports~{!*~}aluminum, coffee, iron ore, iron and steel, meat, oranges and orange juice, shoes, soybeans and soy meal, sugar, transportation vehicles and parts. Major imports~{!*~}chemicals, machinery, medicines, petroleum, wheat. Major trading partners~{!*~}Argentina, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Paraguay, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States, Uruguay.

Physical Geography

Brazil Brazil is the largest country in South America.

Lowlands make up nearly half of Brazil. By far the largest lowland is the Amazon Basin, or Amazonia, which spans most of northern and western Brazil. The land is generally rolling throughout most of the basin. Only the floodplains along the Amazon and its tributaries are flat. Virtually all the land is densely forested.

The Pantanal, in western Brazil south of the Mato Grosso Plateau, is also a sizable lowland but small compared to the Amazon Basin. It lies within the headwaters area of the Paraguay River and forms an extension of Bolivia's and Paraguay's grassy Chaco. Much of the Pantanal is swamp and marshland.

Coastal lowlands and plains lie along the Atlantic coast south of the Amazon River's mouth. They are, however, generally narrow and discontinuous because highlands closely parallel the coast and, in places, extend eastward to the sea. In the far south of Brazil, in Rio Grande do Sul state, the coastal plain widens into a broad rolling lowland that merges south and west with the grassy plains of Uruguay.

Two highland regions make up the rest of Brazil. The largest is the Brazilian Highlands, an enormous plateau, upland, and mountainous area covering most of south of the Amazon lowlands. Some parts of the Brazilian Highlands, particularly in the north and west, are made up of broad, rolling terrain dotted irregularly by low rounded hills. Parts of the eastern Brazilian Highlands consist of low, indistinct mountain ranges; other parts are extremely rough and formidable, with complex ridges and ranges. The highest and most rugged part is the Serra da Mantiqueira, northwest of Rio de Janeiro, where several peaks rise more than 9,100 feet (2,770 m) above sea level.

The Great Escarpment section of the Brazilian Highlands—a region of sharply rising escarpments, mountains, and ridges—parallels and at places reaches the coast. It has a mean elevation of about 5,000 feet (1,520 m) and extends more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from Salvador in Bahia state to Porto Alegre in the far south. Mountains along the Great Escarpment include the Serra do Mar, south of Rio de Janeiro, and the Serra dos Orgãos, north of Rio.

Brazil's other highland region, the Guiana Highlands, lies north of the Amazon lowlands and extends into Brazil from Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. It is a virtually undeveloped and isolated area, about which relatively little is known. Near the Venezuelan border is Pico da Neblina, Brazil's highest mountain, rising 9,888 feet (3,014 m) above sea level.


The Amazon River drains about three-fifths of Brazil, as well as large areas beyond the Brazilian border. In length, the Amazon ranks second among the rivers of the world, after the Nile. By volume of water carried, it is overwhelmingly the largest. Major tributaries include the Tocantins, Xingu, Tapajós, Madeira, and Negro. Because of its great depth, the Amazon is navigable by large oceangoing ships as far as Manaus and by smaller ships much farther inland.

Northeastern Brazil, formed by the easterly bulge of the continent, is drained primarily by the São Francisco and Parnaíba rivers. Most of the rivers in southern and southeastern Brazil are part of the Paraná-Paraguay and Uruguay river systems, which drain southward and enter the Atlantic in the vicinity of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Few rivers flow into the Atlantic south of Bahia state because of the barrier formed by the Great Escarpment. There, most rivers flow westward as part of the Paraná system.

Iguassu Falls, on the Iguassu River at the Argentine border, is probably Brazil's most spectacular natural feature. Hundreds of cascades, separated by wooded areas, form a crescent 2.5 miles (4 km) in length and plunge as much as 237 feet (72 m) into a narrow gorge.

There are no large natural freshwater lakes in Brazil, only man-made reservoirs created mainly for hydroelectric power. Most of the reservoirs are in the eastern part of the Brazilian Highlands, inland from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The largest is Sobradinho Reservoir on the São Francisco River, northeast of Salvador.

In the far south are a number of coastal lagoons, largest of which is Patos Lagoon. It is as much as 150 miles (240 km) long and up to 40 miles (65 km) wide.


Brazil, crossed by the Equator in the north and by the Tropic of Capricorn in the south, has both tropical and subtropical climates. The coolest period is June to September, the hottest from December to March.

The lowlands of the Amazon Basin have a tropical rainy climate, with moderately high temperatures, much rainfall, and high relative humidity throughout the year. At Belém, for example, near the mouth of the Amazon River, temperatures average close to 80° F. (27° C.) during all months of the year. Annual rainfall averages well over 80 inches (2,030 mm). Some east coast areas have a similar climate, but are more comfortable because of sea breezes that bring relief from the sultry weather.

The highlands of Brazil have somewhat greater temperature variations than the Amazon Basin. These variations increase generally with distance from the Equator and with increased elevation—the higher the elevation, the cooler the climate. South of the Equator, highland climates are marked by distinct rainy and dry seasons, the dry season coming during the cooler months. Annual rainfall throughout most of the highlands is substantially less than in the Amazon Basin. Some windward mountain slopes, however, have exceptionally heavy rainfall. The dry season is most pronounced in the interior of the northeast, where prolonged droughts occur. The droughts, however, are sometimes broken by heavy rains and severe flooding.

The far south of Brazil has a more temperate climate than the rest of the country. It is marked by a greater range of temperatures during the year and fairly evenly distributed precipitation. Frosts occur as far north as São Paulo state; occasional light snow falls at the higher elevations.


is as varied as the climates of Brazil. Most of the Amazon Basin and the coastal areas between Salvador and Santos are covered by lush tropical rain forests, or selvas. Growing here in great profusion are thousands of species of trees, vines, and other plants, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. Few forests are so extensive. In some areas, particularly along the highways in the Amazon Basin, the rain forests are rapidly being cleared to provide land for settlement and farming.

Subtropical forests, known as mata, cover parts of the Brazilian Highlands. In the wetter areas they consist primarily of tall stands of luxuriant broadleaf evergreen trees. In drier areas there is a sparser growth of generally scrubby deciduous trees. Northeastern Brazil, where droughts frequently occur, has stunted, rather sparse forests, called caatingas, of thorny, drought-resistant trees.

The central and western parts of the Brazilian Highlands are covered by vast savannas, grasslands with scattered trees and wooded areas. Found in the four southernmost states are pine forests in the higher areas and vast open grasslands elsewhere. The grasslands, called campos, resemble the pampas of Argentina.

Animal Life

is extremely varied and includes stingless bees; anteaters; tapirs; monkeys; jaguars; raccoons; bats; and brilliantly colored parakeets, parrots, and toucans. Hundreds of species of butterflies and moths have been identified. Deer roam the grasslands, and dolphins and sea cows swim in the lakes. Snakes include boa constrictors, rattlesnakes, and anacondas. In São Paulo, the Butantan, or Snake, Institute prepares antivenin for use throughout the world.

The Amazon River teems with hundreds of species of fish and other animals. Angelfish, crocodiles, lungfish, huge catfish, and flesh-eating piranhas thrive in the warm river waters.


Historically, Brazil has been an agricultural nation with a boom-and-bust economy based on world demand for such crops as sugarcane, rubber, cotton, and coffee. Large-scale industrialization and development of resources, however, have brought profound change. Today, although agriculture remains important, Brazil is a world industrial power with a diversified economy.

Brazil's rapid economic growth has been accompanied by several problems, including rampant inflation and a mounting foreign debt. Brazil's lack of sufficient mineral fuels, especially petroleum, has required huge expenditures on imports. Much effort has been directed at developing hydroelectric power, nuclear energy, and alcohol fuel for motor vehicles. In developed hydroelectric power Brazil is one of the world leaders. The giant Itaipu dam and power project, a joint Brazilian-Paraguayan undertaking on the Paraná River, is the world's largest water-power project.

Brazil's economy is based mainly on private enterprise, but there is substantial government ownership and operation, particularly in basic industries such as steel manufacturing, mining, electric power generation, transportation, and communication. Heavy foreign investment in manufacturing helped double industrial output during the latter half of the 20th Century. Brazil has one of the highest GDP's in South America.

Economic production in Brazil
Economic activities% of GDP producedNumber of workers% of all workers
Community, government, & personal services2629,564,00039
Finance, insurance, real estate, & business services181,341,0002
Agriculture, forestry, & fishing815,534,00021
Wholesale & retail trade710,785,00014
Transportation & communication53,168,0004

Brazil is a world leader in the production of livestock. Nearly one-fifth of its workforce is employed on farms. Nearly one-third of the land is presently used for farming and ranching. The opening of frontier lands for farming during the last few decades has been largely responsible for increases in total farm output, as the modernization of farming methods and equipment has been slow.

Brazil is the world's leading producer of coffee, oranges, papayas, sugarcane, and sisal, and is a major producer of bananas, cacao beans, cassava, castor beans, pineapples, cocoa, palm kernels, cotton, tobacco, soybeans, corn, and dry beans. In addition, a great variety of other crops are produced. Except for wheat, which is imported in large amounts, Brazil is virtually self-sufficient in food.

Commercial plantations, called fazendas, are responsible for most of the production of export crops. Other production is mainly by subsistence farmers, who grow such crops as rice, beans, corn, and cassava for their own use. Much of the farming is of the slash-and-burn type—trees are cut and burned and the land is then cultivated as long as good crops can be produced. When the plot becomes unproductive the process is repeated elsewhere.

Although crops are highly important in Brazil, most of the farmland is used for grazing. Cattle are raised extensively south of the Amazon lowlands and are one of the nation's chief sources of wealth. The best grazing land is in the far south, in the states of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina. Brazil ranks among the top five nations in the number of cattle raised for meat. Large numbers of chickens and hogs are also produced. Of less significance is the raising of sheep and goats.


Brazil's economy has a large and increasingly sophisticated manufacturing sector. Virtually all consumer goods and much of the industrial equipment needed within the country are domestically produced. The manufacturing sector is second only to the service sector in terms of value contributed to the national economy. Roughly a sixth of the labor force is engaged in manufacturing.

The principal manufacturing areas of Brazil are in the southeast in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Paraná, and Rio Grande do Sul states. Especially important are the manufacturing industries in the triangular area formed by São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte—the largest cities in Brazil. São Paulo has the largest and most modern industrial complex in Latin America. In contrast, the northeast, which is also heavily populated and one of the oldest settled parts of Brazil, has long been economically depressed.

Among the major manufacturing industries are food processing and the making of textiles, iron and steel, transportation equipment, and chemicals. Almost all the steel needed by Brazil is domestically produced. Automobile assembly and shipbuilding are large and expanding industrial operations. Other important manufacturing activities include the making of machinery, electrical and electronic equipment, aircraft, cement, wood and paper products, rubber goods, leather products, pharmaceuticals, plastic items, and transportation equipment.

Forestry and Fishing

Industries using the resources provided by Brazil's vast forests have enormous potential, but are not highly developed. Its chief forest product is timber from a tree called the Parana Pine. A lot of timber is made into charcoal— a major fuel in Brazil. Other forestry products include timber, pulpwood, firewood, fruits, oil-bearing seeds, gums, resins, waxes, fibers, and nuts. The rubber tree is native to equatorial Brazil, and sizable amounts of natural rubber are produced. Forests also provide wood for making charcoal, a major fuel in Brazil. Some of the forest products, including lumber, castor beans, and Brazil nuts, are exported.

Large-scale clearing of the Amazon rain forest began in the 1960's. Worldwide environmental concern over the destruction of this diverse habitat led to a decrease in clearing during the 1990's.

Commercial fishing is practiced only to a small extent, though fish are abundant off the coast and in the Amazon River. The richest fishing grounds are in the south off the coast of Rio Grande do Sul state. Bonito, mackerel, hake, porgy, red snapper, swordfish, tarpon, and tuna are among the fish caught. Lobster and shrimp are taken commercially near the mouth of the Amazon River. Virtually all the catch is domestically consumed.


Though a comprehensive geological survey has yet to be completed, Brazil is known to have enormous mineral resources. The chief mining areas are in the state of Minas Gerais (whose name is Portuguese for "general mines") and in the Amazon Basin, particularly Pará state. In value of production, petroleum is the leading product. Production, however, is too small to meet domestic needs. Brazil is the world's leading exporter of iron ore. The country is also one of the world's leading producers of tin. Other minerals produced in large amounts include coal, copper, limestone and marble, phosphate rock, natural gas, bauxite, magnesium, manganese, and gold.


is generally inadequate, but facilities are gradually being extended and improved. Numerous obstacles, including mountainous terrain and dense Amazon forests, have hindered construction of a nationwide transportation network.

Most of the railway trackage is in the southeast and serves the densely settled areas of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Minais Gerais states. Trackage is also substantial in the northeast. Most of the railways are owned and operated by the federal government.

Highways and motor vehicles provide the chief means of overland freight and passenger transportation. Major intercity roads are paved; most other roads are dirt and sometimes hazardous to travel. Brasília, with roads to virtually every region, is the hub of the expanding highway network. New highways across the Amazon Basin, including the Trans-Amazon Highway from Recife to the Peruvian border, have been gigantic construction projects of the federal government.

Brazil's rivers provide the longest inland waterway system in the world. The great bulk of the river traffic is carried on the Paraná-Paraguay and on the Amazon. Manaus, at the junction of the Rio Negro with the Amazon, is the leading river port. Coastal shipping is well developed, especially in the areas where road and railway facilities are limited. Major seaports include Santos, the port for São Paulo; Rio de Janeiro; Paranaguá; Recife; and Vitória.

The airplane is the only practical means of transportation throughout much of Brazil, and extensive domestic air service is available. VARIG, the national airline, flies domestic and international routes. Chief of the international airports are those at São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.


Historically, Brazil has run a deficit in its foreign trade, importing more by value than it exports. Since the mid-1980's, however, the country has generally enjoyed a surplus in its foreign trade. Coffee is the principal export. Sugar, soybeans, cocoa, vegetable oils, beef, and iron ore are also important. After the United States, Brazil is the world's largest exporter of agricultural products. Manufactured goods, particularly machinery, chemicals, aircraft, motor vehicles, and textiles, are becoming increasingly significant among the nation's exports. Imports consist mostly of petroleum and petroleum products, machinery, and chemicals. The chief trading partners are the United States, Germany, and Japan.

The People

Roughly 75 per cent of the people live in urban areas, nearly all of which are in the highland and coastal areas south of the Amazon Basin. Many cities are growing rapidly, some almost explosively, mainly because of migrants from rural areas. In and near some cities, huge impoverished settlements, called favelas, have grown up. One such shantytown, Nova Iguaçu, outside Rio de Janeiro, has rapidly become one of the largest cities in Brazil.

About 60 per cent of the people are of European ancestry, mostly Portuguese, Italian, or German. Most of the people live in the south and southeast. People of mixed European and black or Indian ancestry make up about 30 per cent of the population. The remaining 10 per cent consists of blacks. Indians, and Asiatics. Most of the Indians live in the Amazon valley, and most of the blacks live on the central coast. Beginning in the mid-1980's, some Indians in the Amazon valley were relocated to make way for mining and road-building projects.

The official language is Portuguese, but English is also widely spoken among the educated. (Brazil, Guyana, and Suriname are the only independent mainland South American countries in which Spanish is not the official language.) More than 90 per cent of the people are Roman Catholic.

Although Brazilians are strongly nationalistic, immigrants from Europe and Asia have been easily assimilated. Brazilians enjoy music, theater, and sports, especially soccer, golf, tennis, and swimming. The carnival in Rio de Janeiro just before Lent is one of the world's most notable festivals. Nearly every business closes while people celebrate with costume parades, balls, folk music, dancing in the streets, and elaborate fireworks. Other Brazilian cities also have pre-Lenten festivals.


Primary education is free and compulsory for children aged 7 through 14. Adequate facilities are lacking in some areas, however, and the law is difficult to enforce. The government maintains some secondary schools, but the majority are private. Many students enroll in vocational secondary schools to prepare for commercial, industrial, or agricultural jobs. The literacy rate is about 80 per cent.

Brazil has both public and private universities. The Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (founded in 1920) and the University of São Paulo (1934) are the largest.


Brazil is a federal republic divided into 26 states and the Federal District of Brasília. It is governed under a constitution adopted in 1988.

Brazil's president is directly elected to a five-year term and is eligible to be reelected to a second term. Brazil's president chooses the ministers of state. There is also a national security council, composed of the president, the vice president, and the chiefs of staff of the armed services.

The National Congress has two houses, the Federal Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. The Senate has 81 members, made up of three members from each state, who are elected on a staggered basis for eight-year terms. The 513 members of the Chamber of Deputies serve four-year terms. The number of deputies elected from each state is proportional to that state's population. The Congress meets twice a year for ordinary sessions, but extraordinary sessions may be convened by a one-third vote in either house, or at the request of the president. Voting is compulsory for all citizens age 18 to 70. Above 70, voting is optional.

The judiciary consists of an 11-member supreme court and federal, state, and municipal courts. Judges are appointed by the president subject to approval by the Senate; they serve for life.