Brazil, Geography

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Brazil, Geography

Brazil is characterized by diversity and marked regional contrasts. This variety reflects its size (3.3 million square miles), making it the world's fifth largest country. As the largest country in South America, it occupies almost half of the continent and is more than 2,700 miles in extent from north to south and from east to west. It is also essentially tropical, extending from 5 N to 33 S, with only 6 percent of its territory south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Bounded on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, it has frontiers with all the countries of South America except Chile and Ecuador. The lack of a Pacific seaboard may have inhibited notions of "manifest destiny," but the political boundaries, empty lands, and resource potential foster an active interest in Amazonia. The population is a mélange of Amerindians, Portuguese, Africans, south and east Europeans, and Asians, with a profound contrast in distribution between the coastlands and the still empty interior.


Lowland areas (below 650 feet) are limited to the Amazon basin, the far south, the Pantanal of Mato Grosso, and a narrow coastal plain. Much of the country consists of upland, the Brazilian highlands south of the Amazon and the Guyana highlands to the north. These are formed by geologically ancient crystalline rocks, partially overlain by limestone and sandstone sediments, and in the south by basaltic lavas. The terrain is generally of gently rounded hills, with occasional resistant residuals on the crystalline areas and more angular tablelands in the sediments and basalts. Highest points are the Pico da Neblina (9,885 feet) on the Venezuelan border and the Pico de Bandeira (9,479 feet) in the southeast. The uplands closely abut the shore from Salvador to Pôrto Alegre as complex ranges or a single escarpment in excess of 2,500 feet.

This barrier is cut by few rivers, posing a major obstacle to colonial and contemporary access to the interior. The rivers are generally broken by falls and rapids, limiting their navigability. Those of the center form tributaries of the Amazon; the Paraná-Paraguay-Uruguay system debouches into the Río de la Plata, and the São Francisco parallels the coast for 750 miles before tumbling over the 275-foot Paulo Afonso Falls to reach the sea.

A humid tropical climate gives average temperatures above 68 F and rainfall above 47 inches, both of which vary with increasing altitude and latitude. Rainfall seasonality and temperature range increase away from the equator, and the interior Sertão (hinterland) of the northeast experiences low and markedly seasonal rainfall and occasional drought. Southern Brazil has a temperate climate, subject to frost hazard, which fosters a different agriculture.

The climax vegetation is mainly woodland, though varying from evergreen equatorial forest in Amazonia to tropical forest on the coastal uplands and the Araucária pine forest in the south. There are patches of grassland savanna in northern Amazonia, and the central highlands are covered by shrub grassland called cerrado. The semiarid Sertão sustains only poor caatinga thorn scrub, and southern Rio Grande do Sul has an extension of the pampas grassland.

The thick forests engendered notions of fertility, but most soils are fragile, leached, and of low productivity. Significant exceptions are the massapé soils of coastal Pernambuco and Bahia and terra roxa of the basalt plateaus.

Brazil is, however, evidently rich in other natural resources and these have exerted considerable influence on the pattern of occupation. Between 1500 and 1930 the development process can be described as the assembling of a loose jigsaw, as various resources were identified and exploited, prompting the settlement of different areas. These include dyewood along the coast before 1550, sugar on the massapé soils in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, gold in Minas Gerais, Goiás, and Mato Grosso (1690–1750), and coffee in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (1830–1930). Gathering of spices and later rubber fostered slight and largely ephemeral exploitation of Amazonia before 1910, and the caatinga and pampas supported pastoralism, which provided meat, hides, and draft animals for other regions. More recently base metals such as iron, manganese, and bauxite; abundant hydro-electricity; and, since 1970, offshore oil, have provided major resources for industrialization.


There has been rapid demographic growth in the twentieth century. From an estimated 3.8 million inhabitants at the end of the colonial period, Brazil's population rose to 17.4 million in 1900 and 51.9 million in 1950. By 1991, Brazil was the world's sixth most populous country with over 147 million inhabitants and by 2007 the number reached over 188 million. Between 1950 and 1980 the annual rate of increase often exceeded 2.2 percent, and consequently almost two-thirds of Brazilians were below twenty-five years of age. Brazil's yearly population growth rate has since fallen, and is estimated at just over one percent (2007).

The precolonial population has been calculated at about 2 million, but this was diminished by disease, warfare, miscegenation, and acculturation, and surviving Amerindians are mainly confined to Amazonia. Colonial immigration from Portugal was limited, possibly to around 1 million people, and an estimated 2.5 to 3 million African slaves imported between 1538 and 1850 provided much of the labor force. Following emancipation in 1888, there was substantial immigration from Iberia, Italy, Germany, and eastern Europe, and between 1908 and 1935 from Japan, to São Paulo and the south. Total foreign immigration between 1884 and 1933 was almost 4 million people. As a result of miscegenation Brazil's population is ethnically heterogeneous, but with significant regional variations in the admixture.

Overall population density is low, less than six persons per square mile, but there is a distinct contrast between the coastal states from Ceará to Rio Grande do Sul, with densities generally above twelve per square mile, and the interior of Amazonia and the center-west, where it is below two. Since 1950 the population has become increasingly urbanized, and in the twenty-first century it is estimated that more than 80 percent of Brazilians are now defined as urban dwellers. This urbanization has been fueled by migration from the countryside to the larger cities. More than 36 million people live in ten metropolitan regions, of which São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Salvador, Recife, and Pôrto Alegre are the largest.


Urban-based manufacturing and services dominate the gross domestic product and provide two-thirds of employment. The Brazilian economy ranks as the world's eleventh largest, and recent investments by the government and multinational corporations have given it the status of Newly Industrializing Country, with significant metal, engineering, and vehicle industries. The agricultural sector encompasses small-scale subsistence, traditional plantation crops such as sugar and coffee, pastoralism, and innovative production of soybeans, citrus, and vegetables.

As a consequence of economic development, profound spatial inequities exist, within the cities between skyscrapers and favelas, between the towns and the countryside, and regionally. Most of the stimuli of modernization have concentrated in the southeast and south and their principal cities. The northeast, particularly the sertão, remains impoverished, while the interior is still undeveloped, despite the construction of Brasília and major penetrative highways and the exploitation of minerals, timber, and land.


Preston E. James, Latin America, 4th ed. (1969), pp. 683-897.

John Dickenson, Brazil (1982).

Instituto Brasileiro De Geografia E Estatística, Geografia do Brasil, 5 vols. (1989).

Instituto Brasileiro De Geografia E Estatística, Anuário estatístico do Brasil, 1990 (1990).

Neil Mac Donald, Brazil: A Mask Called Progress (1991).

Additional Bibliography

Gallup, John Luke, Alejandro Gaviria, and Eduardo Lora. Is Geography Destiny?: Lessons from Latin America. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press; Washington, DC: World Bank, 2003.

Magnoli, Demétrio. O corpo da pátria: Imaginação geográfica e política externa no Brasil, 1808–1912. São Paulo: Editora UNESP Fundação: Editora Moderna, 1997.

Moraes, Antonio Carlos Robert. Território e história no Brasil. São Paulo: Editora Hucitec: Annablume, 2002.

Ross, Jurandyr L Sanches. Geografia do Brasil. São Paulo: Edusp: Fundação para o Desenvolvimento da Educação, 1996.

Vincent, Jon S. Culture and Customs of Brazil. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003.

                                      John P. Dickenson