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Maranhão (Modern) is a state in northeastern Brazil bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the north, Piauí to the east/southeast, Pará to the west, and the Tocantins River to the south/southeast. Maranhão is relatively flat: more than 90 percent of its total area (about 131,000 square miles) is less than 990 feet above sea level. The climate is hot (average year-round temperature of 75F) and rainy (approximately 81 inches per year) owing to its location near the equator. Northeastern Maranhão is pre-Amazon rain forest, while the babassu (Orbignya martiana) palm forest dominates the southwest, along with significant concentrations of buriti and carnauba palms. South America's largest coral reef lies off the coast. Mangrove swamps, which help sustain rich coastal marine life, are rapidly disappearing.

Maranhão's population of 6,184,538 (est. 2006), 43 percent of which is urban, has an average density of nine inhabitants per mile. The largest cities are the capital of São Luís (998,395), Imperatriz (232,560), Caxias (144,387), and Codó (115,098). São Luis was declared a world heritage site in 1997. Historically, most Maranhenses have inhabited the low coastal and river basins in the Northeast, where agriculture predominates. Armed land conflicts between wealthy property owners and poor squatters have intensified in recent years.

Agricultural production remains the base of the state's economy, with significant exports of rice, corn, beans, soybeans, and manioc. Because of drought and pest infestations, the state's harvest fell almost 60 percent in 1990. Babassu and carnauba, along with hardwoods, are exported, as are substantial quantities of fish and seafood. Since 1984 exports of pig iron, iron ore, manganese, aluminum, and alumina have grown steadily. An annual trade of more than 36 million tons established the Maranhão port system as the second in total tonnage nationwide for 1990.

The state has only 1,797 miles of paved roads, including the two federal highways that link the capital to neighboring Belém in Pará (480 miles) and Teresina in Piauí (295 miles), the latter also connected by railway. In 1984, the Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD) inaugurated a railway for mineral exports linking Carajás in Pará with São Luís (534 miles). CVRD also built a deepwater port in the capital. The Norte-Sul Railway joining Goiânia in Goiás and Açailândia in Maranhão (900 miles) is partially completed. The Alcântara Satellite Base, begun in 1985, is now in operation.

Since 1984, with the opening of the CVRD railway and port, the Alumar (Alcoa/Billiton-Shell) aluminum factory, and the satellite base, the state has regained national importance. Maranhão is also the birthplace of former president José Sarney, whose term (1985–1990) encompassed this period of expansion and development.

See alsoAgriculture; Sarney, José; Tocantins; Tocantins River.


Paulo Lyra for Alcoa Alumínio S/A, Maranhão (1981).

Additional Bibliography

Caldeira, José de Ribamar Chaves. A criança e a mulher tupinambá: Maranhão—século XVII. São Paulo: Scortecci Editora, 2000.

Coehlo, Elisabeth Maria Beserra. Territórios em confronto: A dinâmica da disputa pela terra entre índios e brancos no Maranhão. São Paulo: Editora Hucitec, 2002.

Santos, Maria do Rosário Carvalho. O caminho das matriarchas Jeje-Nagô: Uma contribução para história da religião afro no Maranhão. São Paulo: Imprensa Oficial, 2005.

                                   Gayle Waggoner Lopes