sertão (sər´touN) [Port.,=backlands], semiarid hinterland of NE Brazil; c.250,000 sq mi (647,500 sq km). Its characteristic landscape is the caatinga, or thorny scrub forest. The chief occupation of the region is stock raising. The sertão area, in the "polygon of drought," covers parts of the states of Piauí, Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe, and Bahia. The periodic droughts have caused large-scale migrations to the Amazon basin and to the urban centers of SE Brazil. Official reclamation activities began in the early 20th cent., and were intensified in the 1950s and 60s with the construction of numerous dams and hydroelectric projects, especially on the São Francisco River. In the 1960s a successful extensive regional economic development program was begun there. The area remains a focal point of social unrest. Its harsh and picturesque history, peopled by leather-garbed cowboys, bandits (cangaceiros), and religious fanatics, has been a source of inspiration for numerous Brazilian writers (notably Euclides da Cunha).
See B. J. Chandler, The Feitosas and the Sertão dos Inhamuns (1972); K. Webb, The Changing Face of Northeast Brazil (1974).