Geographic Regions

Brazil Table of Contents

Brazil's twenty-six states and the Federal District (Distrito Federal) are divided conventionally into five regions--North (Norte), Northeast, Southeast (Sudeste), South, and Center-West (see fig. 4). In 1996 there were 5,581 municipalities (municípios ), which have municipal governments. Many municipalities, which are comparable to United States counties, are in turn divided into districts (distritos ), which do not have political or administrative autonomy. In 1995 there were 9,274 districts. All municipal and district seats, regardless of size, are considered officially to be urban. For purely statistical purposes, the municipalities were grouped in 1990 into 559 micro-regions, which in turn constituted 136 meso-regions. This grouping modified the previous micro-regional division established in 1968, a division that was used to present census data for 1970, 1975, 1980, and 1985.

Each of the five major regions has a distinct ecosystem. Administrative boundaries do not necessarily coincide with ecological boundaries, however. In addition to differences in physical environment, patterns of economic activity and population settlement vary widely among the regions. The principal ecological characteristics of each of the five major regions, as well as their principal socioeconomic and demographic features, are summarized below.


The equatorial North, also known as the Amazon or Amazônia, includes, from west to east, the states of Rondônia, Acre, Amazonas, Roraima, Pará, Amapá, and, as of 1988, Tocantins (created from the northern part of Goiás State, which is situated in the Center-West). Rondônia, previously a federal territory, became a state in 1986. The former federal territories of Roraima and Amapá were raised to statehood in 1988.

With 3,869,638 square kilometers, the North is the country's largest region, covering 45.3 percent of the national territory (see table 3, Appendix). The region's principal biome is the humid tropical forest, also known as the rain forest, home to some of the planet's richest biological diversity. The North has served as a source of forest products ranging from "backlands drugs" (such as sarsaparilla, cocoa, cinnamon, and turtle butter) in the colonial period to rubber and Brazil nuts in more recent times. In the mid-twentieth century, nonforest products from mining, farming, and livestock-raising became more important, and in the 1980s the lumber industry boomed. In 1990, 6.6 percent of the region's territory was considered altered by anthropic (man-made) action, with state levels varying from 0.9 percent in Amapá to 14.0 percent in Rondônia.

In 1996 the North had 11.1 million inhabitants, only 7 percent of the national total. However, its share of Brazil's total had grown rapidly in the 1970s and early 1980s as a result of interregional migration, as well as high rates of natural increase. The largest population concentrations are in eastern Pará State and in Rondônia. The major cities are Belém and Santarém in Pará, and Manaus in Amazonas. Living standards are below the national average. The highest per capita income, US$2,888, in the region in 1994, was in Amazonas, while the lowest, US$901, was in Tocantins.


The nine states that make up the Northeast are Alagoas, Bahia, Ceará, Maranhão, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Piauí, Rio Grande do Norte, and Sergipe. The former federal territory of Fernando de Noronha was incorporated into Pernambuco State in 1988. For planning or ecological purposes, Maranhão west of 44° W longitude, most of which until recently was covered with "pre-Amazon" forest (that is, transition from the cerrado or caatinga to tropical forest), is often included in the Amazon region.

The Northeast, with 1,561,178 square kilometers, covers 18.3 percent of the national territory. Its principal biome is the semiarid caatinga region, which is subject to prolonged periodic droughts. By the 1990s, this region utilized extensive irrigation. In an area known as the forest zone (zona da mata ), the Atlantic Forest, now almost entirely gone, once stretched along the coastline as far north as Rio Grande do Norte. Sugar plantations established there in colonial times persisted for centuries. Between the mata and the sertão lies a transition zone called the agreste , an area of mixed farming. In 1988-89, 46.3 percent of the region had been subjected to anthropic activity, ranging from a low of 10.8 percent in Maranhão to a high of 77.2 percent in Alagoas.

Because its high rates of natural increase offset heavy out-migration, the Northeast's large share of the country's total population declined only slightly during the twentieth century. In 1996 the region had 45 million inhabitants, 28 percent of Brazil's total population. The population is densest along the coast, where eight of the nine state capitals are located, but is also spread throughout the interior. The major cities are Salvador, in Bahia; Recife, in Pernambuco; and Fortaleza, in Ceará. The region has the country's largest concentration of rural population, and its living standards are the lowest in Brazil. In 1994 Piauí had the lowest per capita income in the region and the country, only US$835, while Sergipe had the highest average income in the region, with US$1,958.


The Southeast consists of the four states of Espírito Santo, Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo. Its total area of 927,286 square kilometers corresponds to 10.9 percent of the national territory. The region has the largest share of the country's population, 63 million in 1991, or 39 percent of the national total, primarily as a result of internal migration since the mid-nineteenth century until the 1980s. In addition to a dense urban network, it contains the megacities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, which in 1991 had 18.7 million and 11.7 million inhabitants in their metropolitan areas, respectively. The region combines the highest living standards in Brazil with pockets of urban poverty. In 1994 São Paulo boasted an average income of US$4,666, while Minas Gerais reported only US$2,833.

Originally, the principal biome in the Southeast was the Atlantic Forest, but by 1990 less than 10 percent of the original forest cover remained as a result of clearing for farming, ranching, and charcoal making. Anthropic activity had altered 79.5 percent of the region, ranging from 75 percent in Minas Gerais to 91.1 percent in Espírito Santo. The region has most of Brazil's industrial production. The state of São Paulo alone accounts for half of the country's industries. Agriculture, also very strong, has diversified and now uses modern technology.


The three states in the temperate South--Paraná, Rio Grande do Sul, and Santa Catarina--cover 577,214 square kilometers, or 6.8 percent of the national territory. The population of the South in 1991 was 23.1 million, or 14 percent of the country's total. The region is almost as densely settled as the Southeast, but the population is more concentrated along the coast. The major cities are Curitiba and Porto Alegre. The inhabitants of the South enjoy relatively high living standards. Because of its industry and agriculture, Paraná had the highest average income in 1994, US$3,674, while Santa Catarina, a land of small farmers and small industries, had slightly less, US$3,405.

In addition to the Atlantic Forest and pine woods, much of which were cleared in the post-World War II period, the South contains pampa grasslands, similar to those of Argentina and Uruguay, in the extreme south. In 1982, 83.5 percent of the region had been altered by anthropic activity, with the highest level (89.7 percent) in Rio Grande do Sul, and the lowest (66.7 percent) in Santa Catarina. Agriculture--much of which, such as rice production, is carried out by small farmers--has high levels of productivity. There are also some important industries.


The Center-West consists of the states of Goiás, Mato Grosso, and Mato Grosso do Sul (separated from Mato Grosso in 1979), as well as the Federal District, site of Brasília, the national capital. Until 1988 Goiás State included the area that then became the state of Tocantins in the North.

The Center-West has 1,612,077 square kilometers and covers 18.9 percent of the national territory. Its main biome is the cerrado , the tropical savanna in which natural grassland is partly covered with twisted shrubs and small trees. The cerrado was used for low-density cattle-raising in the past but is now also used for soybean production. There are gallery forests along the rivers and streams and some larger areas of forest, most of which have been cleared for farming and livestock. In the north, the cerrado blends into tropical forest. It also includes the Pantanal wetlands in the west, known for their wildlife, especially aquatic birds and caymans. In the early 1980s, 33.6 percent of the region had been altered by anthropic activities, with a low of 9.3 percent in Mato Grosso and a high of 72.9 percent in Goiás (not including Tocantins). In 1996 the Center-West region had 10.2 million inhabitants, or 6 percent of Brazil's total population. The average density is low, with concentrations in and around the cities of Brasília, Goiânia, Campo Grande, and Cuiabá. Living standards are below the national average. In 1994 they were highest in the Federal District, with per capita income of US$7,089 (the highest in the nation), and lowest in Mato Grosso, with US$2,268.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress