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Formal Name
Federative Republic of Brazil

Local Name

Local Formal Name
República Federativa do Brasil

Location: South America

Status: UN Country

Capital City: Brasília

Main Cities: São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte

Population: 159,000,000    Area []: 8,511,970

Currency: 1 real = 100 centavos

Languages: Portuguese

Religions: Roman Catholic, Protestant

Brazil (Portuguese Brasil), federal republic, the largest country in South America, occupying nearly one-half of the entire area of the continent. It is bounded on the north by Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, and the Atlantic Ocean; on the east by the Atlantic Ocean; on the south by Uruguay; on the west by Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru; and on the northwest by Colombia. The republic has a common frontier with every country of South America except Chile and Ecuador. Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world (after Russia, China, Canada, and the United States). The total area of Brazil is 8,511,965 sq km (3,286,488 sq mi); its maximum north-south distance is about 4350 km (about 2700 mi), and its maximum east-west distance is about 4330 km (about 2690 mi). Most of the people of Brazil live near the Atlantic Ocean, notably in the great cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, but the capital is inland, at Brasília. The country, which was once a Portuguese dependency, is the world's leading producer of coffee, and it also contains great mineral resources; exploitation of many of these resources intensified beginning in the 1980s.

Land and Resources

A vast region of highlands, known as the Brazilian highlands or Brazilian plateau, and the basin of the Amazon River are the dominant physiographic features of Brazil. The plateau is an eroded tableland occupying most of the southeastern half of the country. With a general elevation of about 300 to 900 m (about 1000 to 3000 ft), this tableland is irregularly ridged by mountain ranges and dissected by numerous river valleys. Its southeastern edge, generally parallel to the coast, rises abruptly from the ocean in various areas, particularly north of latitude 10° south and south of latitude 20° south. Among the principal ranges of the Brazilian plateau are the Serra da Mantiqueira, the Serra do Mar, and the Serra Geral. Elevations in these and the other ranges average less than about 1200 m (about 4000 ft), but several of the ranges are surmounted by lofty peaks, including Pico da Bandeira (2890 m/9482 ft), in the Serra da Mantiqueira, and Pedra Açu (2232 m/7323 ft), in the Serra do Mar. Much of the tableland terrain consists of rolling prairies (known as campos), and extensive tracts are forested.

The basin of the Amazon River occupies more than one-third of the surface of the country. Lowlands predominate in the Amazon Basin; elevations rarely exceed about 150 m (about 500 ft), and swamps and floodplains occupy vast areas of the region. Large parts of the basin are covered by tropical rain forests (selvas). Because of the impenetrability of this growth, huge areas of the Brazilian lowlands have only recently been explored. On the northern edge of the Amazon Basin is another mountainous area, part of the uplift known as the Guiana Highlands; ranges include the Serra Tumucumaque, with elevations up to about 850 m (about 2800 ft), the Serra Acaraí (maximum elevation, about 600 m/about 2000 ft), and the Serra Parima (maximum elevation, about 1500 m/about 5000 ft). Pico da Neblina (3014 m/9888 ft), at the border with Venezuela, is the highest point in Brazil.

The Brazilian coastline, with a total length of some 7490 km (some 4650 mi), has singularly regular contours, particularly in the north, but several deep indentations provide excellent natural harbors. Especially noteworthy are the harbors of Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and Recife. Excluding sections in which the Brazilian Plateau projects into the Atlantic Ocean, the coast is fringed by a narrow coastal plain.


More than two-thirds of Brazil is drained by the Amazon and Tocantins rivers, about one-fifth by the Rio de la Plata system, and the remainder by the São Francisco River and smaller streams. The Amazon with its great branches—the Negro, Japurá, and Putumayo on the north and the Javari, Purus, Juruá, Madeira, Tapajós, and Xingu on the south—and the Tocantins, which is a tributary of the Pará River, the southern distributary of the Amazon, afford a system of internal navigation comparable only to that of the Mississippi River in the United States. The length of the Amazon from Iquitos, Peru, to its mouth on the northeastern coast of Brazil is about 3700 km (about 2300 mi), all navigable by oceangoing ships. The most important navigable streams in the plateau region are the São Francisco and Parnaíba rivers. The former stream is interrupted about 310 km (about 190 mi) above its mouth by the Paulo Afonso Falls, but its upper course is navigable for about 1400 km (about 900 mi). The São Francisco River is also used for irrigation. The Parnaíba, which, like most of the streams traversing the highlands, contains falls and rapids, is navigable for about 640 km (about 400 mi), less than half its length. Rapids also impede navigation in the Uruguay River. One of the chief streams of the La Plata system, it flows through Brazilian territory for about 1000 km (about 600 mi) and forms most of the Brazilian-Argentine border. The other great La Plata system streams flowing through Brazil are the Paraguay and the Alto Paraná rivers, both important inland waterways.


Climatic conditions in Brazil range from tropical to subtemperate. The average temperatures range in Belém at the mouth of the Amazon River from 22° to 31° C (72° to 88° F) in both January and July. The average range in Rio de Janeiro on the tropical east coast is 23° to 29° C (73° to 84° F) in January and 17° to 24° C (63° to 75° F) in July. Average annual precipitation in Belém is 2440 mm (96 in), and in Rio de Janeiro it is 1090 mm (43 in). Tropical conditions prevail also over most of that portion of the coastal plain lying to the north of the tropic of Capricorn, but oceanic winds have a moderating effect on the high temperatures and humidity. The annual rainfall in this part of the coastal belt varies between about 1000 and 2300 mm (about 40 and 90 in). In the coastal region south of the tropic of Capricorn, climatic conditions are marked by sharp seasonal variations. Winter temperatures as low as -6° C (22° F) are occasionally recorded in the extreme south, and frosts are common throughout the region. Precipitation averages less than about 1000 mm (about 40 in) annually in the southern part of the coastal belt. In the east central Brazilian uplands the climate is subtropical but, because of the higher altitudes, sharp diurnal variations of temperature occur and the nights are cool. This region is frequently subject to severe droughts. In the highlands to the south and west, precipitation ranges from adequate to abundant. Temperatures vary between subtropical and temperate in the southeastern highlands, which is the most densely populated section of the country.

Natural Resources

Although the area under cultivation totals only about 7 percent of the total land area, Brazil is an important agricultural country. It has immense timber resources, the forest areas covering about 5.7 million sq km (about 2.2 million sq mi). Mineral resources are extensive, including quartz crystal, industrial diamonds, chromium, iron ore, phosphates, coal, manganese, petroleum, mica, graphite, titanium, copper, gold, oil, bauxite, zinc, tin, and mercury.

Plants and Animals

The flora of Brazil is highly diversified, particularly in the Amazon Basin. Hundreds of species of plant life, including bignonias, laurels, myrtles, and mimosas, abound in this region. Palms and hardwoods are abundant, as are plants of the Euphorbiaceae family (one of the chief sources of crude rubber). Mangroves, cacao trees, dwarf palms, and brazilwoods thrive in the coastal region. Among the indigenous and widely cultivated fruits are the pineapple, fig, custard apple, mango, banana, guava, grape, and orange. Vegetation in the river valleys of the plateau region is luxuriant, but in the highlands the forests, consisting largely of deciduous species, are far less dense. This section also has extensive tracts of bushes and open plains. Coniferous trees thrive in those areas where temperate climatic conditions prevail. In the arid sections of the plateau region, cacti and other spiny plants are common.

The animal life of Brazil is also extremely varied and differs in many respects from that of North America and the eastern hemisphere. Larger animals include pumas, jaguars, ocelots, rare bush dogs, and foxes. Peccaries, tapirs, anteaters, sloths, opossums, and armadillos are abundant. Deer are plentiful in the south, and monkeys of many species abound in the selva. Many varieties of birds are indigenous to the country. The reptilian fauna includes several species of alligator and numerous species of snake, notably the bushmaster, fer-de-lance, and boa. Fishes and turtles abound in the rivers, lakes, and coastal waters of Brazil.


The soil is primarily tropical and subtropical terra rosa (red earth). Amazonia, the valley of the Amazon and its tributaries, is a vast alluvial plain in which flooding continually washes away and replenishes topsoil. A number of low alluvial plateaus, however, can be found above normal floor levels. Some inland regions of the northeast are semiarid. In lowland areas, the soil supports dense rain forests. The state of São Paulo is marked by fertile, almost purple, terra rosa, because of basalt decomposition accelerated by heat and humidity.


Four major groups make up the Brazilian population: Native Americans, who live primarily in the northern and western border regions; the Portuguese, whose ancestors began colonizing the country in the 16th century; Africans, whose ancestors were brought to Brazil as slaves; and various European and Asian immigrant groups that came to the country beginning in the 19th century. People of European descent, primarily Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish, compose 54 percent of the population. About 39 percent are mulattoes, those with mixed African and European ancestry, or mestizos, those with mixed European and Native American heritage. About 6 percent are mixed black and Native American and 1 percent are Asian. Those with full Native American ancestry constitute about 0.2 percent of the population.

Population Characteristics

The population of Brazil was 146,154,502 at the 1991 census. The 1995 estimate is 161,382,000, giving the country an overall population density of about 19 persons per sq km (about 49 per sq mi). About 79 percent of Brazil's people live in urban areas. About 80 percent of the population lives within about 320 km (about 200 mi) of the Atlantic coast.

Political Divisions

 Brazil is composed of 26 states and the federal district. The states, in descending order of population, are São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, Rio Grande do Sul, Paraná, Pernambuco, Ceará, Pará, Maranhão, Santa Catarina, Goiás, Paraíba, Espírito Santo, Piauí, Alagoas, Rio Grande do Norte, Amazonas, Mata Grosso, Mata Grosso do Sul, Sergipe, Rondônia, Tocantins, ‘Akko, Amapá, and Roraima. The federal district includes Brasília, which replaced Rio de Janeiro as the national capital in 1960.

The largest city is São Paulo, center of Brazilian industry, with a population (1991) of 9,480,427. Other leading cities, with their 1991 populations, include Rio de Janeiro, the former capital of the country and a commercial center (5,336,179); Salvador, a port located in a fertile agricultural region (2,056,013); Belo Horizonte, hub of a cotton-raising region (2,048,861); Brasília, the capital (1,596,274); Recife, chief commercial city of the central region (1,290,189); Curitiba (1,290,142); Porto Alegre, an Atlantic port (1,262,631); Belem, a chief port on the lower Amazon River (1,246,435); and Manaus, a port on the Negro River (1,010,558).


About 89 percent of the inhabitants of Brazil are Roman Catholic. Many Catholics combine worship of African deities with their Christian religious practices. The most prevalent of these is the Candomblé sect, whose adherents are found mostly in the state of Bahia. There are also about 9.7 million Protestants, including substantial numbers of Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians, and a small community of Jews. Most Native Americans follow traditional religions. Separation of church and state is formal and complete.


Portuguese is the official language of Brazil, although Brazilians have adopted many words and phrases from native and immigrant languages. German and Italian are spoken by many Brazilians, especially in the cities of the south.


Primary education in Brazil is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 7 and 14. Approximately 81 percent of the population aged 15 or more years is literate.

Elementary and Secondary Schools

More than 28.7 million pupils attended Brazilian primary schools each year in the early 1990s, and some 3.6 million students were enrolled in secondary schools. Primary and secondary schools are maintained primarily by states and municipalities, but many Roman Catholic-run high schools are also here.

Universities and Colleges

The central government of Brazil shares with the states and private associations the responsibility for institutions of higher learning. In the early 1990s Brazil contained more than 870 such institutions (including 73 universities), which had a combined annual enrollment of about 1.6 million students. Among the leading universities were the University of Brasília (1961); the University of São Paulo (1934); the Pontifical Catholic University of Campinas (1941); the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (1920); and the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (1948), in Porto Alegre. Other institutions include schools of medicine, public health, law, social sciences, engineering, and mining.


 The culture of modern Brazil has been formed from a rich background of ethnic traditions. The early Portuguese settlers borrowed many customs and words from the original Native American population. During the colonial period millions of black African slaves who were brought into Brazil added an African element to Brazilian cultural life; their religious rites merged with Roman Catholicism to form unique Afro-Brazilian cults, notable for their exotic ceremonies. The most influential of these cults is Candomblé.

Brazil, however, is a predominantly European-formed society, settled largely by the Portuguese, Italians, Germans, and Spaniards. These European origins are the bases of Brazilian family life, which is a rigid and patriarchal structure that permeates all areas of Brazilian life. Within this century, cultural ties between Brazil and the United States have significantly increased.

Libraries and Museums

Most states maintain public libraries in their capital cities; some have suburban branches. Most cities have public library systems. In Rio de Janeiro, the National Archive (1838) contains a collection primarily concerned with Brazilian history. The National Library (1810), also in Rio de Janeiro, holds some 5.7 million books, 672,000 manuscripts, 80,000 engravings and maps, and many periodicals. The library serves as the national copyright register.

In Rio de Janeiro are the Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1948), which houses collections from many countries and offers courses of study, concerts, and films; the National Museum (1818), which has about 4 million specimens on exhibit, most of which concern geology, botany, and anthropology; and the Museum of the Indian (1953). Most larger cities have municipal museums.