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Geography of Brazil

Fifth Largest Country in the World


Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world; in terms of population (186 million in 2005) as well as land area. It is the economic leader of South America, with the ninth largest economy in the world, and a large iron and aluminum ore reserve.

Physical Geography

From the Amazon basin in the north and west to the Brazilian Highlands in the southeast, Brazil's topography is quite diverse. The Amazon River system carries more water to the ocean than any other river system in the world. It is navigable for its entire 2000 mile trip within Brazil. The basin is home to the most rapidly depleting rain forest in the world, losing about 52,000 square miles annually. The basin, occupying more than sixty percent of the entire country, receives more than eighty inches (about 200 cm) of rain a year in some areas. Almost all of Brazil is humid as well as either has a tropical or subtropical climate. Brazil's rainy season occurs during the summer months. Eastern Brazil suffers from regular drought. There is little seismic or volcanic activity due to Brazil's position near the center of the South American Plate.

The Brazilian Highlands and plateaus generally average less than 4000 feet (1220 meters) but the highest point in Brazil is Pico de Neblina at 9888 feet (3014 meters). Extensive uplands lie in the southeast and drop off quickly at the Atlantic Coast. Much of the coast is composed of the Great Escarpment which looks like a wall from the ocean.

Political Geography

Brazil encompasses so much of South America that it shares borders with all South American nations except Ecuador and Chile. Brazil is divided into 26 states and a Federal District. The state of Amazonas has the largest area and the most populous is Sao Paulo. The capital city of Brazil is Brasilia, a master planned city built in the late 1950s where nothing existed before in the Mato Grasso plateaus. Now, millions of people reside in the Federal District.

Urban Geography

Two of the world's fifteen largest cities are in Brazil: Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and are only about 250 miles (400 km) apart. Rio de Janeiro surpassed Sao Paulo's population in the 1950s. Rio de Janeiro's status also suffered when it was replaced by Brasilia as the capital in 1960, a position Rio de Janeiro had held since 1763. However, Rio de Janeiro is still the undisputed cultural capital (and major international transportation hub) of Brazil.

Sao Paulo is growing at an incredible rate. The population has doubled since 1977 when it was an 11 million people metropolis. Both cities have a huge ever-expanding ring of shanty towns and squatter settlements on their periphery.

Culture and History

Portuguese colonization began in Northeastern Brazil after Pedro Alvares Cabral's accidental landing in 1500. Portugal established plantations in Brazil and brought slaves from Africa. In 1808 Rio de Janeiro became the home of the Portuguese royalty which was ousted by Napoleon's invasion. Portuguese Prime Regent John VI left Brazil in 1821. In 1822, Brazil proclaimed independence. Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking nation in South America.

A military coup d'etat of the civilian government in 1964 gave Brazil a military government for more than two decades. Since 1989 there has been a democratically elected civil leader.

Though Brazil has the world's largest Roman Catholic population, the birth rate has significantly decreased over the last 20 years. In 1980, Brazilian women gave birth to an average of 4.4 children each. In 1995, that rate dropped to 2.1 children.

The annual rate of growth has also decreased from just over 3% in the 1960s to 1.7% today. An increase in contraceptive use, economic stagnation, and the diffusion of global ideas through television have all been explained as reasons for the downturn. The government has no formal program of birth control.

There are less than 300,000 indigenous Amerindians living in the Amazon basin. Sixty-five million people in Brazil are of mixed European, African, and Amerindian descent.

Economic Geography

The state of Sao Paulo is responsible for about half of Brazil's Gross Domestic Product as well as about two-thirds of it manufacturing. While only about five percent of the land is cultivated, Brazil leads the world in coffee production (about a third of the global total). Brazil also produces a quarter of the world citrus, has more than one-tenth of the cattle supply, and produces one-fifth of the iron ore. Most of Brazil's sugar cane production (12% of the world total) is used to create gasohol which powers a portion of Brazilian automobiles. The key industry of the country is automobile production.

It will be very interesting to watch the future of the South American giant.

For more data, see my World Atlas page about Brazil.

* Only China, India, the United States, and Indonesia have larger populations and Russia, Canada, China, and the United States have larger land area.

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