5.4 Brazil


Brazil, the largest country in South America, is similar in physical area to the continental United States (i.e., the United States without Alaska or Hawaii). Brazil is the only country in the world that has the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn running through it. Brazilian topography is also diverse and includes hills, mountains, plains, highlands, and scrublands.

Iguazu Falls, Paraná, at the Brazil-Argentina border.
Iguazu Falls, Paraná, at the Brazil-Argentina border 
Rock formations in the southeast portion of Brazil
Anhumas Abyss in the southwest portion of Brazil
Anhumas Abyss in the southwest portion of Brazil
Chapada Diamantina region in the northeast
Chapada Diamantina region in the northeast
Regions of Brazil
Regions of Brazil
Lonely Planet: Introducing Brazil

Catholicism is the dominant religion and Portuguese is the primary language. Once a Portuguese colony, the country’s culture was built on European immigration and African slave labor, making for a rich mixture of ethnic backgrounds. Brazil is one of the most multicultural and ethnically diverse nations, due to over a century of mass immigration from around the world.

In colonial times, Brazil was a part of the Atlantic Trade Triangle, which functioned as a transportation conveyor, moving goods and people around the regions bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Colonial merchant ships financed by Europe’s wealthy elite brought goods and trinkets to the African coast to trade for slaves, who were shipped to the Americas and the Caribbean to diminish the labor shortage for the colonies. The last leg of the Atlantic Trade Triangle moved food crops, sugar, tobacco, and rum from the colonies back to the European ports. The merchant ships never sailed with an empty hold, and their successful voyages provided enormous profits to the European financiers.

Atlantic Trade Triangle

Manufactured trinkets were sent to Africa from Europe, slaves were sent to the Americas, and plantation products and rum were sent to Europe. The Atlantic slave trade was responsible for bringing more than ten million African slaves to the Americas. Brazil received the largest number of slaves.

Afro-Brazilians dancing a jongo, c. 1822
Overly Sarcastic Productions: History Summarized: Brazil
11 min. video

Brazil took in more African slaves than any other single country—at least three million. Colonial Brazil thrived on early plantation agriculture. When slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, the freed slaves found themselves on the lower end of the socioeconomic hierarchy. People of mixed African descent now make up more than one-third of Brazil’s population. The Afro-Brazilian heritage remains strong and dominates the country’s east coast. The African influence is evident in everything from the samba schools of the Brazilian carnival to the music and traditions of the people. The influence of African cuisine in Brazil is also expressed in a wide variety of dishes.

Brazilian cuisine varies greatly by region, reflecting the country’s varying mix of indigenous and immigrant populations.

Acarajé is made from peeled beans formed into a ball and deep-fried in oil. The dish was brought by enslaved peoples from West Africa
Moqueca is a dish made with shrimp or fish, tomatoes, onion, garlic, coriander, and lime.
Brazilian cheese bread
Brazilian cheese bread originated from African slaves.
A brigadeiro is made from cocoa powder, condensed milk, butter, and chocolate with sprinkles.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s best-known city, is a travel and international business center with a population of more than ten million. The city is renowned for its carnival festivities and famous coastline. Tourists are attracted by its cultural attractions and coastal setting, with beautiful sandy beaches and the landmark Sugarloaf Mountain located in an open bay.

Rio de Janeiro as seen from Sugar Loaf Mountain
Rio de Janeiro as seen from Sugar Loaf Mountain

The three cities of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Brasilia, along with their urban neighbors, anchor the core region in the south. These three cities continue to grow at an unprecedented rate. São Paulo is more than sixty miles across. As migrant workers from the countryside and from the rural northeast migrate to the cities looking for work, they expand the city through self-construction. Slums, called favelas, extend out from the central city for miles.

Vox: Inside Rio’s favelas, the city’s neglected neighborhoods

A region the size of the US Midwest, the Amazon River basin is a frontier development area that has been exploited for its natural resources.

Amazon River map

Rubber barons of early years traveled up the Amazon River and established the port city of Manaus to organize rubber plantations for automobile tires. The Amazon River is large enough for oceangoing vessels to travel to Manaus.

Today, Manaus has a free-trade zone with an entire industrial complex for the production of electronic goods and an ultramodern airport facility. Smaller ships can continue up the Amazon River all the way to Iquitos in Peru, which makes Manaus an ideal core city for economic trade; smuggling; and transshipment of illegal goods, including exotic animals from the region, such as monkeys, beautifully colored parrots, and other birds.

Squirrel monkey
Squirrel monkey
Scarlet macaw
Scarlet macaw
Vox: The war for the Amazon’s most valuable trees

The other regions of the Amazon Basin have not been as fortunate as Manaus. Deforestation from cattle ranching, logging, and mining have devastated parts of the tropical rain forests of the Amazon Basin.

The Amerindian populations have also suffered from encroachment into their lands. Only about two hundred thousand Amerindians are estimated to remain in Brazil, and most reside in the Amazon interior.

An uncontacted indigenous tribe in Brazil (in the Amazon Basin)

This region boasts one of the world’s leading reserves of iron ore; as much as one-third of Europe’s iron ore demands are met through extensive mining southwest of Belém.

Belém, Brazil

The rapidly expanding development activities in the Amazon basin have boosted the region’s economic situation, but at the same time, there is growing concern about the preservation of the natural environment.

Gold mining, an activity that has been widespread in the Amazon region for many decades, also presents environmental problems. Toxic substances such as cyanide and mercury used in the collection of gold from rivers and streams have entered the waters and tributaries of the Amazon River. The pollutants then enter the food chain and harm the ecosystem.

This 11-minute video is about Peru, but it covers the same issues that face Brazil.

The mining of ores and minerals has enticed people to immigrate to the area, creating frontier boomtowns with few public utilities or social services and poorly organized law and order. The exploitation of natural resources exacts a cost from the environment and the local indigenous Amerindian people.

Amerindian groups have used the land as hunting grounds for centuries, but the rapid influx of gold miners and land speculators has caused conflicts with local groups who claim the land. Violence in the Amazon and battles for control over land and resources have been well documented.

Deforestation in the Amazon is caused mainly by logging, agriculture, and mining. Agricultural practices can include slash-and-burn farming and cattle ranching.

Deforestation has reduced the habitat critical to the survival of native species. An estimated 50 percent of the earth’s species live in tropical rain forests, which only cover about 5 percent of the earth’s surface. Tropical rain forests in the Amazon Basin are being cut down at an unsustainable rate, creating serious environmental problems. Loggers cut down the large trees, and the rest are usually burned to allow the ash to provide nutrients for other plants. The cleared areas are most often used by cattle ranchers until the soil is no longer viable. Then more forest is cut down and the process continues. Speculation that land prices will increase as the region becomes more developed encourages this process.

The Amazon rainforest has many layers of habitat. Soils in the tropics are extremely low in nutrients, which have been leached out by the abundant rainfall. The nutrients are on the surface layer of the ground built up from falling leaves, branches, and debris decomposing on the forest floor. The removal of the forests removes these nutrients and results in serious soil erosion. Tropical forests usually expand along the edges where falling debris from the trees collects and provides nutrients for young plants.

There is much discussion among environmentalists, scientists, and other concerned people about deforestation in the Amazon region.

South Brazil

The south is one of Brazil’s most affluent regions, and it has gained much wealth from agricultural activities. The region is considered the safest in Brazil to visit, having a lower crime rate than other regions in the country.

Farming is only one of the region’s highly developed economic activities. The area is also blessed with natural resources such as coal that is shipped north to the main cities where steel is produced. The wealth of the region has provided support for high-tech industries, which are attracted to the region because of the supply of skilled labor, access to quality transportation, and communication links. Computer companies have established software firms that have in turn attracted other new companies. A technology center similar to California’s Silicon Valley has combined with the manufacturing complex that has sprouted up along the coast of the south. The government and the business community have both provided economic incentives for these and other emerging enterprises.

The attractiveness of the region in terms of both physical geography and economic stability has prompted some who live there to suggest that the region should separate from Brazil and become an independent country. Along the same vein, residents of the region have discouraged immigrants from poorer regions of other Brazilian states from moving here. Poor migrants seeking opportunities or employment are often rejected and provided transportation back to where they came from just to keep them from becoming residents. Nevertheless, many people have migrated to the south. The region is host to immigrants from Japan and the Middle East. The progressive cities and striking environmental conditions will continue to attract people to live here.

Key Takeaways:

✎ Brazil was a Portuguese colony during the colonial era. This is why the Portuguese language and the Catholic religion are dominant components of the Brazilian culture. The strong African heritage comes from the many African slaves brought in during the colonial era to work the plantations. Immigrants from many other countries have settled in Brazil as well.
✎ Some of the big cities in Brazil have developed slums (favelas) built by migrant workers.
✎ The Amazon basin region has been exploited for its natural resources.
✎ The south of Brazil is one of its most affluent areas.

Next: 5.5 Venezuela and the Guianas

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Image and additional information credits:

Brazil map
By Brazil_location_map.svg: NordNordWestderivative work: Виктор В (talk) – Brazil_location_map.svgSRTM30ETOPO1, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12161221
Atlantic slave trade
By Carlos André Viana – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40000717
Brazil Regions
https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/6-3-brazil/ – Based on map courtesy of University of Texas Libraries.
By Augustus Earle (in English); Augustus Earle (em Português) – National Library of Australia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4990696
Afro-Brazilian info
Uncontacted tribe
By Gleilson Miranda / Governo do Acre – https://www.flickr.com/photos/fotosdoacre/3793143031, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24286119
Matt Zimmerman – Slash and burn agriculture in the Amazon – CC BY 2.0
Rainforest ecosystem
Squirrel monkey
By I, Luc Viatour, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2136833
Scarlet macaw
By Travis Isaacs from Grapevine, TX, USA – zoo355, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5576825
Brazil info
Dedo de Deus
By Carlos Perez Couto – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33032133
Cave interior
By Caio Vilela – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40451662
By Enaldo Valadares – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32922684
Chapada Diamantina region
By Henriquecf – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40639323
Amazon River and Drainage Basin (©Kmusser, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)
By Claudia Baiana – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9569023
Pão de queijo
By Sitenl, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1813092
Moqueca de peixe
By Gilrovina – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61595941
By Kátia Goretti Dias Vazzoller from Brazil – Brigadeiro, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68690345
By Francisco Anzola – Flickr: Curitiba Centro, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21445230

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