Geographic Regions

Brazil’s 26 states and the Federal District (Distrito Federal) are divided conventionally into five regions: North (Norte), Northeast (Nordeste), Southeast (Sudeste), South (Sul), and Center-West (Centro-Oeste).

Regions of Brazil

1 • Central-West 2 • Northeast 3 • North 4 • Southeast 5 • Southern

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.

Northeast Region

The Northeast Region of Brazil (Portuguese: Região Nordeste do Brasil) is composed of the following states: Maranhão, Piauí, Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe and Bahia, and it represents 18.26% of the Brazilian territory.

The Northeast Region has a population of 53.6 million people, which represents 28% of the total number in the whole country. Most of the population lives in urban areas and about 15 million people live in the sertão.

It is famous in Brazil for its hot weather, beautiful beaches, rich culture (unique folklore, music, cuisine, literature), Carnival and St. John’s festivities, the sertão and being the birthplace of the country.

The biggest cities are Salvador, Fortaleza and Recife, which are the regional metropolitan areas of the Northeast, all with a population above a million inhabitants and metropolitan areas above 3.5 million.

Salvador International Airport, Recife International Airport and Fortaleza International Airport connects the Northeast region with many Brazilian cities and also operates some internationally scheduled and chartered flights. The Nordeste, according to Infraero, has the second largest number of passengers (roughly 20%) in Brazil.

The Northeast is home to several universities, museums, theaters, churches, and historical landmarks of colonial Brazil.

Geographically, the Northeast consists chiefly of an eroded continental craton with many low hills and small ranges. The highest peaks are around 1,850 metres (6,070 ft) in Bahia, while further north there are no peaks above 1,123 metres (3,684 ft).

On its northern and western side, the plateaus fall steadily to the coast and into the basin of the Tocantins River in Maranhão, but on the eastern side it falls off quite sharply to the coast except in the valley of the São Francisco river. The steep slopes and long cliffs of the eastern coastline are known as “The Great Escarpment”.

The escarpment serves an extremely important climatic function. Because for most of the year the Nordeste is out of reach of the Intertropical Convergence Zone, the easterly trade winds blow across the region, giving abundant rainfall to the coast but producing clear, dry conditions inland where the escarpment blocks moisture flow.

This gives rise to four distinct regions, the zona da mata on the coast, the agreste on the escarpment, sertão beyond and the Mid north.

Zona da Mata do Nordeste (Atlantic Rainforest zone)

On the humid eastern littoral, before European settlement was a long thin area of tropical rainforest with species completely different from those found in the much larger Amazon rainforest, known as the Mata Atlantica.

Because of the fact that the climate was extremely suitable for the cultivation of sugar cane, however, very little of the forest remains today.

For many years, sugar cane cultivation in this region was the mainstay of Brazil’s economy, being superseded only when coffee production developed in the late nineteenth century. The sugar cane is cultivated on large estates and the owners of these had and maintain tremendous political influence.


Since the escarpment does not generate any further rainfall on its slopes from the lifting of the trade winds, annual rainfall decreases steadily inland. After a relatively short distance, there is no longer enough rainfall to support tropical rainforest, especially since the rainfall is extremely erratic from year to year.

This transitional zone is known as the agreste and because it is located on the steep escarpment, was not generally used whilst flatter land was abundant.

Today, with irrigation water available, however, the agreste, as its name suggest, is a major farming region despite containing no major city, contains well developed medium large cities such as Caruaru, Campina Grande and Arapiraca.

Sertão Nordestino (North-Eastern Backlands)

People who live in these arid areas generally do not have enough water for their subsistence and need to walk long distances to obtain it. Many times these people, who are generally poor, give up and go to live in the big cities like São Paulo, Recife, Salvador or Rio de Janeiro.

A well known case is that of the former Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who lived in Caetés, and moved early in childhood with the family to Santos, where he worked in the streets in his teens.

Brazilian poet João Cabral de Melo Neto, who was born in Recife, wrote poems such as Morte e Vida Severina, Cemitério Pernambucano, and A Educação Pela Pedra, that illustrate well the bleak living conditions of these arid backlands.

Meio Norte Nordestino (Northeast Mid North)

It is a transition area between the high rainfalls region of amazonas and the semi arid region of sertão (hot and drought). Covers the states of Maranhão and half of Piaui.

Central-West Region

The Central-West Region of Brazil (Portuguese: Região Centro-Oeste do Brasil) is composed of the states of Goiás, Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul; along with Distrito Federal (Federal District), where Brazil’s national capital, Brasília, is situated. This Region is right in the heart of Brazil, representing 18.86% of the national territory.

With the move of the country’s federal capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília in the 60s, the construction of roads and railways to the interior of the country made the accesses easier, speeding up the population settling and contributing significantly to its development.

Mato Grosso do Sul was created in 1979, materializing the decision of the government to divide the then called state of Mato Grosso in two states to facilitate to the administration and the development of the region.

Today, Center-West is attracting many investments for agriculture, pecuary, industries and people from Southeast and Southern Brazil.

Brasília International Airport, Marechal Rondon International Airport, Campo Grande International Airport and Santa Genoveva Airport connects Center-West region with many Brazilian cities and also operates some international flights.

The Center-West is home to the University of Brasília, University Center of Brasília, Federal University of Goiás, Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul and Federal University of Mato Grosso.

Mato Grosso

A state with a flat landscape, alternating great chapadas and plain areas, Mato Grosso presents three different ecosystems: Cerrado, Pantanal and the Amazon Rainforest.

The vegetation of the open pasture covers 40% of the state and the National Park Chapada dos Guimarães, with its caves, grottos, tracks and waterfalls.

In the north is the Amazonian Rainforest, with a huge biodiversity covering half of the state and the Xingu National Park and the river Araguaia. Further south, the Pantanal, the world largest plain covered with water, is the habitat for almost a thousand species of animals, with many aquatic birds.

Mato Grosso do Sul

The Pantanal covers 12 municipalities and presents an enormous variety of flora and fauna, with forests, natural sand banks, savannahs, open pasture, fields and bushes.

The city Bonito, in the mountain of Bodoquena, has prehistoric caverns, natural rivers, waterfalls, swimming pools and the Blue Lake cavern. Mato Grosso do Sul has humid Subtropical and tropical climate.

The annual rainfall is 1.500 mm. January is the warmest month, with mean maxima of 34°C (93.2°F) and minima of 24°C (75.2°F) and more rain; July experiences the coldest temperatures, with mean maxima of 25°C (77°F) and minima of 15°C (59°F) and sun.

The “cerrado” landscape is characterized by extensive savanna formations crossed by gallery forests and stream valleys. Cerrado includes various types of vegetation.


The most central of the Brazilian States and most populous of the region, Goiás presents a landscape of plateaus and chapadões. In the height of the draught, from June to September, the lack of rain makes the level of the River Araguaia go down and brigs up almost 2 km of beaches.

At the Emas National Park in the municipality of Chapadão do Céu, it is possible to observe the typical fauna and the flora from the region. At the Chapada dos Veadeiros the attractions are the Canyons, valleys, rapids and waterfalls.

Other attractions are the historical city of Goiás (or Old Goiás), at 132 km from Goiânia, established in the beginning of 18th century, and Caldas Novas, known for its hot springs.

Brazilian Federal District

Located in the State of Goiás, in a region called Planalto Central, the Brazilian Federal District is divided in 30 administrative regions. Brasília — place where the three branches of the Federal Government are located — is the main attraction of this dry area and climate with only two seasons. The rainy season is from October to March.

During the dry season, the humidity can reach critical levels, mainly in the pick hours of the hottest days. The artificial lake of Paranoá, with almost 40 km² and 500 million m³ of water, was built exactly to minimize the severe climatic conditions of the winter.

The region also attracts místicos and in its surroundings you find many temples of different religions and sectarian groups.

North Region

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 kilometres (1,494,076 sq mi), the North is the country’s largest region, covering 45.3% of the national territory. 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% of the region’s territory was considered altered by anthropic (man-made) action, with state levels varying from 0.9% in Amapá to 14.0% in Rondônia.

In 1996 the North had 11.1 million inhabitants, only 7% 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 Amazon represents over half of the planet’s remaining rainforests and comprises the largest and most species-rich tract of tropical rainforest in the world.

Wet tropical forests are the most species-rich biome, and tropical forests in the Americas are consistently more species rich than the wet forests in Africa and Asia. As the largest tract of tropical rainforest in the Americas, the Amazonian rainforests have unparalleled biodiversity. More than 1/3 of all species in the world live in the Amazon Rainforest.

The region is home to about 2.5 million insect species, tens of thousands of plants, and some 2000 birds and mammals species. To date, at least 40,000 plant species, 3,000 fish, 1,294 birds, 427 mammals, 428 amphibians, and 378 reptiles have been scientifically classified in the region. Scientists have described between 96,660 and 128,843 invertebrate species in Brazil alone.

The diversity of plant species is the highest on earth with some experts estimating that one square kilometre may contain over 75,000 types of trees and 150,000 species of higher plants. One square kilometre of Amazon rainforest can contain about 90,790 tonnes of living plants. This constitutes the largest collection of living plants and animal species in the world.

One in five of all the birds in the world live in the rainforests of the Amazon. To date, an estimated 438,000 species of plants of economic and social interest have been registered in the region with many more remaining to be discovered or catalogued.

Southeast Region

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 kilometres (358,027 sq mi) corresponds to 10.9% of the national territory.

The region has the largest share of the country’s population, 63 million in 1991, or 39% of the national total, primarily as a result of internal migration since the mid-19th 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% of the original forest cover remained as a result of clearing for farming, ranching, and charcoal making. Anthropic activity had altered 79.5% of the region, ranging from 75% in Minas Gerais to 91.1% 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.

São Paulo

Heart of the largest continued remnant of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, the Ribeira Valley is a Natural Heritage of Humanity, granted heritage as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. One of the biggest attractions is the biologic and ecosystems diversity, where approximately 400 species of birds, anphibians, reptiles and mammals live.

The Alto Ribeira Touristic State Park (PETAR) is paradise for ecotourists, for its enormous diversity in geologic formations, among grottos and caves, rivers and waterfalls.

There are currently 454 caves registered by the Brazilian Society of Speleology (SBE) in the State of São Paulo, all at the Ribeira Valley. The 280 caves located at PETAR represent the biggest concentration of caves in Brazil.

Minas Gerais

The landscape of the State is marked by mountains, valleys and caverns. In the Serra do Cipó, Sete Lagoas, Cordisburgo and Lagoa Santa, the caves and waterfalls. Minas Gerais is the source of some of the biggest rivers in Brazil, most notably the São Francisco, the Paraná and to a lesser extent, the Rio Doce. The state also holds many hydroelectric power plants, including Furnas.

Some of the highest peaks in Brazil are in the mountain ranges in the southern part of the state, such as Serra da Mantiqueira and Serra do Cervo, that mark the border between Minas and its neighbors São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The most notable one is the Pico da Bandeira, the third highest mountain in Brazil at 2890 m, standing on the border with Espírito Santo state.

The state also has huge reserves of iron and sizeable reserves of gold and gemstones, including emerald, topaz and aquamarine mines.

Rio de Janeiro

The state is part of the Mata Atlântica biome, and its topography comprises both mountains and plains, located between the Mantiqueira Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean.

Its coast is carved by the bays of Guanabara, Sepetiba and Ilha Grande. There are prominent slopes near the ocean, featuring also diverse environments, such as restinga vegetation, bays, lagoons and tropical forests.

Rio de Janeiro is the smallest state in the Southeast macroregion and one of the smallest in Brazil. It has, however, the third longest coastline in the country (second only to Bahia’s and Maranhão’s), extending 635 kilometers.

Espírito Santo

With 46.180 square kilometers, it is about the size of Estonia, or half the size of Portugal, and has a variety of habitats including coastal planes, lakes, mountain forest, mangroves and many others. The main river in the state is the Doce.

Other important river basins include the Santa Maria River Basin which is the northern branch of rivers which join the sea at Vitoria, and Jucu River Basin which flows into the sea at roughly the same place, but corresponds to the southern branch (which seems to come out of Vitoria).

Espírito Santo’s climate is tropical along the coast, with dry winters and rainy summers. North of Doce River it’s generally drier and also hot.

In the moutainous regions in the south and south west of the state, the tropical climate is strongly influenced by altitude, and the average temperatures are colder.

The state can be divided into two areas: the low lying coastline and the highland area known as Serra (where one can find the 2.890 m Pico da Bandeira mountain), which is part of the larger Serra do Caparaó, the Caparaó Highlands.

Southern Region

The three states in the temperate South: Paraná, Rio Grande do Sul, and Santa Catarina — cover 577,214 square kilometres (222,864 sq mi), or 6.8% of the national territory. The population of the South in 1991 was 23.1 million, or 14% 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.

It is a great tourist, economic and cultural pole. It borders Uruguay, Argentina, and Paraguay as well as the Center-West Region, the Southeast Region and the Atlantic Ocean.

In addition to the Atlantic Forest and Araucaria moist forests, much of which were cleared in the post-World War II period, the southernmost portion of Brazil contains the Uruguayan savanna, which extends into Argentina and Uruguay.

In 1982, 83.5% of the region had been altered by anthropic activity, with the highest level (89.7%) in Rio Grande do Sul, and the lowest (66.7%) 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 region is highly urbanized (82%) and many cities are famous for their urban planning, like Curitiba and Maringá. It has a relatively high standard of living, with the highest Human Development Index of Brazil, 0.859 (2007), and the second highest per capita income of the country, $13.396, behind only the Southeast Region. The region also has a 94% literacy rate.

Southern Brazil has subtropical or temperate climate. The annual average temperatures vary between 12°C (53.6°F) and 22°C (71.6°F). It can snow in the mountain ranges.

The Rio Grande do Sul has a great potential for palaeontological tourism, with many paleontological sites and museums in Paleorrota. There is a large area in the center of the state that belongs to the Triassic. Here lived Rhynchosaur, thecodonts, exaeretodons, Staurikosaurus, Guaibasaurus, Saturnalia tupiniquim, Sacisaurus, Unaysaurus and many others.