Brazil's vast territory covers a great variety of land and climate, for although Brazil is mainly in the tropics (it is crossed by the equator in the north and by the Tropic of Capricorn in the south), the southern part of the great central upland is cool and yields the produce of temperate lands. Most of Brazil's large cities are on the Atlantic coast or the banks of the great rivers.
The rain forests of the Amazon River basin occupy all the north and north central portions of Brazil. With the opening of the interior in the 1970s and 80s, these rain forests were heavily cut and burned for industrial purposes, farming, and grazing land. Beginning in the late 1980s, popular international movements, along with changes in government policy, began to reduce the rate of deforestation, but by the mid-1990s extensive burning was again occurring. New policies appeared to slow deforestation in the early 21st cent., but it reemerged as a significant problem in late 2007.
The Amazon region includes the states of Amazonas, Pará, Acre, Amapá, Roraima, and Rondônia; its chief city is Manaus. Although it is not as developed as other parts of Brazil, the Amazon region produces timber, rubber, and other forest products such as Brazil nuts and pharmaceutical plants. Gold mining, ecotourism, and fishing are also important. At the mouth of the Amazon is the city of Belém, chief port of N Brazil.
Southeast of the Amazon mouth is the great seaward outthrust of Brazil, the region known as the Northeast. The states of Maranhão and Piauí form a transitional zone noted for its many babassu and carnauba palms. The Northeast proper—including the states of Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe, and the northern part of Bahia—was the center of the great sugar culture that for centuries dominated Brazil. The Northeast has also contributed much to the literature and culture of Brazil. In these states the general pattern is a narrow coastal plain (formerly supporting the sugarcane plantations and now given over to diversified subtropical crops) and a semiarid interior, or sertão, subject to recurrent droughts. This region has been the object of vigorous reclamation efforts by the government.
The "bulge" of Brazil reaches its turning point at the Cape of São Roque. To the northeast lie the islands of Fernando de Noronha, and to the south is the port of Natal. South of the "corner" of Brazil, the characteristic pattern of S Brazilian geography becomes notable: the narrow and interrupted coastal lowlands are bordered on the west by an escarpment, which in some places reaches the sea. Above the escarpment is the great Brazilian plateau, which tapers off in the southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul, where it is succeeded by the plains of the Río de la Plata country. The escarpment itself appears from the sea as a mountain range, generally called the Serra do Mar [coast range], and the plateau is interrupted by mountainous regions, such as that in Bahia, which separates E Bahia from the valley of the São Francisco River.
The chief cities of the Northeast are the ports of Recife in Pernambuco and Salvador in Bahia. There are a number of excellent harbors farther south: Vitória in Espírito Santo; Rio de Janeiro, the former capital, one of the most beautiful and most capacious harbors in the world; Santos, the port of São Paulo and the one of the greatest coffee ports in the world; and Pôrto Alegre in Rio Grande do Sul.
In the east and southeast is the heavily populated region of Brazil—the states that in the 19th and 20th cent. received the bulk of European immigrants and took hegemony away from the old Northeast. The state of Rio de Janeiro, with the great steel center of Volta Redonda, is heavily industrialized. Neighboring São Paulo state has even more industry, as well as extensive agriculture. The city of São Paulo, on the plateau, has continued the vigorous and aggressive development that marked the region in the 17th and 18th cent., when the paulistas went out in the famed bandeiras (raids), searching for slaves and gold and opening the rugged interior. They were largely responsible for the development of the gold and diamond mines of Minas Gerais state, the second most populous state in Brazil, and for the building of its old mining center of Vila Rica (Ouro Prêto), succeeded by Belo Horizonte as capital. Minas has some of the finest iron reserves in the world, as well as other mineral wealth, and has become industrialized.
Settlement also spread from São Paulo southward, particularly in the 19th and early 20th cent. when coffee from São Paulo's terra roxa [purple soil] had become the basis of Brazilian wealth, and coffee growing spread to Paraná. That state, in the west, runs out to the "corner" where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet at the natural marvel of the Iguaçu Falls on the Paraná River. The huge Itaipú Dam, built from the early 1970s through the mid-1990s by Paraguay and Brazil, provides power for most of southern Brazil. The more southern states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul, developed to a large extent by German and Slavic immigrants, are primarily cattle-raising areas with increasing industrial importance. Frontier development is continuing in central Brazil. The state of Mato Grosso is still largely devoted to stock raising. The transcontinental railroad from Bolivia spans the southern part of the state. The federal district of Brasília was carved out of the neighboring plateau state of Goiás, to the east, and the national capital was transferred to the planned city of Brasília in 1960.