Northeast Brazil

Lúcia Gaspar
Joaquim Nabuco Foundation Librarian
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Before discovery, the indigenous Americans, nomadic and migratory, wondered through the forests and coast of Brazil. It belonged to the great nations of the Tupis, Gês, Nu-Aruaks and Caraíbas.

In 1500, with the arrival of Pedro Álvares Cabral bringing the first colonisers, the Northeast was the first region in the country to be occupied by the Portuguese, just as its coast was the first area to be explored. Portuguese interests, in terms of exploiting the natural Brazilian resources, caused the territory to be divided then into captaincies and allotments. Population began at the beginning of the 16th century with the colonisation of the coast and “entries” and pastoral migrations to the semi-arid regions of the interior.

The wealth and abundance of natural resources further attracted pirates and adventurers from other European countries, such as France, the Netherlands and England.

With the establishment of the General Government of Brazil in Bahia in 1549, colonisation spread, through armed expeditions, to the north of the country. At the end of the 16th century, therefore, Sergipe, Pernambuco, Rio Grande do Norte and Paraíba had been incorporated into the conquered territory. The addition of Sergipe opened the way to the semi-arid regions and, from there, the Portuguese reached Parnaíba. In Maranhão, through expeditions against the French, the first colonisers tamed the coast and part of the semi-arid region.

In 1610, the Portuguese arrived in Ceará and, continuing their advance northwards, conquered Pará. From 1624 to 1654, the Dutch established colonies, coming to control the coastal areas between the São Francisco River, Pernambuco (the site of the Dutch government) and Rio Grande do Norte, extending to Ceará and Maranhão, where they had expelled the French invaders. In the battle against the Dutch, the Portuguese colony, black and indigenous peoples – the three historical elements of formation of the Northeast – retreated to the interior through “entries” into the semi-arid regions of the Northeast.

It is also registered that expeditions from São Paulo aided in the settlement of the region, establishing pastoral centres throughout the São Francisco valley.
The Northeast, one of the five regions which the national territory is divided into today, is made up of nine States (see table below). The region has a total area of 1,553,917.1 km2.

There have been changes in the territorial division of Brazil. In 1940, Brazil was divided into the following regions: North, Northeast, Southeast, South and Central-West. From 1950, the States of Maranhão and Piauí became part of the Northeast Region (previously belonging to the North) and in the 1970s the State of Bahia was also incorporated into the Region.

The former territory of Fernando de Noronha – a volcanic archipelago (with twenty small islands) located in the Atlantic Ocean 350 kilometres from the coast – today belongs to the State of Pernambuco. It is approximately 26 square kilometres, but only the main island is inhabited. This archipelago, the habitat for many types of birds and fish, is considered an area of environmental preservation. Besides its incredible natural beauty, Fernando de Noronha has enormous potential for tourism.




(em km2)


Maranhão (MA)

Piauí (PI)

Ceará (CE)

Rio Grande do Norte (RN)

Paraíba (PB)

Pernambuco (PE)

Alagoas (AL)

Sergipe (SE)

Bahia (BA)

São Luís




João Pessoa









56.340, 9








8. 185.250







The Northeast can be divided into four natural and geographical regions: mata (forest), agreste (wild), sertão (semi-arid) and meio-norte (mid-north).

The ‘forest’ region and the eastern coastline extend from Rio Grande do Norte to the south of Bahia, occupying the land in the east of the region. It may be considered as the most important area of the Northeast as it is where the largest part of the population is concentrated, as well as the industry and agricultural activities. On the coast, the average temperature is approximately 25o C, with variable fluctuations according to the seasons. It is also on the coastline where the state capitals of Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe and Bahia are, as all these cities are built on the shoreline.

The main products cultivated in the forest zone are sugarcane (whose heyday was in the colonial period), tobacco (grown in the Recôncavo Baiano – Bahia Basin – area) and cocoa (whose production is concentrated in the cities of Ilhéus and Itabuna, also in Bahia).

The ‘wild’ represents a transition region between the ‘forest’ and the ‘semi-arid’. With very dry and humid areas, the landscape of the wild region is characterised by diversity, functioning as a typical miniature of the Northeast. In stretches of elevated altitude, exposed to the humid winds of the Southeast,  ‘brejos’ (swamps) appear showing humid conditions and rainfall similar to that of the forest zone, as well as milder temperatures. Outside the swamps, where forests used to be and today agriculture dominates, the caatinga (savanna) is found.

Scarcity of water is the most serious problem for the population of the ‘wild’ area, though this region is not as profoundly affected as that of the semi-arid. In the ‘wild’ area, commercial cotton-growing exists to supply the textile factories of the region, and the commercial ploughing of foodstuffs to supply the populations of the large coastal cities.

The semi-arid region and the northern coast of the Northeast make up approximately 49% of the whole region. On the northern coast, in particular, as the semi-arid region reaches almost to the beaches, the two areas can be united. It is considered the most typical Northeast region, as nothing similar can be found in any other part of Brazilian territory.  The entire semi-arid area has a warm climate, with average annual temperatures of around 25o C, and two defined seasons: a rainy season, in the months of summer and autumn and another longer and drier, which lasts through the months of winter and spring.

Inhabitants of the semi-arid regions, or ‘sertanejos’, are always concerned with drought, as since colonial times, with greater or lesser intensity, it happens systematically. In the semi-arid region, there is the so-called ‘ribbon’ area around the São Francisco River, which is the great river that crosses many of the driest area in the Northeast. This river has a very irregular regime, with the flooding of islands and marginal lands during the rainy season. The fertility of these lands, resulting from submersion, is used by the ‘ribbon’-dwellers for ‘ebb agriculture’, which guarantees the supply of corn, beans, peanuts, broad beans and other agricultural products to the inhabitants of this region.

In some of the wetter areas of the semi-arid region, subsistence or local market agriculture still predominates. In the São Francisco Valley, however, with the employment of irrigation, production of melons, watermelons, grapes (for making wine destined for internal consumption and export), mango, tomato, acerola and other products has shown to be a very lucrative activity for businesses.

Farming is a large economic activity in the semi-arid region, with the raising of cattle for meat production, goats for milk production and donkeys for riding.
With the exception of the São Francisco and the Parnaíba, Northeast rivers are not noteworthy. Most of the region’s rivers remain dry. And in some large regions, like Ceará, no single perennial river exists.

The mid-north contains a large part of the States of Piauí and Maranhão, where ranches and palm forests predominate. It is an area of extensive grazing in open fields. It could be considered as a transition region between the Northeast, North and Central-West of Brazil. In the mid-north, agriculture is poor, with only rice production in the perennial river valleys and cattle-grazing in the ranch area standing out. The most characteristic activity in this region is vegetable extraction, based on the collection of babassu oil and carnauba wax. Agriculture is the main economic activity in the Northeast, as much for its production value as for the number of labourers employed.

In the mining areas, worth mentioning is the production of scheelite, tantalite, beryl and the extraction of limestone for cement and phosphate production, which are used as fertiliser. In Bahia, the principal petroleum production zone of the Northeast region is found, but other fields have been discovered in Alagoas, Rio Grande do Norte and Sergipe. On the coasts of Rio Grande do Norte, and Ceará are the most important sea salt crystallisation areas in the country.

As can be seen in Table 1, the most populous states in the Northeast are Bahia, Pernambuco and Ceará, which together represent 60% of the total inhabitants in the region. The most densely populated states are Alagoas, Pernambuco and Sergipe, all with over 70 inhabitants per square kilometre.

The analysis of the quality of life for the majority of the population reveals that the Northeast region shows the most serious social portrait in Brazil. The number of illiterates and the infant mortality rate (considered as the death of children under 1) are the highest in the country. In recent years, there has been a decrease in the problems, which means a certain improvement in the social conditions of the Northeast population.

Another important characteristic in terms of the population is its intense migratory movement, as much internal as extra-regional. With the former, migration occurs as a result of drought. A portion of the population affected by the drought – especially the small rural landowners, as well as landowners who do not have access to wells or resources to “buy water” from the large farmers – migrate from the arid regions to the wetter coast.

When reaching their destinations, this population contingent seeks seasonal work, hoping to return to their homes as soon as the drought ends. This kind of migration is considered by demographers as temporary and reversible, and the worker who does it is known in the region as a ‘corumba’. Frequently, however, many migrants decide not to return to the semi-arid region, establishing themselves in the mid-sized cities in the Northeast region. In this sense, these migrants end up surviving through sporadic work, accepting underemployment, begin living in slums, significantly increasing the populations on the peripheries of the cities and all the problems of social order.

As for extra-regional migration, the Northeast has transformed itself, in recent decades, into an area that repels the population. From 1940 to 1995, the region lost over 15 million inhabitants, mainly to the areas in the Southeast and to Amazônia, where pioneer fronts were established.

The mass exit of Northeast people is predominantly related to the precarious life conditions for a great part of the population, and the widening of social-economic disparity between Brazilian regions. It should be noted that political, economic and social aspects are much more determining factors in the migration of people from the Northeast to other parts of Brazil than climatic aspects.

Industrial development in the region occurred after the development of the Superintendence of Northeast Development (Sudene), in 1959, when a policy of fiscal incentives was established, which attracted capital and businesses from the Central-South and outside the country, causing the implementation of over 1,000 projects.

Among the industrialisation bases, the notable include the wealth of prime materials: sugarcane (sugar and ethanol); cotton (textile industry); native fruits (cashew, mangaba, Brazilian cherry, guava, cajá); non-native fruits like coconut (symbolic tree of the region) that adapted very well to the Northeast; mango, graviola, jackfruit (juice and sweets industries); cocoa (food industry); tobacco (cigarette industry, currently in decline); carnauba wax; babassu and oiticica oils; vegetable fibres (like caroá, a palm fibre and sisal); copper and lead (in Bahia); tungsten (in Rio Grande do Norte); salt (in Rio Grande do Norte and Ceará). There is also petroleum and natural gas, which have been found mainly on the coasts of Rio Grande do Norte, Sergipe, Alagoas and Recôncavo Baiano.

The Northeast salt production corresponds to about 80% of the national total. The extraction of petroleum and gas is approximately 35% of the country’s production.

The hydroelectric potential of the São Francisco River is of great importance to regional development. It’s principal plants are Sobradinho, Itaparica, Paulo Afonso and Xingó. Of those on the Parnaíba River, the most important is Castello Branco.

The main industrial centres are located in the metropolitan areas, with food and textiles being the most traditional, followed by metallurgy, chemicals and electronics. The metropolitan area of Recife is the most influential area of industrial concentration in the Northeast, especially the three industrial areas of Cabo, Jaboatão and Paulista.

The second most important metropolitan region, and the one that has shown the largest industrial growth in recent years, is Salvador. Among the contributing factors to this growth are: petroleum exploration in the Basin; the petrochemical centre in Camaçari; Petrobras’ Landulfo Alves refinery in Mataripe; and the Aratu Industrial Centre near Salvador, which has factories from cement to metallurgy. The least developed metropolitan region is Fortaleza, whose industries for the most part are textile, food and chemicals.

Culturally, the Northeast is a very rich and diversified region. Its folklore and handicrafts are a result of a popular creativity that manifests itself in various forms. The cuisine is also very creative and flavoursome, having been influenced by the Portuguese, Africans and Indians, as can be noticed, for example, in the cuisine of Bahia and Pernambuco.

Northeast music is played on the viola, hand organ, guitar and accordion. The great name of the region is Luiz Gonzaga. ‘Baião’ was made for people from the Northeast, but it invaded the rest of Brazil, and even several parts of the world.

In the Northeast, there is not exactly a costume, a fashion or its own way to dress, such as is the case of the ‘gaucho’, with their breeches, ponchos and boots. There is the Northeast cowboy , with his hat, doublet, chest-guard and shoes all made of leather to withstand the cactuses of the ‘caatinga’, but it is not a representation of a common outfit for many, like that of the gauchos, despite being characteristic of the Northeast region, as the clothing worn by ‘cangaceiros’ Lampião and Maria Bonita are also typical.

There are other more expressive Northeast figures such as Joaquim NabucoRui BarbosaGilberto Freyre, Manuel Bandeira, Manoel Bandeira, José Lins do Rego, Graciliano Ramos, José de Alencar, Jorge Amado, Ariano SuassunaLuís da Câmara CascudoMário Souto Maior, Manoel Correia de Andrade, Francisco BrennandAbelardo da Hora, Cícero Dias, among many others who have enriched the Brazilian, and even the international, scene.

Recife, 24 July 2003.
(Updated on 31 August 2009).
Translated by Peter Leamy, March 2011.


ANDRADE, Manoel Correia de. A terra e o homem no Nordeste. 4. ed. rev. e atual. São Paulo: Liv. Ed. Ciências Humanas, 1980.

BELTRÃO, Valdir de Araújo; LAMOUR, Carlos. Usos atual e potencial dos solos do Nordeste. Recife: Sudene, Coord. de Planejamento Regional, 1984. v.6.

GARCIA, Carlos. O que é o Nordeste brasileiro. 5. ed. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1986. 92 p.

GARCIA, Helio Carlos; GARAVELLO, Tito Marcio. Lições de geografia: população e atividades econômicas. Regiões do Brasil-6ª série. São Paulo: Scipione, 1998. p. 144-155.

IBGE. Censo demográfico. [Brasília, D.F.], 2000.

MAGALHÃES, Agamenon. O Nordeste brasileiro. Recife: Secretaria de Educação e Cultura. Departamento de Cultura, 1970.

SOUTO MAIOR, Mário. Folclore etc & tal. Recife: 20-20 Comunicação e Editora, 1995.

SOUZA, João Gonçalves de. O Nordeste brasileiro: uma experiência de desenvolvimento regional. Fortaleza: Banco do Nordeste do Brasil, 1979.


Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Northeast Brazil. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at:  <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.

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