Latin America: Brazil

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE In 1807, Napoleon's armies invaded Portugal. As the French army approached the capital of Lisbon, the Portuguese royal family boarded ships to escape capture. They sailed to Brazil, Portugal's largest colony, taking their court and royal treasury with them. For the next 14 years, Brazil was the heart of the Portuguese empire. During that time Brazilians developed a sense of their own independence. As you will read, a member of the Portuguese royal family was to play a decisive role in gaining Brazil's freedom from Portugal.

History: A Divided Continent

Geography played an important role in the colonization of South America by Spain and Portugal. The two European powers reached an agreement to divide South America. In the resulting Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), Portugal gained control over the land that became present-day Brazil. In this section, you will look at Portuguese-speaking Brazil, the largest country in South America.


The territory of Brazil was originally home to native peoples divided into hundreds of tribes and language groups. Various estimates place the number of native peoples between one million and five million when the first colonists arrived in the early 1500s.

The first Portuguese colonists hoped to find gold or silver but were disappointed when they could find neither. Then they cleared out huge areas of forest where they created sugar plantations. Brazil soon became a source of wealth for Portugal because the demand for sugar was so great.

Treaty of Tordesillas

The patterns of settlement were along the coast, where cities such as Rio de Janeiro were established, rather than in the interior where rain forests made farming difficult. Eventually, the colonists cleared more land in the west for sugar plantations. In the process, the Portuguese conquered the native tribes and put them to work on the plantations. When natives died from diseases brought by the colonists, the Portuguese brought African slaves to Brazil by force to replace them. Today millions of Brazilians are of mixed European, African, and native ancestry.


Brazil remained a Portuguese colony from 1500 to 1822. After Napoleon's defeat in 1815, many people in Brazil demanded independence from Portugal. However, the Portuguese government wanted Brazil to remain a colony. But the Brazilians kept pushing for independence. Finally, thousands of them signed petitions asking Dom Pedro, the son of Portugal's king, to rule Brazil as an independent country. He agreed, and in September of 1822, he declared Brazil's independence from Portugal.

A National Culture

The culture of Brazil includes Portuguese influences, Native American elements, and African influences. But unlike other South American countries, Brazil has had more success in blending its ethnic groups.


When the first Europeans arrived in 1500, millions of native people lived in what is now Brazil. But today, only about 200,000 live in the depths of the Amazon rain forest. Thousands of the native peoples died from diseases brought by the European colonists. Brazil has become home to many immigrants from other nations.

Large numbers of people from Portugal, Germany, Italy, and Spain have settled there, as have immigrants from Lebanon and Syria. Brazil also has the largest Japanese population outside Japan.


The Portuguese brought their language and their Catholic religion with them to Brazil. Today, Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world. In addition, Protestants make up almost 20 percent of the population. Many other Brazilians, mainly those of African or mixed ancestry, practice religions that combine African beliefs with Catholicism.


The architect Oscar Niemeyer designed the buildings for the new capital of Brasilia, which was built in the interior of Brazil beginning in 1957. Part of the reason for locating the capital 600 miles inland was to draw people into the interior.

The move of the government to the new capital city in 1960 signaled the opening of the country's west.

An Economic Giant Awakens

Brazil is a growing economic power. Much of this power is based on its vast area, its abundance of natural resources, and its people. Its economy is the tenth largest in the world. Its diverse population of about 170 million people contributes to its economic strength.


Natural resources have helped make Brazil an industrial power. It has deposits of iron and bauxite, as well as other minerals used in manufacturing. In addition, tin and manganese reserves are abundant. It also has supplies of gold, silver, titanium, chromite, tungsten, and quartz.

More than a thousand rivers, including the Amazon, flow through Brazil. Power plants located along these rivers produce electricity. In addition, Brazil's large reserves of oil and natural gas contribute to its industrial might.

Brazil is one of the most industrialized of South American countries, with one of the largest steel plants in the region. It is a leading maker of automobiles. Over half of its cars use ethanol, a fuel that comes from sugar cane and is less expensive than imported oil.

Natural Resources of Brazil


Despite its economic successes, Brazil remains a country with a vast gap between the rich and the poor. Increasing urbanization is one result of attempts by many Brazilians to improve their lives by seeking jobs in the cities.

The movement of people in Brazil from country to city reflects changes in agriculture that pushed people off the land. It also reflects the growth in manufacturing that pulled people to the cities. In 1960, about 22 percent of the population lived in the cities. By 1995, more than 75 percent of the people lived in cities.


There has also been a move into the interior. About 80 percent of the people live within 200 miles of the sea.

But the government is encouraging settlement of the interior to develop its many resources. Commercial agriculture is an important part of the economy in the western interior. That is because of the cerrado—the fertile grasslands, similar to the Great Plains in the United States, that provide rich farmland. Many Brazilians are willing to move to the interior to improve their economic situation.

Brazilian Life Today

Brazil is a country of great variety in its city life, music, and holidays.


The most colorful feast day in Brazil is Carnival. In Rio de Janeiro, people in costumes ride on floats through the streets. Carnival takes place to the music of the samba, a Brazilian dance with African influences.

Capoeira is a martial art and dance that developed in Brazil from African origins. Angolans who were taken to Brazil by the Portuguese brought this martial art and dance with them.


Brasilia is the political capital of Brazil, and Sao Paulo is its economic heart and largest city, but Rio de Janeiro is the cultural center. The residents of Rio are among the country's leaders in important cultural activities and institutions.

Rio has one of the most spectacular natural settings in the world. Sugarloaf Mountain, Guanabara Bay, and Copacabana Beach are just a few of the breathtaking sights.

There is a darker side to life in Rio, and that is caused by the widening gap between rich and poor. Desperately poor slums, called favelas, dot the hillsides. Crime waves and drug abuse are two results of the poverty. Recently, however, government officials have launched programs to bring in electrical power, paved streets, and sewers.

In the next chapter, you will read about three important issues that affect Latin America—resources, democracy, and the income gap.