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Northeast region of Brazil
Localization of Northeast

States AL, BA, CE, MA, PB, PE, PI, RN and SE
 - Total 1.558.196 km² ()
 - 2009 estimate 53,591,197 ()
 - Census 2005 51,065,275
 - Urban (2006) 71.5%
 - Density (2009) 34,4/km² ()
GDP 2007
 - Total R$347,797,041,000 ()
 - Per capita R$(2007) 6,749 ()
HDI (2005) 0.720 () – medium
 - Life expectancy (2005) 69 years ()
 - Infant mortality (2006) 36.9‰ ()
 - Literacy (2006) 79.3% ()
Time zone BRT (UTC–3)
 - Summer (DST) BRST (UTC–2)

The Northeast Region ("Nordeste") of Brazil 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 about 53.6 million people, which represents 28% of the total number in the whole country. Most of the population lives in the urban area, although, about 15 million people lives 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 and metropolitan areas above 3,5 million inhabitants.

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

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


Geography and climate

Northeast States:
1 Maranhão, 2 Piauí, 3 Ceará, 4 Rio Grande do Norte, 5 Paraíba, 6 Pernambuco, 7 Alagoas, 8 Sergipe e 9 Bahia
Nordeste Subregions: 1 Meio norte,
2 Sertão, 3 Agreste e 4 Zona da Mata

Geographically, the Nordeste 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, whilst further north there are no peaks above 1,123 metres (3,684 ft). On its northern and western side, the plateau 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 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 current 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. A well-known Brazilian poet named 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.


The Northeast was primarily inhabited by indigenous peoples, mostly from the Tupi-Guarani family, who, before the colonial era, helped Europeans with the extraction of brazilwood from the coastal rainforest (or mata atlântica) in exchange for spices. But as colonization and commercial interest intensified in the region the number of Indians became drastically reduced due to the constant battles with the owners of the large sugar mills. Conflicts arose because the settlers had displaced the native inhabitants and then tried to enslave them as labor in the fields. The Portuguese colonials then considered the idea of importing black African slaves to use as manual labor. To this day culture in Northeast Brazil remains fully permeated by this African influence.

The Northeast was the first area of discovery in Brazil, when roughly 1,500 Portuguese arrived on April 22, 1500, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral at Porto Seguro, in the state of Bahia.

A view of Olinda

The coast of the Northeast was the stage for the first economic activity of the country, namely the extraction and export of pau Brasil, or brazilwood. Brazilwood was highly valued in Europe where it was used to make violin bows (especially the Pau de Pernambuco variety) and for the red dye it produced. Countries like France, who disagreed with the Treaty of Tordesillas, (a papal bull decreed by the Spanish-born Pope Alexander VI in 1493 which sought to divide the South American continent between the Spanish and the Portuguese), launched constant attacks against the coast with the objective of stealing the wood.

French colonists not only tried to settle in present-day Rio de Janeiro, from 1555 to 1567 (the so-called France Antarctique episode), but also in present-day São Luís, from 1612 to 1614 (the so-called France Equinoxiale). The Dutch, also opposed to the Treaty of Tordesillas, plundered the Northeast coast, sacked Bahia in 1604, and even temporarily captured Salvador. From 1630 to 1654 the Dutch set up more permanently in the Northeast and controlled a long stretch of coast that was most accessible to Europe without, however, penetrating the interior. But the colonists of the Dutch West India Company in Brazil were in a constant siege despite the presence in Recife of the great Maurice of Nassau as governor.

The Historic centre of Salvador, Bahia

Slave resistance began during the colonial era, in the seventeenth century, and eventually led to the formation of quilombos, or settlements of runaway and free-born African slaves. The Quilombo dos Palmares, the largest and most well-known of these settlements, was founded around 1600 in the Serra da Barriga hills, in the present state of Alagoas. Palmares, at the height of its power, was an independent, self-sustaining republic, hosting a population of over 30,000 free African men, women and children. There were over 200 buildings in the community, a church, four smithies, and a council house. Although Palmares managed to defend itself from the Dutch military and the Portuguese colonials for several decades, it was finally taken and destroyed and its leader Zumbi dos Palmares was captured and beheaded. His head was then displayed in a public plaza in Recife.

Besides being Brazil’s main sea port, Brazil's center of the African slave trade, a center of the sugar industry, and the seat of the first Catholic bishop of Brazil (in 1552) the city of Salvador was also the first general seat of government in Brazil as it is strategically located in the center of the eastern coast of the country. The government in Salvador sought to centralize power in an effort to support the various captaincies, geographical subdivisions that preceded the present states of Brazil, which at this time were in a state of crisis. Salvador remained the colonial capital until 1763 when it was succeeded by Rio de Janeiro, the new economic power center of that era.


Fortaleza is the second largest city of the region.
Natal, is considered by IPEA (Institute of Applied Economic Research of Brazil), to be the safest city in the country.
The Maracatu, a cultural aspect resulted from the mix between Amerindians, Portuguese and Africans in Northeast Brazil.
City Population (2009)
Salvador 2,998,056
Fortaleza 2,505,552
Recife 1,561,659
São Luís 997,098
Maceió 936,314
Natal 806,203
Teresina 802,537
João Pessoa 702,235
Jaboatão 687,688
Feira de Santana 591,707
Aracaju 544,039

Ethnic groups

The Northeast was the region of Brazil where the Black African element was most prevalent. Virtually all the areas of this region have a clear majority of people self-reported as Brown (Multiracial) and Black in the IBGE census (over 75%).[1] Regarding the contributions of each ethnic group to the formation of the people of Northeastern Brazil, there is some internal regional differences. The crucial factor for the ethnic formation of people from Northeastern Brazil was miscegenation between native Indians, Blacks and Whites. Among the first waves of Portuguese immigrants into this region, there are no records about the presence of Portuguese women among them.[2] Thus, all the colonists eventually became involved with the native women. In 1570, the colonial Brazil had a population of 30,000 to 40,000 inhabitants, mostly in the Northeast. Most of them were Mamelucos (Indian and Portuguese mix), because the Portuguese immigrants were no more than 6,000–8,000 individuals.[2] Since then, the proportion of Black slaves in the population steadily grew. In 1587, Jesuit José de Anchieta already described a Bahia full of Blacks and with very few Indians, who were dying by the thousands due to disease and slavery.[2] Pernambuco had so few Indians alive that the Jesuits failed to create a Jesuit Reduction there. The two ports of Pernambuco became the main gates for thousands of African slaves in this region. Thus, the society of Northeastern Brazil was formed initially by the mixture of Indians and Portuguese. This ethnic configuration was changed, due to the great influx of African slaves. African women intermarried with White men and generated a mixed population of Mulattos, forming a singular matrix in the colony. With the development of sugar cane plantations, a rigidly stratified society composed of a tiny number of land owners (mainly Whites), a small class of servants (Whites and mixed), and a huge class of slaves (Blacks) was formed. The land owner had a feudal power, and all people were subject to him. On the coast (known as Zona da Mata, the most populous area) Blacks and mixed people predominated.[2]

Another ethnic configuration in this region is located in the Sertão and Agreste, in the interior of the Northeast.[2] The African element was much less significant there, while the White phenotype with Amerindian basis predominated. Some poor Whites and mixed people left the coastal area and headed for the interior. They encounted the local Amerindian population, with whom they mixed.[2] In Sertão the economy was based on cattle and people had a much more free way of life when compared to the rigid society of the coast. Moreover, the construction of a sugar mill required enormous resources, impossible to be achieved by the majority of the population, and there were few job opportunities for the intermediate class located between the landowners and the slaves. For these reasons, some people chose to leave the coast in order to work for the cattle holders in the countryside. This population continued to expand their areas with their cattle, occupying far away regions, reaching the Central-West Region of Brazil.[2]

Genetic studies have found the mixed-race character of the population in Northeastern Brazil (and of the rest of Brazil as well). A study carried out in 760 people from Natal city, Northeastern Brazil, found that both persons identified as White or Mixed (Pardo) in Natal have similar admixture. Whites of Natal had 58% White, 25% Black, and 17% Indian admixture.[3]

One more study carried out on Whites of Northeastern Brazilian origin living in São Paulo found 70% European, 18% African and 12% Amerindian admixture.[4]

Northeast Region Sub-Divisions

State Symbol Area km2 Municipalities Mesoregions Microregions Population 2009 IBGE HDI 2005 GDP (R$x1000) 2007 IBGE GDP per capita2007 (R$)
Alagoas AL 27.767,661 102 3 13 3.156.108 0.677 17.793.227 5.858
Bahia BA 564.692,669 417 7 32 14.637.364 0.742 109.651.844 7.787
Ceará CE 148.825,602 184 7 33 8.547.809 0.723 50.331.383 6.149
Maranhão MA 331.983,293 217 5 21 6.367.138 0.683 31.606.026 5.165
Paraiba PB 56.439,838 223 4 23 3.769.977 0.718 22.201.750 6.097
Pernambuco PE 98.311,616 185 5 18 8.810.256 0.718 62.255.687 7.337
Piaui PI 251.529,186 223 4 15 3.145.325 0.703 14.135.870 4.662
Rio Grande do Norte RN 52.796,791 167 4 19 3.137.541 0.738 22.925.563 7.607
Sergipe SE 21.910,348 75 3 13 2.019.679 0.742 16.895.691 8.712
Northeast NE 1.558.196,000 1793 42 187 53.591.197 0.720 347.797.041 6.749


Mossoró city in Rio Grande do Norte is one of the largest onshore petroleum producers in Brazil.

Its economy is mainly based on the production of sugar, cocoa and cotton; as well as the extensive cattle breeding. Some time ago, at São Francisco River Valley (between States of Bahia and Pernambuco), fruits for export started being produced, too. At the seaside and the continental platform of the Region, the main activity is the exploitation of oil, which is later processed in the State of Bahia. Major industries (clothing, food, small machinery) are in the main metropolitan areas of the northeast.

Official reclamation activities have spurred the construction of numerous dams and hydroelectric projects, especially on the São Francisco River. In the 1960s a successful extensive regional economic development program to address social unrest and countereffect its harsh and picturesque history, peopled by leather-garbed cowboys, bandits (cangaceiros), and religious fanatics. Development of tourism is a concerted, ongoing effort.[5] The São Francisco River is responsible for the regional production of energy and it also bathes the states of Bahia, Sergipe, Alagoas and Pernambuco. The Northeast is rich in natural beauties with its beaches of clear, warm water. Beyond tourism, the Northeast also develops its industrial sector. Every day, important investors from many countries come to this region to search for new opportunities. The governments try to motivate the inflow of new investment money, based on the needs of its states.[6]

Northeast livestock

According with IBGE 2007, The Nordeste has the 3rd largest livestock portfolio in Brazil, with approximately 16% of the total livestock output.

Animal Bahia Pernambuco Ceará Maranhão Rio G do Norte Sergipe Paraiba Alagoas Piaui Northeast Total BR Ranking & %
Goats 3187839 1595069 976880 379054 401510 17972 636457 67549 1371392 8633722 1st - 91.36%
Sheep 3096155 1256270 1998165 226216 514224 147102 409634 201273 1437219 9286258 1st - 57.19%
Cattle 11385722 2219892 2424290 6609438 1010238 1073692 1139322 1112125 1736520 28711240 4th - 14.38%
Milk x1000lit 965799 662078 416453 335744 214044 251624 170396 242740 76409 3335286 4th - 12.77%
Pigs 1904699 495957 1132673 1485351 182598 97524 143824 144652 1159355 6747013 2nd - 18.77%
Chickens +family 29110700 31916818 24063274 11447837 4817525 6230077 8412925 5714782 10017084 131731022 3rd - 11.69%
Chickens eggs ~ 75216 142518 109464 14771 28729 22577 27480 28955 16721 466432 ~ 3rd - 15.73%
Quails 318585 605371 82813 20903 51741 19235 148656 122297 30600 1400201 2nd - 18.46%
Quails eggs ~ 3788 9390 826 332 838 123 1536 1044 379 18257 ~ 2nd - 13.94%
Horses 621122 125976 141370 174320 42933 68503 49761 56962 149561 1430408 2nd - 25.53%
Donkeys 308904 100944 201079 118577 57955 11445 49528 10704 203876 1063012 1st - 91.39%
Mules 322241 54812 90367 106927 21277 17948 23678 21485 37788 687523 1st - 51.19%
Buffalos 17303 19239 1631 77503 875 380 730 1747 570 119978 3rd - 10.60%
Rabbits 31491 2383 1953 --- 405 --- --- 692 --- 36924 3rd - 12.71%
Honey tonnes 2200 1177 3137 537 611 76 208 170 3483 11598 2nd - 33.38%

~ means dozens of thousands

As demonstrated on the above table, the Northeast region is a larger producer of goats, sheeps, donkeys, mules, horses and has a reasonable production in pigs, honey, cattle and eggs. That is due mainly to the fact that a large portion of the area is located in Poligono das Secas , which means drought poligonal area or knows popularly as sertão and/or agreste. Those areas comprise roughly 66% ( or 81% if discounted the Maranhão state )of all northeast and its characterized to have semi dessertic weather/characteristics such as: hot and dry temperatures, drought, lack and scant rainfall, eroded soil and high evapotranspiration. Even so, those farmers (in many cases subsistence farmers) are increasing their output by turning to more resistant species like as goats and sheeps (very appreciated in the local culinary), and more workable animals as horses, donkeys and mules to replace and help them to do the machinery tasks, if they do have none.


Campina Grande, an important regional educational center

Portuguese language is the official national language, and thus the primary language taught in schools. But English and Spanish are part of the official high school curriculum.

Educational institutions

Tourism and recreation

2007 Carnival at Pátio de São Pedro square in Recife

Tourism has grown significantly in the Region in the last decades, showing the high potential of each State.

Besides the capitals, most coastal cities of the Northeast Region have many natural beauties, such as the Abrolhos Marine National Park, Itacaré, Comandatuba Island, Costa do Sauípe, Canasvieiras and Porto Seguro, in the State of Bahia; the Marine National Park of Fernando de Noronha, Porto de Galinhas beach in the State of Pernambuco; tropical paradises, such as Canoa Quebrada and Jericoacoara, on the coast of Ceará, as well as the places to practice free flight, as Quixadá and Sobral; and Lençóis Maranhenses, embellishing the coast of Maranhão State, among many others. In the interior area, National Parks of Serra da Capivara and Sete Cidades, both in the State of Piauí; João Pessoa, in the State of Paraíba; Chapada Diamantina, in the State of Bahia; and many other attractions.

The economy is based on tourism (in coastal or historical cities) or agriculture. The tourist industry is based largely on the beaches, which attract thousands of tourists per year, not only from other regions of Brazil but also many from Europe (especially Italy, Portugal,Germany, France, UK and Spain), the U.S.A., and Australia.

Urban areas and rural areas

Nordeste's major cities are almost all on the Atlantic coast. Some exceptions can be seen, however, like Petrolina, Pernambuco, which lies immediately south of the São Francisco River (one of the few rivers that crosses the sertão and does not dry in the arid periods of time which can be quite long). Another example is the city of Teresina in the state of Piauí, a city notorious for its sweltering heat.

Good rural areas are scarce and generally they are all near the coast, or in the west of Maranhão, and are mainly used for exportation products. In the semi-arid areas of the Northeast Region, rural areas do exist, but rain is scarce in the region; rural areas in the interior are generally based on subsistence agriculture. Fazendas (large farms) are common in the interior, where cattle-rasing and the cultivation of tropical fruit is often practiced. Also, in the areas where water is scarce local politicians often use the promise of irrigation projects as a bargaining chip to win elections.


A Frevo dancer in Recife

Nordeste has a rich culture, with its unique constructions in the old centers of Salvador, Recife and Olinda, dance (frevo and maracatu), music (axé and forró) and unique cuisine. Dishes particular to the region include carne de sol, farofa, acarajé, vatapá, paçoca, canjica, pamonha, moqueca capixaba, quibebe, bolo de fubá cozido, sururu de capote and many others. Salvador was the first Brazilian capital.

The festival of São João (Saint John), one of the festas juninas, is especially popular in the Northeast, particularly in Caruaru, in the state of Pernambuco and Campina Grande, in the state of Paraíba. The festival takes place once a year, in June. As the Northeast is mostly arid or semi-arid the Nordestinos give thanks to Saint John for the rainfall that typical falls this time of year, which greatly helps the farmers with their crops. And because this time of year also coincides with the corn harvest many regional dishes containing corn, such as canjica, pamonha, and milho verde, have become part of the cultural tradition.

The Bumba-Meu-Boi festival is also popular, especially in the state of Maranhão. During the Bumba-Meu-Bói festival in the city of São Luis do Maranhão and its environs there are many different groups, with elaborate costumes and different styles of music, which are called sotaques: sotaque de orquestra, as the names implies, uses an orchestra of saxophones, clarinets, flutes, banjos, drums, etc; sotaque de zabumba employs primarily very large drums; and sotaque de matraca, a percussion instrument made of two pieces of wood that you carry in your hands and hit against each other. Some matracas are very large and are carried around the neck.

Many major cities in the Northeast also hold an off-season carnaval (or "micareta"), such as the Carnatal in Natal or the Fortal in Fortaleza. Since its inception in 1991, Carnatal has become the largest off-season carnaval in Brazil. The event takes place once a year, in December, and draws roughly one million participants. The Fortal takes place once every year as well but in the month of July. Held in a stadium called Cidade Fortal, the Fortal is considered the largest indoor off-season carnaval in Brazil.


International airports

Deputado Luís Eduardo Magalhães International Airport is located in an area of more than 6 million square meters between sand dunes and native vegetation. The road route to the airport has already become one of the city’s main scenic attractions. The airport’s use has been growing at an average of 14% a year and now is responsible for more than 30% of passenger movement in Brazil’s Northeast. Nearly 35 thousand people circulate daily through the passenger terminal. The airport generates more than 16 thousand direct and indirect jobs, to serve a daily average of over 10 thousand passengers, 250 takeoffs and landings of 100 domestic and 16 international flights.

In addition to domestic and regional services, the airport has non-stop flights to Lisbon, Madrid, Frankfurt, Montevideo, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Asunción and Miami. Its IATA airport code is SSA and it is the sixth busiest airport in the country, the first in northeastern Brazil, behind Congonhas International, Guarulhos International, Juscelino Kubitschek International, Santos Dumont Regional and Galeão International.

Guararapes International Airport. The new Recife/Guararapes – Gilberto Freyre International Airport has been open since July 2004 and has 52 thousand square meters of area. The largest airport in the North and Northeast regions, Guararapes had its capacity expanded from 1.5 million to 5 million passengers a year. There are currently 64 check-in counters, versus the former terminal’s 24. The shopping and leisure area was also totally remodeled, within the “Aeroshopping” concept, which transforms an airport into a center for business, comfort and high-quality products and services. The commercial spaces will be occupied in steps and the final total will be 142 shops. Since 2000, Recife has had the longest runway in the Northeast, at 3,305 meters. Its extension permits operations with jumbo jets, such as the Boeing 747-400, which can carry 290 passengers and 62 tons of cargo, with endurance to fly nonstop to anywhere in South and Central America, Africa and parts of Europe, the United States and Canada. Current domestic destinations include most major cities in Brazil, and there are also international flights to Paris, France, Lisbon, Portugal and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The Pinto Martins International Airport is situated in Fortaleza. The passenger terminal is air conditioned and has four levels. The basement level has parking for 1,000 cars as well as automatic teller machines and a stop for regular city buses.

The ground level has 31 check-in counters, airline offices, car rental agencies, special tourist information, a juvenile court bureau to facilitate travel of minors, a National Civil Aviation Agency (ANAC) office, information counter, passenger arrival area and access to two taxi stops.

The second level contains shops, a food court and domestic and international boarding lounges. The top floor has a beer garden and panoramic deck overlooking the maneuvering apron with a view of the Fortaleza skyline. The apron is 152,857 square meters and can accommodate 14 aircraft at once in pre-established positions (“boxes”).

The scheduled airlines operating out of Fortaleza are TAM, GOL, Azul, Varig, Ocean Air, Webjet, TAP, Cabo Verde Airlines (code-sharing with TAP), Delta Airlines, Alitalia, Livingston, TUI Airlines and Finnair. The airport also frequently receives domestic and international flights, some of them charters. Fortaleza has non-stop internacional flights to Atlanta, Praia, Lisbon, Rome, Milan (regular), Amsterdam, Helsinki (charters). The main domestic flights come from São Paulo-Guarulhos, Brasília, Recife, Salvador and Natal.

The passenger terminal, opened in 1998, was designed to have a useful life of 50 years. The former terminal, called the General Aviation Terminal, is now used for general aviation and the fire brigade. The control tower is located alongside.

Construction of a cargo terminal is the next big step planned by Infraero. The new terminal will have roughly eight thousand square meters, boosting the cargo storage and handling capacity fourfold. Plans then call for the new terminal to be integrated with highway and railroad links.

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