Destined by size to be the leading country of South America, Brazil is only just starting to realize its potential
Brazil's huge landmass occupies almost half the continent of South America. Geographically, the country's two main features are the Brazilian Highlands and the Amazon Basin. The Brazilian Highlands cover most of the south and east of the country and consist of a vast plateau with an average elevation of 1,000 metres, interspersed, particularly in the east, with rugged mountain ranges, some of which rise above 2,800 metres. Much of this area is forested or opens up to extensive prairies.
The Amazon Basin to the north and west covers more than 40% of the country. This is the world's largest river drainage system and most of it is covered with tropical rainforest. While there are still unexplored areas, many parts of the rainforest have now been penetrated by settlers, ranchers, or mining companies, a process of deforestation that has alarming environmental implications globally—in terms of climate change and loss of biological diversity. This area contains around one-fifth of world plant species. Most of Brazil has a humid subtropical climate, but the land to the north-east, known as the sertão, suffers from frequent droughts.
Brazil has long been a racial melting pot. There is little overt discrimination, but people of European origin hold the most powerful positions, followed by those of mixed race (who call themselves ‘brown’) and blacks, with the small and declining Indian population the most marginalized of all. This mixture of races has generated a vibrant and diverse culture. So although Brazil is unified by the Portuguese language and by Roman Catholicism it also has strong African influences.
This social stratification contributes to severe inequalities. The cities in the south, like Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, are similar in many respects to those in Europe, though also have desperate shanty towns, called favelas. The north-east is almost another country—deep in the Third World.
Brazil has pioneered conditional cash transfers
Brazil has one of the world's most unequal distributions of income. The richest 10% of the population get 47% of the income while the poorest 10% get only 12%. Around 20% of Brazilians live below the poverty line. Inequality has, however, fallen in recent years as a result of faster economic growth and an innovative programme of ‘conditional cash transfers’, Bolsa Família, which offers payments to around one-quarter of the population for attending health clinics and sending their children to school.
This should help improve access to education and health services, though this is still very unequal. Brazil has a small proportion of highly educated professionals, but many children drop out of school early. Half of ten-year-olds are illiterate. Health services too are skewed. One estimate suggests that 40% of health expenditure is used for sophisticated curative treatments that benefit only 3% of the population. HIV and AIDS are significant problems but those infected can get free anti-retroviral treatment.
In many respects, Brazil is an advanced industrial economy. Around one-quarter of the labour force work in industry. With such a large population, Brazil was for decades able to direct most of its manufacturing output at its domestic market, and offered local businesses protection from foreign competition.