Country Pasture/Forage Resource Profiles


Paulo César de Faccio Carvalho


1. Introduction
2. Soils and Topography
3. Climate and Agro-ecological Zones
4. Ruminant Livestock Production Systems
5. The Pasture Resource
6. Opportunities for Improvement of Fodder Resources
7. Research and Development Organizations and Personnel
8. References
9. Contacts


Brazil is a very young country. It was discovered in 1500 by the Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral and was Portuguese until 1822, when it became independent. Abolition of slavery came in the same century, in 1888, and the first Republic was established two years later. The large majority of slaves brought to Brazil came from African ethnic groups including Bantu from Southern Africa (the Congo, Angola and Mozambique), as well as Samba, Moxicongo and Anjico, and ethnic groups from the north-western coast of Africa such as Nago, Jeje, Fanti, Achanti Haussa, Mandinga, Tapa and Fulla, originating from regions from Senegal to Nigeria.

With the Portuguese being the first, there have been many immigrations from Europe, principally in the 19th century (Italy, Spain, Germany, Poland and Ukraine), as well as from Japan, Syria and the Lebanon. From 1875 until 1960, about 5,000,000 Europeans emigrated to Brazil. All these immigrations were added to an indigenous population estimated at 5,000,000 when European colonists first arrived (at present reduced to thousands), which conferred on Brazil a uniquely rich ethnic and cultural diversity.

The census carried out by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics-IBGE (2000) indicated that the Brazilian population was some 169,590,693 inhabitants, which corresponds to a geometric medium annual growth rate of 1.93 percent. This last census indicates a strong tendency to a changing population age pyramid with an increasing age span. Life expectancy at birth of the total population is 66.7 years for men and 74.1 years for women. According to the World Factbook the July 2006 estimate was 188,078,227 with a growth rate of 1.04%.

Brazil is the fifth most populous country in the world with 2.8% of the world’s population. Despite having less than 11% of the total territory, the South-east region contains 42% of the Brazilian people. On average the population density is not very high (19.92 hab/km2) but it varies strongly between different communities (0.13 to 12,897.8 hab/km2). In the last five decades there has been an enormous reversal in the ratio of rural/urban population. At present, only 18.8% live in the countryside.

In terms of political organization, Brazil is a Federation, composed of a Federal Union, 26 states, 1 Federal District and 5,507 municipalities. The government system is presidential, organised on Federal, State and Municipal levels.

Click to see Figure 1. Latin America and Brazil

Brazil is located in the Western Hemisphere, between the meridians 34o47'30" and 73o59'32" to west of Greenwich. Located between the parallel of 5o16'20" of north latitude and 33o44'42" of south, it is cut to the north by the Equator and, to the south, by the Tropic of Capricorn, therefore, about 90 percent of its territory in the Southern Hemisphere. Part of the American continent, Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking nation in the Americas (see Figure 1).

Brazil is in the centre-oriental portion of South America and has a border with nine countries: Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname, and with the French Department of Guiana; exceptions are Ecuador and Chile (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Location of Brazil and its political divisions

Its dimensions characterize it as a continental country, its territory occupying 1.6% of the surface of the terrestrial globe, with 5.7% of the dry land of the planet and 20.8% of the surface of the American continent, as well as 12.7% of the world's river water (5,190 km3 a year). The Brazilian territorial area is 8,514,876,599 km2 and its perimeter embraces 23,086 km, being bounded over 7,367 km, by the Atlantic Ocean, that is to say 31.9% of its borders. It is the third largest country in area and the largest in South America, occupying 66% of the South American territorial area. This area comprises arable land (5%), permanent crops (1%), permanent pastures (22%), forests and woodland (58%) and others (14%) (1993 est.).

Brazilian Global Economy
Brazil is the tenth-largest economy in the world, with 1999 Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$ 557.5 billion produced by well-developed agricultural, mining, manufacturing, and service sectors. Between 1993 and 1998 the GDP increased 80% (US$ 429.7 to US$ 775.5 billions), the same period in which the annual inflation rate dropped from 2,489.1% to 2.4%. The 1999 performance reflects the 1998 global economic crisis. The GDP per capita is US$ 3,403 (2004 est.). The GDP composition by sector in 2004 was: agriculture: 10.1%; industry 38.6% and services 51.3%. This was distributed in the following way: agriculture having as main products coffee, soybeans, wheat, rice; industry having as main products textiles, shoes, chemicals, cement, iron ore. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Brazil totalled US$ 609 billion in the period from January to September 2005. Brazil represents 31.1% of Latin America GDP. According to forecasts by the Institute of Applied Economic Research, the country GDP should have grown 2.3% in 2005.

Brazil has a highly diversified economy with wide variations in levels of development, having the most advanced industrial sectors in Latin America. Industries range from automobiles, steel, and petrochemicals, to computers, aircraft, and consumer durables. The leading manufacturing industries produce textiles, shoes, food products, steel, motor vehicles, ships, and machinery. Most large industry is concentrated in the south and southeast. The northeast is traditionally the poorest part of Brazil, but is now beginning to attract new investment.

Brazil has vast mineral wealth, including iron ore (it is the world's largest producer), quartz, chrome ore, manganese, industrial diamonds, gem stones, gold, nickel, tin, bauxite, uranium, and platinum. Natural resources also include petroleum and hydropower. Most of Brazil's electricity comes from waterpower and it possesses extensive untapped hydroelectric potential, particularly in the Amazon basin.

In addition to coffee, Brazil's exports include iron, concentrated orange juice, soybeans, and footwear. In 1999 exports totalled US$ 48 billions. Crude oil, manufactured goods, and chemical products head the imports (US$ 49.2 billion) leading to a trade balance which has been negative since 1995. Most trade is with the European Union nations, the United States of America, Argentina, and Japan. Recently, Brazil’s exports increased as a consequence of policies specifically oriented towards export which reached U$ 118.309 billions in 2005.

Social Indicators
Brazil is a country of contrasts and significant poverty levels contrast with the relatively high GDP; around 32,000,000 people were below the poverty line in 1993. The concentration of wealth is among the highest in the world, with the 10% richest sharing 47.9% of income, yet the 10% poorest share only 0.8%! Malnutrition affects 5% of children under five, which contributes to an infant mortality rate of 3.6% live births. Unemployment rate averaged 7.6% in 1999.

The Agricultural Sector
Brazilian agriculture is well diversified, and the country is largely self-sufficient in food. The sector contributes 14% of the GDP, and all the agricultural chain 27%, employing almost 17,900,000 people. Of these, 67% are male and 14% are under 14 years of age. Brazil produced 119.294 million tons of grains in 2004, harvested from 47.329 million ha, particularly soybean, maize, rice, bean and wheat (Table 1).

Table 1. Production of the main grain crops in Brazil (IBGE 2004, in tons)













Other important crops are sugar cane (330 million tons), citrus fruits (32 million tons) and coffee (30 million bags). Cocoa, tobacco, and banana are also important. Forestry accounts for 4 percent of the GDP.

In 2005, a decrease in cultivated area of about 4.68% lead to a production of 112.715 million ton, 5.51% lower than 2004.

The largest agricultural exports (in value) in 1998 were coffee, soybeans, soybean cake, orange juice and sugar. Soybean is the major agricultural commodity when all of its products (raw soybean, meal, oil, etc) are added. The total value of agricultural exports in 1998 was US$15.3 billion, while the total value of agricultural imports in 1998 was US$ 6,306.4 million. Wheat and dairy products are the main agricultural imports. Brazilian agribusiness and policies are strongly oriented towards international markets due to the need to achieve a positive commercial balance and because agriculture is one of the main sources of income.

The Farming Sector
According to the "Confederação Nacional de Agricultura" (CNA, 2001), 85% of farmers are land owners with an average age of 52 years (32% under 45, 11% over 70). Most of them have a low level of schooling, with two thirds having less than 6 years schooling; the younger have more. To illustrate the contrasting characteristics of almost all Brazilian indexes, nearly half of farms (44%) have no access to electricity and 60% have no tractors, but 17% of farmers have computers!

Average farm size is not very informative in so vast a country. Two thirds of the farms in Brazil are under 100 ha. In Southern Brazil the average is 92 ha while in "Centro-Oeste" it is 897 ha. Land concentration has been a trend since the middle of the last century. In 1996, 4,800,000 farms occupied 350,000,000 hectares and of these 80.6% were under 50 ha, but shared only 12.2% of the total agricultural land. On the other hand, 1% of farms were larger than 1,000 hectares, occupying 45.1% of all land used in agriculture.

The distance between farm and the nearest urban centre is 23 km on average, but again there are many contrasts (in "Centro-Oeste" it is 350 km). The tendency to migration is variable, being 33 for each 100 farms in the South compared with 66 for each 100 farms in the Southeast region.

In Southern Brazil, 46% of farmers earn less than US$ 100/year/farm (liquid revenue), the gross revenue being US$ 318/ha (all activities comprised, but this is only US$ 150/ha in "Pernambuco" state, to illustrate the variability). To understand how farmers can survive with such a low income it should be mentioned that 64% of commercial farmers have other off- farm sources of revenue.

Government finances only 16% of rural commercial activities. Consequently, 34% of farmers believe that the major limitation to their activity is credit. Only 0.3% believe that technology is a primary limiting factor. This probably reflects the average low level of education. For example, in the most intensive ruminant sector, the dairy cattle sector, only 5% of farmers own milking machines and 5.9% use artificial insemination. Of these farmers, 0.2% percent believe that extension is the major limitation even if only 34% of them received some type of agricultural assistance at least once a year, but 71% intend to increase it. Less than 1% of Brazilian farmers carry out any kind of natural resource protection, despite the great increase in soil conservation by direct drilling, mainly concentrated in Southern Brazil in recent years.

The Ruminant Sector

The predominant production system is based on grazing and relying on native and cultivated pastures, which are grazed at continuous stocking all year round. Forage conservation is only utilized in intensive dairy production systems and some rare feed-lot systems. Of the 164,621,040 cattle (in 1999; by 2004 numbers were 192 million), 74.5% are beef cattle and 21.5% dairy cattle. In addition there are 14,399,960 sheep (14.2M in 2004), 1,068,059 buffaloes (1.2M in 2004) and 8,622,935 goats (9.1M in 2004), the latter showing a considerable increase recently. To complete the domestic herbivore population (and those requiring forage) there are 5,831,341 horses (5.9M in 2004) and 2,572,172 other equidea. While stock numbers have been more or less the same since 1994 (for cattle), the number slaughtered have increased almost two fold. About 31,600,000 head were slaughtered in 1999, with only 3,200,000 receiving any kind of intensification during the production process (conserved forage, supplements, feed-lot, etc.). For details of livestock numbers, meat and milk production and some imports and exports see Table 2.

It is estimated that 38.0 kg/year of beef are consumed per capita (in the mainly metropolitan regions). To give an idea of its market value, in 1999 the farmer received on average US$ 0.6/kg of liveweight. His product has different destinations; on average 65% of the beef goes to supermarkets, restaurants, hotels and industrial catering, 30% to butcher’s and 5% to special meat shops. In 1993, the beef sector provided 6,834,000 jobs, involving 1,793,324 farm units and occupying 221,982,144 ha. In 1999 it produced 6,500,000 tons of carcass-equivalent (7,774,000 in 2004). Other meat products include 5,526,000 tons of chicken (8,668,000 in 2004) and 2,400,000 tons of pork (3,110,000 in 2004).

In 2000 twenty billion litres of milk were produced (23 billion litres by 2004), which represent a production of 4.9 l/cow/day. Milk consumption per capita is around 246 ml (daily intake recommendation is 400 ml/day) and 75% of national consumption goes to 20% of the population. Dairy products, apart from wheat, were until recently the most important agricultural import, accounting for US$ US$443M in 1999 (US$114.4M in 2003), however from the 1999 importation figure of 2,41 billion litres of milk, this fell to only 0,73 billion litres in 2001 and 0.55 billion litres in 2003. In 2004 the dairy sector trade presented a positive commercial balance of US$11.5M and Brazil started to become a dairy exporter. The dairy sector has been deregulated during the last decade and at present 60% of the Brazilian market is controlled by transnational companies. Imports pass to private industry. European milk enters Brazil at half of its actual cost.

Exports of meat was valued at some US$ 443,835,000 in 1997: by 1999 there were exports of 150,000 Mt of meat, mainly to Europe (50.6%) and USA (37.44%). Exports increased to 620,117 Mt of carcass-equivalent in 2003 worth US$ 1,154,508,000.

Table 2. Brazil statistics for livestock numbers, beef & veal,
sheep, goat meat and milk production, beef & veal exports
and dairy product imports and exports for the period 1996-2005
(FAO Database 2006)












Cattle nos.











Sheep nos.











Goat nos.











Buffalo nos.











Horse nos.











Beef & veal prod.











Sheep meat prod.











Goat meat prod.











Milk prod.
(,000,000 mt)











Beef & veal
exports mt (,000)











Milk Equivalents
exports mt (,000)











Milk Equivalents
imports mt (,000)











Source: FAOSTAT 2006
n.a. - not available
* in addition there were 164,234 mt of beef preparations and dried beef exports, 1.9M mt of chicken meat exports as well as 39,186 mt of canned chicken, and 544,208 mt of pork and pigmeat exports.


Geology of Brazil
Brazil is totally within the South American Platform, whose basement is of very complex geologic evolution, originating in the Archean period. Brazil had its consolidation completed between the Proterozoic Superior period and the beginning of the Palaeozoic period, with the closing of the Brazilian cycle. The basement of the South American Platform is essentially on metamorphic rocks of amphibolite to granulite facies and granitoids of Archean age, associated with the Proterozoic units that are usually represented by folded strips of green schist facies and sedimentary and volcanic coverings (seldom metamorphosed) and several granitoids. That basement is widely exposed in great shields, separated from each other by fanerozoic coverings, whose limits extend to the neighbouring countries. Prominent are the shields of Guyana, Central Brazil and the Atlantic.

The Guyana shield extends to the north of the basin of "Amazonas". The Brazil-central, or Guaporé shield extends to the interior of Brazil and south of that basin, while the Atlantic shield is exposed in the eastern portion reaching the Atlantic. These shields are exposed in more than 50 percent of the area of Brazil.

On that platform were developed in Brazil, in stable conditions of ortho-platform, starting from Ordovician-Silurian, the sedimentary and volcanic coverings that spatially filled three extensive basins with sineclisis character: "Amazonas", "Paraíba" and "Paraná". Besides those basins, several other smaller basins, including coastal basins and other sedimentary areas, are exposed on the platform.

The relief of Brazil is divided into two great plateau areas and three plain areas as follows:

  • Guyana Plateau, embracing the mountainous area and the Amazon North Plateau, in the extreme north of the country, it is an integral part of the shield of Guyana, presenting Precambrian crystalline rocks. This area includes the highest point in Brazil - the "Pico da Neblina", with an altitude of 3,014 m.
  • Brazilian plateau, subdivided into Central, "Maranhão-Piauí", North-eastern Brazil, mountains and plateau of the East and Southeast, Southern and "Uruguayan-Riograndense", is formed by quite worn crystalline lands and sedimentary basins. It is located in the central part of the country, and encompasses great areas of the national territory.
  • Plains and Amazon low lands, in the North of the country, below the Plateau of Guyana, present three different altimetrical levels - valleys, constituted by lands of recent formation near the margins of the rivers; fluvial terraces, with maximum altitudes of 30 m and periodically flooded; and low-plateaus, formed by lands of Tertiary age.
  • Plain of the "Pantanal", in the west of the state of "Mato Grosso" do Sul and Southwest of "Mato Grosso", are formed by lands of Quaternary age. Plains and coastal lowlands, along the coast from "Maranhão" to the south of the country, are formed by lands of the Tertiary and by current lands of the Quaternary.

It should be noted that the Brazilian relief does not present formations of very high mountainous chains and prevailing altitudes are below 500 m, since it was developed on an old geologic base, without recent tectonic movements.

Soil types
In agronomic terms, it should be noted that the main soils are Ferralsols, which are strongly predominant. Ferralsols are extremely weathered soils, often developed on transported materials of Pleistocene or older age in a humid or very humid tropical climate and covered by a tropical rain forest or semi-deciduous forest. These soils are characterised by the dominance of kaolinite clays and a residual accumulation of iron and aluminium oxides and hydroxides, a stable soil structure, a low silt/clay ratio and a very low content of weatherable minerals. They are deep to very deep and generally show yellowish or reddish colours. Ironstone nodules and iron-pans, inherited from previous land surfaces, are common.

Ferralsols are poor chemically, with a low ion exchange capacity, and nutrient reserves that are easily depleted by agricultural practices, while fixation of phosphorus is a major problem. The content of available aluminium may reach toxic levels (84% have acidity constraints), as may manganese also. On the other hand, the physical characteristics of these soils are quite favourable; because of their high permeability and stable micro-structure they are less prone to erosion. Ferralsols are easy to work but the surface is liable to compaction and crusting if heavy machinery is used to clear forest or if they are overgrazed.

Figure 3. Details of the soil of Brazil
Click here to view the key to the soil map

The chemical constraints of these soils may be overcome in part by careful fertilization, including both phosphate and lime, but attention must be paid to mode and timing of application. Ferralsols are used to grow a variety of annual and perennial tropical crops, either by sedentary or shifting cultivators. According to the FAO classification there are still Acrisols and Leptosols. In a lesser extent, Lixisols, Plinthosols, Arenosols and others.

According to the Soil Aptitude Chart of Brazil, 35% of the territory is not recommended for agriculture due to low fertility and steep slopes. Salinity is not a significant factor, accounting for 2% of the land surface. 7% of soils are shallow. Only 9% of the surface has no constraints for agricultural use, with little nutrient limitation, good drainage as well as physical soil properties, and sufficient precipitation.

Details of chemical and physical soil limitations in Latin America.


General climate

The climate of a given area is conditioned by several factors, among them are: temperature, rains, atmospheric humidity, winds and atmospheric pressure - which, in turn, are conditioned by factors such as altitude, latitude, relief characteristics, vegetation and continentality.

Brazil, due to its continental dimensions, possesses a very wide climatic diversity, influenced by its geographical configuration, its significant coastal extension, its relief and the dynamics of the masses of air on its territory. This last factor assumes great importance, because it acts directly on the temperatures and the pluviometric indices in the different areas of the country.

The air masses, especially those that occur more directly in Brazil, are, according to the Statistical Annual of Brazil (IBGE): the Equatorial air mass, which is divided into Continental Equatorial and Atlantic Equatorial; the Tropical air mass, also divided into Continental Tropical and Atlantic Tropical; and the Polar Atlantic air mass. All these air masses provide the climatic differentiation in Brazil (Figure 4).

Thus climates vary from very humid and hot climates, coming from the Equatorial air masses, as is the case for the great part of the Amazon area; to very strong semi-arid climates, such as those in the hinterlands of north-eastern Brazil.

Figure 4. Climate of Brazil
(IBGE, 2005)

[Click to view full map]

The Northern Area and part of the interior of the North-east region experience annual medium temperatures above 25o C, while in the South of the country and part of the Southeast annual medium temperatures are below 20o C. Absolute maxima above 40o C are observed in the interior lowlands of the Northeast Area with little variability during the year, which characterises the hot climate of these regions. In mid-latitudes, temperature variation throughout the year is very important for climate definition in the depressions, valleys and lowlands of the Southeast; in the "Pantanal" and lower areas of the Middle-West; and in the central depressions and in the valley of the river Uruguay, in the Southern Area. Absolute minima, with frequent negative values, are observed in the mountainous summits of the South-east and in a large part of the South, where they are accompanied by frosts and snow. During winter, there is a greater penetration of high-latitude cold air masses, which contributes to the predominance of low temperatures.

Because of its great territorial extension, Brazil presents varied precipitation and temperature regimes. All over the country, a great variety of climates with distinct regional characteristics can be found. In the North of the country, a rainy equatorial climate is found, with practically no dry season. In the Northeast, the rainy season, with low rainfall indexes, is restricted to a few months, characterising a semi-arid climate. The Southeast and West-Central regions are influenced not only by tropical systems but also by mid-latitudes, with a dry season well defined in the winter and a rainy summer season with convective rain. The South of Brazil, due to its latitude, is affected mostly by mid-latitude systems, in which the frontal systems cause most of the rain during the year.

Northern Region
The Northern Region has spatial and seasonal temperature homogeneity, but the same is not observed in terms of rainfall. This region receives the greatest total annual rainfall, especially notable at the coast of the "Amapá" State, at the south of the "Amazonas" river and at the western part of the region, where precipitation exceeds 3,000 mm. In this region, three abundant precipitation centres are identified:

  • the first one is in the Northwest of the Amazon, with rainfall above 3,000 mm/year. The existence of this centre is associated with the condensation of humid air brought by easterly winds from the Intertropical Convergence Zone, with high rainfall where the flow rises to the Andes Mountains.
  • the second centre is in the central part of Amazon, around 5º S, with precipitation of 2500 mm (year),
  • and the third one, in the eastern part of the Amazonian base, close to the city of Belém, with precipitation of 2800 mm/year.

Therefore three rainfall regimes can be identified in the northern region of Brazil:

  • one in the Northwest, where rain is abundant throughout the whole year, reaching a maximum in April-May-June, with more than 3,000 mm/year;
  • the second one in a zonally oriented band, extending to the central part of Amazon, where the rainy season takes place in March-April-May;
  • and the third one in the Southern part of the Amazonian region where the rainfall peak occurs in January-February-March.

Northeast Region
In terms of rainfall, there is considerable climatic variation in the Northeast (NE), ranging from a semi-arid climate interior, with an accumulated precipitation lower than 500 mm/year, to a rainy climate mainly observed on the east coast, with an accumulated annual precipitation above 1,500 mm. The northern part of the region receives between 1000 and 1200 mm/year. Similar to the Northern Region, temperature in most of the NE also has a great seasonal and spatial homogeneity. Only in the south of "Bahia" is there a greater seasonal variability in temperature, in view of the penetration of relatively cold masses in winter.

Different rainfall regimes are identified in the NE. In the north of the region, the main rainy season is from March to May, in the south and Southeast rain occurs mainly during the period from December to February, and in the east the rainy season occurs from May to July. The main rainy season in the NE, including the north and east of the region, which accounts for 60% of the annual rainfall, occurs from April to July and the dry season, for the greatest part of the region, takes place from September to December.

Southern Region
The annual distribution of rain in the south of Brazil is quite uniform. Throughout almost all the territory, the precipitation annual average varies from 1,250 to 2,000 mm. Only a few areas are not within this rainfall range. Above 2,000 mm are the coast of "Paraná", the east of "Santa Catarina" and the area around "São Francisco de Paula", in "Rio Grande do Sul". Values below 1,250 mm are restricted to the southern coast of "Santa Catarina" and to the north of "Paraná". Relief exerts little influence on rainfall distribution in this region. Temperature, in its turn, plays a role in the same sense as precipitation, reinforcing climate uniformly in the south of the country. However, this is the region in Brazil with greater thermal variability throughout the year.

Southeast and West-Central Regions
Because of their location, the Southeast and West-Central regions are characterized as regions of transition between low latitude hot climates and mid-latitude temperate mesothermic climates. The south of the Southeast and West-Central regions are affected by the majority of synoptic systems that affect the south of the country, with some differences in the system's intensity and seasonality. The inverted troughs act mainly during winter, causing moderate weather conditions, especially in the States of "Mato Grosso do Sul" and "São Paulo". Upper level cyclonic vortices from the Pacific region organize themselves with intense convection associated to the instability caused by the subtropical jet. Pre-frontal instability lines, generated from the association of large-scale dynamic factors and mesoscale characteristics, are responsible for intense precipitation. In the highland regions, located in the eastern part of the Southeast, minimum temperature extremes are registered during winter, while the highest temperatures are observed in the State of "Mato Grosso", in the Central region of Brazil. In general, precipitation is evenly distributed in these regions, with the accumulated annual average precipitation ranging from 1500 to 2000 mm. Two maximum nuclei are registered in the Central region of Brazil and in the coast of the Southeast Region, whereas in the north of the State of "Minas Gerais" there is a relative shortage of rain throughout the year.

Agro-ecological Zones
Brazil is known as the world’s richest country in terms of its megadiversity, with its fauna and flora comprising at least 10 - 20% of the world's species described to date (Brazil, Convention on Biological Diversity). The vegetation changes from North to South, expressing the different environmental conditions. The main phytogeographic zones are shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5. Main Biomes of Brazil (IBGE, 2005)
[Click to view full map]

"Amazônia" (Amazon Forest)
The Amazon Forest occupies the North of Brazil, embracing about 49.29% of the national territory or 4,196,943 km2, and could encompass all of the European Union (15) countries. It is the largest forest formation on the planet, and is conditioned by the humid equatorial climate. This is the most well-preserved biome, with about 85% of the Brazilian Amazon still forested. About 15% of the Amazon forest has been destroyed, with the opening up of highways, through mining, colonisation and logging, and the advance of the agricultural frontier.

This area possesses a great variety of vegetation physiognomies, from dense forests to floodplain open mixed forests. Dense forests are represented by forests of the Lowland ("terra firme"), the "várzea" forests which are periodically flooded, and the "igapó" forests, which are permanently flooded as happens in almost the entire central region of the Amazon.

The savannahs and savannah woodlands of "Roraima" are on poor soils in the northern end of the basin of "Rio Branco". The "Campinaranas" or "Caatinga amazônica" are white sand forest, being spread in "stains" along Rio Negro's basin. These last two formations consist of the "Cerrado" type of vegetation, thus being areas of "Cerrado" isolated from the main "Cerrado" ecosystem of the Brazilian central plateau. Mixed forest with palms, semi-deciduous forests, lianes, bamboo forests and tidal zones are also important vegetation types.

The Semi-arid "Caatinga" (see Plate 1)
This area of uncertain rainfall embraces all the states of the Brazilian Northeast, in addition to the north of "Minas Gerais", occupying about 9.92% of the national territory (844.453 million km2). It is a vast semi-arid steppe area comprising thorn scrub ("Caatinga") and dry deciduous forest ("Caatinga alta"), as well as isolated rain forest patches ("brejos") and rocky outcrops ("lajeiros"). Its interior, the "Sertão" of northeastern Brazil, is characterised by the occurrence of the very thin vegetation of the semi-arid "Caatinga". The highest areas or "Agreste", which are subject to less intense droughts, are located closer to the coast. The transition area between "Caatinga" and "Amazônia" is known as Middle-north or "Zona dos Cocais" (Palm zone). Suffering from prolonged droughts, desertification, soil erosion and salinization, the "Caatinga" has lost 50% of its native vegetation. Extensive cattle-ranching, agriculture, resource extraction, and subsistence farming have all had major impacts in this biome. Hunting for food is an important additional factor, especially in the dry season.

Plate 1. Caatinga
(photo by Magno J. D. Cândido)
[Click to view full image]

The "Cerrado"
The "Cerrado" (see Plate 2) occupies the area of the Brazilian Central Plateau. The continuous area of the "Cerrado" corresponds to 23.92% of the national territory (2,036,448 km2), and there are great patches also in the Amazon and some smaller ones in the "Caatinga" and also in the Atlantic forest. Its climate presents two very different and defined aspects. The season of "águas" and the season of "secas", corresponding to wet and dry seasons, respectively, which are very well defined. The "Cerrado" presents varied physiognomies, from clear areas lacking woody vegetation to "cerradões", which are dense arboreal formations. This area is permeated by dendritic forests and pathways that follow the courses of water, and includes high altitude moorlands.

The "Cerrado" biome, which has suffered from the enormous advance of the agricultural frontier in recent decades, has already lost over 40% of its native vegetation through the expansion of crops, cattle ranching, and dramatic increases in human population. More than 50% of the remaining natural ecosystems have been degraded. Burning, both for the maintenance and creation of cattle pasture and for plantations is a common practice, and results in soil erosion as well as serious loss of biological diversity. Economic activities of some sort are present throughout the majority of the remaining area.

Plate 2. Typical Cerrado scene
(photo by Rodrigo A. Barbosa)
[Click to view full image]

The Atlantic Forest
The Atlantic forest, including the semi-caducifolius seasonal forests, was originally the forest of greatest latitudinal extension on the planet, ranging from southern latitudes of 6 to 32 degrees (Joly et al., 1999). This ecosystem corresponds to 13.04% of the national territory (1,110,182 km2). Due to centuries of deforestation, nowadays the Atlantic forest only has 4% of its original area and only about 8.75% of the original forest cover remains as scarce patches.

There is great climatic variability throughout its distribution, going from temperate, super-humid climates in the extreme south, to tropical humid and semi-arid in the northeast. The uneven relief of the coastal zone adds still more variability to this ecosystem, which includes montane, restingas (coastal forests and scrub on sandy soils), mangroves and the "Araucária" forests and grasslands of the Campos zone in the south. In the valleys trees are generally well developed, forming a dense forest. On slopes the forest is less dense, due to frequent fall of trees. It is one of the most important repositories of biodiversity in the country and in the world.

The "Pantanal Mato-Grossense"
The "Pantanal" is the largest plain subject to regular flooding (see Plate 3) on the planet, covered by mainly open vegetation, which occupies 1.76% of the national territory (150,355 km2). This ecosystem is formed largely by sandy lands, covered with different physiognomies due to the variety of micro-reliefs and flood regimes. Savannah, parkland savannah (campo limpo), evergreen gallery forest, seasonal semideciduous forest and chaco are the main vegetation formations. As a transitional area between "Cerrado" and "Amazônia", the "Pantanal" contains a mosaic of terrestrial ecosystems. Ranching became the main economic activity, with cattle-raising on floodplain native grasslands, realizing that the land is not a swamp in spite of its misleading toponymn.

Plate 3. Typical Pantanal scene
(photo by Sandra A. Santos)

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Other Formations

The Fields of the South (Campos zone or Pampas)
The Campos zone (see Plate 4) occurs in the subtropical climate of the extreme south, and represents 2.07% of the national territory (176,496 km2). The open lands of the plains and plateaux "gaúchos" (native of "Rio Grande do Sul") and the "coxilhas", of soft-wavy relief, are colonised by field pioneer species that form a vegetation type of open savannah and steppe. There are areas of seasonal forests and of fields with grassy-woody covering. The predominant physiognomy of these fields is herbaceous, with many species of Poaceae, Asteraceae, Cyperaceae, Fabaceae, Rubiaceae, Apiaceae and Verbenaceae (Ministério do Meio Ambiente, 2000). Average height of the continuous, sometimes dense, coverage is 40 to 60 cm, sometimes 1 m. This zone extends to Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay, totalling 500,000 km2 and feeding about 65 million domestic ruminants. Cattle and horses were the first domestic herbivores introduced by Spanish settlers at the beginning of the XVIIth. Considering the climatic and soil conditions of this ecosystem, one would expect that it should be covered by subtropical forests and not dominated by herbaceous formations. Probably these extensive grass fields are remnants of the semi-arid climate that had dominated the region during the climate changes of the Quaternary period. Grazing is considered the main disturbance in keeping grasslands in a herbaceous pseudoclimax phase.

Plate 4. Typical Campos scene
(photo by Ilsi I. Boldrini)

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The Forest of "Araucárias" (see Plate 5)
The Brazilian Southern Plateau, at altitudes in excess of 500 m, is the area of distribution of the "pinheiro" (pine tree) do "Paraná", Araucaria angustifolia, that occupies about 2.6% of the national territory. In these forests, representatives of the tropical and temperate flora of Brazil coexist, being dominated, however, by the "pinheiro-do-Paraná". The forests vary in arboreal density and height of the vegetation and can be classified according to the soil aspects, as alluvial, along the rivers, sub-mountainous, which no longer exist, and mountainous, the major one dominating the landscape. The open vegetation of the grassy-woody fields occurs on shallow soils. Because of the high economic value of the pine tree forests of "Araucária" they are subject to intense logging pressure. Only about 1,2% of the original area remains and from these only 40,774 hectares are being legally protected. Araucaria is nowadays considered in extinction by Brazilian government and specific protection measures have been taken.

Plate 5. Typical Araucarias scene
(photo by Ilsi I. Boldrini)

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Coastal and Insular Ecosystems
The coastal ecosystems are generally associated with the Atlantic forest due to its proximity. In the sandy soils of the coastal strips and dunes, sandbanks have developed. They vary in form from low-bushy to arboreal. The "manguezais" (mangrove lands) and the saline fields of fluvial-marine origin have developed on saline soils. In the sandy or muddy plains of the Continental Platform benthic ecosystems occur. In the tidal zone the beaches and rocks, colonised by algae, stand out. The islands and reefs are remarkable geographical features of the landscape.

Brazilian Biodiversity
Brazil is the nation with the richest biodiversity in the world (Brazil, Convention on Biological Diversity). At least 10% of the world's amphibians and mammals (27% of the world's primates) and 17% of all bird species occur in Brazil. In terms of the Brazilian flora, there is 50,000 to 56,000 described species of higher plants, or 22-24% of the world's angiosperm species. By way of comparison, the estimate for North America is 17,000 species, that for Europe 12,500, and 40,000 to 45,000 species are believed to occur in Africa. Not only is the number of species high, but also the level of endemism.

The dimensions and complexity of Brazil's biodiversity, both marine and terrestrial, may mean that it will never be completely described. Officially five great biomes are recognised. The Amazonian biome comprises 40% of the world's tropical forest, being the largest remaining rain forest of the world. "Cerrado" is the largest extent of savannah in a single country. Atlantic forest extends from south to northeast covering an area of 1 million km2. This biome at present includes the Campos zone, covering 13,608,000 ha of natural pastures in Southern Brazil with more than 400 grass and 150 legume forage species, which is not officially recognised as a biome. "Caatinga" is a vast semi-arid area of about 1,000,000 km2, contrasting with the "Pantanal" and its 140,000 km2 of wetlands. Coastal and marine biomes add up to 3,500,000 km2 under Brazilian jurisdiction. There are numerous subsystems and ecosystems within these biomes, each with unique characteristics, and the conservation of ecotones between them is vital for the conservation of their biodiversity.

Recently, Brazil has made strong efforts towards the preservation of its biodiversity. Nowadays, 130,550,000 ha, or 15.37% of Brazil’s area have been legally declared as protected areas. Moreover, 200,000 records of plant germplasm are being conserved throughout the country (24% are native species).


For all information on livestock numbers the reader is referred to Table 2 in section 1. Concerning pastures, the last official census in 1996 indicated 177,700,472 ha as the total area comprised by natural and cultivated pastures. In 1970, only 25 million ha were cultivated pastures, increasing to 100 million ha in 1996. By contrast, natural pastures decreased from 100 to 75 million ha. Recent data indicate that cultivated pastures in Brazil attained more than 130 million ha and natural pastures account for less than 70 million ha,

The main important cultivated pastures are grasses of African origin, which in general, show great adaptation to the Brazilian climate and soils. Some species have become naturalised, since they were first introduced through slave trading in the eighteenth century. Grass was used as bedding for slaves during the trip to the new country.

Until 1985, government policy provided substantial incentives for expansion of agricultural and cattle-ranching frontiers. Between 1970 and 1985, financial incentives and subsidized credits totalled US$ 700,000,000, mostly involving deforestation for cattle ranching. This changed some regions in a remarkable and quick way, the "Cerrado" being the best example. Up until 1960 the "Cerrado" was exploited extensively, with a few farmers using natural pastures for cow-calf operations and many small farmers cultivating cassava and beans, mainly along river margins for subsistence. This changed drastically with government investments in highways and railways or direct agricultural incentives. Monocultures of cash crops or cultivated grasses spread to 40% of this system, and the population quadrupled. Export products, such as soybean, have increased notably. Commercial, large-scale, mechanised and capital-intensive farming has replaced small farmers, who have decreased by 1,000,000 in the last decade (all regions concerned). Socially, the development of modern agriculture in the "Cerrado" has not improved its already uneven social inequality, and also it has brought ecological costs such as landscape fragmentation, loss of biodiversity, biological invasion, soil erosion, water pollution, changes in burning regimes, land degradation and heavy use of chemicals.

Savannahs are responsible for almost 55% of the country's beef and pioneer cattle ranching; they provide good examples of a production system. Natural vegetation is removed and soil fertility is sometimes improved by fertilizers. All these operations can cost around US$ 600/ha or more. Roads and transport are still constraints in many situations. Alternative ways of land exploitation include partial removal of vegetation, followed by burning, disking and direct seeding of pastures. Depending on financial possibilities and local market needs, first operations can be crop production such as upland rice to reduce land clearance and preparation costs and use the residual "natural fertility" incorporated in the soil.

Farming systems in Brazil may be composed of cow-calf operations, store and finishing, with farmers doing all phases or specialising. Beef and dairy enterprises in tropical pasture-based systems are notoriously of low productivity. The low soil fertility, the over-exploitation of native grasslands, the low genetic potential of the animals and the poor management of soil, pasture and animal components are all arguments used to explain these "low-productivity systems". Productivity indexes for cattle enterprises show a lack of productivity (Table 3).

Table 3. Cattle enterprises in Brazil, according to Zimmer & Euclides (1997).



Birth rate

60 %

Mortality up to weaning

8 %

Weaning rate

54 %

Mortality post-weaning

4 %

Age at first calving

48 months

Calving interval

21 months

Slaughter age*

48 months

Slaughter rate*

17 %

Carcass weight

220 kg

Carcass productivity

53 %

Stocking rate

0.9 head/ha/year

* Showed great improvement recently. See text for further explanations

The long payback time on cattle production systems compared to other agricultural enterprises also restrains technology diffusion and adoption. As a result, the financial policy is focusing investment on crops other than pastures to allow farmers to have their investment back as soon as possible. Recently, the beef cattle sector has experienced great positive changes. There has been a reduction of herd age to slaughter from 4 to 3 years on average in the last ten years. But the birth rate is still 60% and calving interval 21 months.

The average beef production in Brazil is 30 kg/ha/year, which can easily be increased by the adoption of already available "conventional" technologies such as:

  • Improvement in pasture management;
  • Pasture subdivision;
  • Recovery and maintenance of soil fertilization;
  • Feed supplementation for critical periods;
  • Reproductive control of animals;
  • Animal genetic improvement;
  • Sanitary control;
  • Adjustment of the binomial genotype-environment.

Regarding national markets there are signs of a growing potential for beef consumption in Brazil, even with a per capita consumption of 38 kg/year it is important to stress that at least 50% of the population have limited access to meat due to poverty. In terms of international markets, a vast potential for expansion can be foreseen with great competitiveness due to the possibility of increasing grazing production at substantially lower costs than Europe and USA.

For milk production, while the EU, USA and Argentina have 805, 105 and 22 thousand farms, respectively, involved in dairy production, Brazil has 1.2M farms involved in this activity, with 40% having less than 50 ha, which is basically a family production system (Cordeiro, 2000).

In the late nineteen-eighties a survey indicated that, to collect 46,000 tons of milk (the amount to feed 42% of "São Paulo" city for a month) it was necessary to travel 3,400,000 km monthly (Corsi et al., 2001). This corresponds to a trip 85 times around the Earth monthly, and implies that only 13.5 kg of milk was collected for each km travelled. These data reflected the overall low milk productivity as well as the inefficient milk storage and collection system in the country, obliging the dairy industry to collect milk on daily schedules. Extension support associated with logistical approaches in milk storage and collection reduced the travelled distance by eleven times in "Minas Gerais" State, and nowadays, 1.96 tons of milk are collected in 40,066 km or 49 kg of milk/km travelled. It is possible to conclude that the higher milk yield played a vital role in this process since the number of Brazilian dairy farmers decreased in this period. Farmers assisted by trained professionals demonstrated significant improvements in productivity levels and also reductions in production costs and consequently the system of milk collection experienced significant improvements.

The increase in milk yield was a consequence of new approaches to several components of the systems including improved techniques on animal feeding, reproduction, and health. Attention paid to better data collection and on progress towards better farm management also played an important role in the intensification process. The other side of this search for competitiveness and the "intensification" process is the elimination of farmers who can't attain the proposed scale and those who live in remote areas. About 95% of livestock farmers are land owners. Fewer than 10% of farms hold two thirds of the flock reflecting land concentration described earlier and the scale dependency of this kind of activity (Table 4).

Table 4. Land tenure in cattle enterprises (CNA, 2001).

Percentage of the flock

Farm size

Percentage of farms


> 1000 ha



100-1000 ha



10-100 ha



< 10 ha


Beef production is developed in farms over 100 ha, which involve 82% of livestock. Milk production, by contrast, has a large number of livestock in farms of less than 50 ha, which contribute 39% of national production.

The present Forest Code demands that natural forests be maintained over 80% of private properties in the Amazon and 20% of private rural properties elsewhere. This agriculture legislation is an important "constraint" to farmers when about 5,500,000 ha of permanent pastures are seeded yearly for pasture renovation, and 80,000 tons of seeds are required per year, 50% being Brachiaria brizantha at present. 100,000 tons of seeds of Avena strigosa are sown annually, mainly in crop rotations by direct drilling, and 8,000 tons of Lolium multiflorum and 15,000 tons of Pennisetum americanum for grazing or crop rotations. Of the total area of pastures, 50% are native pastures, but cultivated pastures increased from 30 million ha in 1970 to 105 million ha in 1995, increasing stocking rate from 0.5 to 0.9 head/ha.

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