Brazilians are crazy about soccer.
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Boats bob in a bay in Rio de Janeiro, the second largest city in Brazil.
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The "Christ the Redeemer" statue looks over Rio de Janeiro.
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Northern Brazil is dominated by the Amazon River and the jungles that surround it.
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Children cross a footbridge in the Amazon Basin.
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Brazil is the largest country in South America and the fifth largest in the world.
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OFFICIAL NAME: Federal Republic of Brazil
FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Democratic federal republic
OFFICIAL LANGUAGE: Portuguese
AREA: 3,286,470 square miles (8,511,965 square kilometers)
MAJOR MOUNTAIN RANGES: Serra do Mar, Serra do Espinhaço
MAJOR RIVERS: Amazon, São Francisco, Paraná, Tocantins
Map of Brazil
Brazil is the largest country in South America and the fifth largest nation in the world. It forms an enormous triangle on the eastern side of the continent with a 4,500-mile (7,400-kilometer) coastline along the Atlantic Ocean. It has borders with every South American country except Chile and Ecuador.
The Brazilian landscape is very varied. It is most well known for its dense forests, including the Amazon, the world's largest jungle, in the north. But there are also dry grasslands (called pampas), rugged hills, pine forests, sprawling wetlands, immense plateaus, and a long coastal plain.
Northern Brazil is dominated by the Amazon River and the jungles that surround it. The Amazon is not one river but a network of many hundreds of waterways. Its total length stretches 4,250 miles (6,840 kilometers), making it the longest river on Earth. Thousands of species live in the river, including the infamous piranha and the boto, or pink river dolphin.
Southeastern Brazil was once completely covered with dense forest. Now it is the country's industrial capital, home to Brazil's biggest cities: São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It covers only 11 percent of the country but houses 43 percent of its population.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
Most Brazilians are descended from three ethnic groups: Amerindians, European settlers (mainly from Portugal), and Africans. Starting in the 19th century, waves of immigrants from Europe, the Middle East, and even Japan added to this mix. This diversity of cultures has created a rich religious, musical, and culinary culture.
Brazilians are soccer crazy, and their country has produced some of the best players. The most famous of all is Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé. Brazil has won the World Cup soccer finals five times, more than any other nation, and is hosting the tournament this year.
Brazil has the greatest variety of animals of any country in the world. It is home to 600 mammal species, 1,500 fish species, 1,600 bird species, and an amazing 100,000 different types of insects. Brazil's jungles are home to most of its animal life, but many unique species also live in the pampas and semidesert regions.
In the central-western part of Brazil sits a flat, swampy area called the Pantanal. This patchwork of flooded lagoons and small islands is the world's largest wetland. Here live giant anacondas, huge guinea pig relatives called capybaras, and fierce South American alligators called caimans.
For thousands of years, people have been exploiting the jungles of Brazil. But since Europeans arrived about five centuries ago, forest destruction has been rampant. Most of Brazil's Atlantic rain forest is now gone, and huge tracts of the Amazon are disappearing every year. The government has established many national parks and refuges, but they only cover about 7 percent of the country.
Photograph by Glauco Meneghelli, iStockphoto
GOVERNMENT & ECONOMY
Brazil is a federal republic with a president, a National Congress, and a judiciary. From 1888 until recently, the country struggled with democracy. But in 1985, the military government was peacefully removed, and by 1995, Brazil's politics and economy had become fairly stable.
Brazil has many different soils and climates, so it can produce a great variety of crops. Its agricultural exports include sugarcane, latex, coffee, cocoa beans, cotton, soybeans, rice, and tropical fruits.
Brazil is also South America's most industrial nation, producing chemicals, steel, aircraft, and cars.
Until recently, scientists thought Brazil was first settled by Asians about 10,000 years ago. But new evidence shows there were people living there at least 32,000 years ago. Some experts think they may have arrived from islands in the Pacific Ocean.
Brazil was added to the map of the world during the great European explorations in the late 15th century led by Portugal and Spain. When Europeans first reached the coast of Brazil, the country was home to about 30 million indigenous people, or Amerindians. Today, only about 300,000 remain, living primarily in Brazil's remotest places.
Portugal established its first colony in Brazil in 1530. Colonists created sugarcane plantations along the coast and sent diamonds and gold back to Europe. Soon, people from West Africa were brought to Brazil to work as slaves. The discovery of large inland gold reserves brought thousands of people from the coasts and as far away as Europe to the interior of the country.
In 1789, Brazilians tried to kick out their Portuguese rulers. The rebellion was soon put down, but it started a movement toward independence. By 1822, Brazil was a sovereign nation. Kings of Portuguese blood ruled until 1888, when military leaders and landowners expelled the king, and Brazil became a federal republic.