The world's fifth-largest country, after Russia , Canada , China and the USA , Brazil borders every other South American country except Chile and Ecuador . Its 8.5 million-sq-km area covers almost half the continent.
Brazil has four primary geographic regions: the coastal band, the Planalto Brasileiro, the Amazon Basin and the Parana-Paraguai Basin .
The narrow, 7400km-long coastal band lies between the Atlantic Ocean and the coastal mountain ranges. From the border with Uruguay to Bahia state, steep mountains often come right down to the coast. North of Bahia, the coastal lands are flatter.
The Planalto Brasileiro (Brazilian Plateau) extends over most of Brazil 's interior south of the Amazon Basin . It's sliced by several large rivers and punctuated by mountain ranges reaching no more than 3000m.
The thinly populated Amazon Basin , composing 42% of Brazil , is fed by waters from the Planalto Brasileiro to its south, the Andes to the west and the Guyana shield to the north. In the west the basin is 1300km wide; in the east, between the Guyana shield and the planalto, it narrows to 100km. More than half the 6275km of the Rio Amazonas lies in Peru , where its source is found. The Amazon and its 1100 tributaries contain an estimated 20% of the world's fresh water. Pico da Neblina (3014m) on the Venezuelan border is the highest peak in Brazil .
The Parana-Paraguai Basin , in the south of Brazil , extends into neighboring Paraguay and Argentina and includes the large wetland area known as the Pantanal.
Brazil has more known species of plants (55,000), freshwater fish (3000) and mammals (520-plus) than any other country in the world. It ranks third for birds (1622) and fifth for reptiles (468). An abundance of these species live in the Amazon rain forest, which occupies 3.6 million sq km in Brazil and 2.4 million sq km in neighboring countries. It's the world's largest tropical forest and most biologically diverse ecosystem, with 20% of the world's bird and plant species, 10% of its mammals and 10 to 15 times as many fish species as Europe .
Many Brazilian species are widely distributed around the country. For example, the biggest Brazilian cat, the jaguar, is found in Amazon and Atlantic rainforests, the cerrado and the Pantanal.
Many other Brazilian mammals are found over a broad range of habitats, including five other big cats (puma, ocelot, margay, oncilla and jaguarundi); the giant anteater; several varieties of sloths (best seen in Amazonia) and armadillos; 75 primate species, including several types of howler and capuchin monkey, the little squirrel monkey (Amazonia's most common primate) and around 20 small species of marmosets and tamarin; the cute, furry, long-nosed coati (a type of raccoon); the giant river otter; the maned wolf; the tapir; peccaries (like wild boar); marsh and pampas deer; the capybara (the world's largest rodent at Im in length); the pink dolphin, often glimpsed in the Amazon and its tributaries; and the Amazon manatee, an even larger river dweller.
Birds form a major proportion of the wildlife you'll see. The biggest is the flightless, 1.4m-high rhea, found in the cerrado and Pantanal. The gloriously colorful parrots, macaws, toucans and trogons come in dozens of species. In Amazonia or the Pantanal you may well see scarlet macaws and, if you're lucky, blue-and-yellow ones. Unfortunately, the macaws' beautiful plumage makes them a major target for poachers.
In Amazonia or the Pantanal you can't miss the alligators. One of Brazil 's five spe
cies, the black caiman, grows up to 6m long. Other aquatic life in the Amazon includes the beautiful pirarucu, which grows 3m long. Its red and silvery-brown scale patterns are reminiscent of Chinese paintings. The infamous piranha comes in about 50 species, found in the basins of Amazon, Orinoco , Paraguai or Sao Francisco rivers or rivers of the Guianas. Only a handful of species pose a risk, and confirmed accounts of human fatalities caused by piranhas are extremely rare.
Over 350 areas are protected as national parks, state parks or extractive reserves. Good parks for observing fauna, flora and/ or dramatic landscapes include:
Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina Rivers, waterfalls, caves and swimming holes make for excellent trekking in this mountainous region in the northeast.
Parque Nacional da Chapada dos Guimaraes On a rocky plateau northeast of Cuiaba , this canyon park features breathtaking views and impressive rock formations.
Parque Nacional da Chapada dos Veadeiros 200km north of Brasilia , among waterfalls and natural swimming holes, this hilly national park features an array of rare flora and fauna.
Parque Nacional da Serra dos Orgaos Set in the mountainous terrain in the southeast, this park is a mecca for rock climbers and mountaineers.
Parque Nacional de Aparados da Serra Famous for its narrow canyon with 700m escarpments, this park in the southeast features hiking trails with excellent overlooks. Parque Nacional dos Lencdis Maranhenses Spectacular beaches, mangroves, dunes and lagoons comprise the landscape of this park in the northeast.
Reserva de Desenvolvimento Sustentavel Mamiraua Deep in Amazonia , the wildlife viewing is spectacular at this tropical rainforest reserve north of Manaus .
Sadly, Brazil is as renowned for its forests, as it is for the destruction of them. By the year 2000, about 14% of the Brazilian Amazon rain forest had been completely destroyed. All its major ecosystems are threatened and more than 70 mammals are endangered.
Environmental threats have come in many forms. In the 1970s the government cleared roads through the jungle in hope of giving drought-stricken northeasterners a chance to better their lives on the cleared land of Amazonia . Along with the new arrivals came loggers and cattle ranchers, both of whom further cleared the forests. The few settlers that remained (most gave up and moved to the favelas of Amazonia 's growing cities) widely employed slash-and-burn agriculture with devastating consequences.
Further damage to the environment is delivered by the hands of garimpeiros, renegade miners, usually seeking gold. Mercury separation is used to extract gold from ore, which has led to large quantities of highly poisonous mercury washing into the rivers, creating a major health hazard.
One of the greatest immediate threats to the Amazon is the ironically named Avan4a Brasil (Advance Brazil), a program unveiled in 1999 by Cardoso. The plan includes paving 8000km of roads, opening gas pipelines, building power stations, and adding thousands of kilometers of new electric power lines all over Amazonia . Many environmentalists predict dire consequences if the project goes through (one ecologist feared that as much as 40% of the Amazon would be deforested or damaged in the next 20 years). At time of research, the government still hadn't implemented AvanSa Brasil.