Geography and Climatic Regions of the Brazilian Northeast

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mapa da geografia do nordeste
geography map of the northeast

The Northeast Region is the third largest region in Brazil and the largest in number of states, it has nine: Alagoas, Bahia, Ceará, Maranhão, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Piauí, Rio Grande do Norte and Sergipe.

Its total area is 1,561,177km², similar to the area of Mongolia.

The region has 3,338km of beaches, with Bahia being the state with the longest coastline with 938km and Piauí with the smallest, with 60km of coastline.

Because of its different physical characteristics the region was subdivided by IBGE into four sub-regions: Meio Norte, Caatinga, Agreste and Zona da Mata.

View the map of the Northeast Region of Brazil

Videos about the 4 climatic sub-regions of the northeast

Climate Regions and Ecotourism in the Northeast

1 - Meio-Norte; 2 - Sertão; 3 - Agreste; 4 - Zona da Mata
1 – Middle-North; 2 – Sertão; 3 – Agreste; 4 – Zona da Mata

The geography of the Northeast alternate in landscapes and biomes are:

  • woodlands
  • lands
  • mountains
  • falesias
  • sertons
  • three thousand kilometers of coastline, with some of the most beautiful beaches in the country

All school geography textbooks state that the Northeast region of Brazil comprises nine states: up the coast towards the northern part of the map are Bahia, Sergipe, Alagoas, Pernambuco, Paraíba and Rio Grande do Norte.

Heading west, at the western inflection of the Brazilian coast, are Ceará, Piauí and Maranhão.

Together, these states occupy approximately 1.5 million square kilometers – about 18% of the national territory.

This is no small feat: the Northeast region is larger than the area of Portugal, Spain, France and Germany combined. Enough space to guarantee diversity of relief, climate, fauna, flora and – this the manuals do not count – many alternatives for fun.

The geographical uniqueness of the Northeast is made up of contrasting landscapes. There are green forests and large expanses of beaches and dunes; there are stone walls and clear water lagoons; there is the arid environment of the sertão and mountains with a mild climate.

It is an immense coastline of beaches with tame or wild waters, urbanized or wild.

Northeast has 4 climatic sub-regions

  1. Zona da Mata
  2. Agreste
  3. Sertão (caatinga vegetation)
  4. Middle-North


This variety of landscapes is explained by the four climatic sub-regions that exist in the Northeast. One begins at the coastal limits and extends from Rio Grande do Norte to the south of Bahia.

It is the so-called Zona da Mata, a strip of tropical climate, abundant rainfall and fertile soil, which reaches up to 200 kilometers wide in some sections.

It is still covered by Atlantic forest, although it has been violently deforested, in a practice that dates back to the colony: first, by the exploitation of brazilwood; then, by the implantation of sugar cane and cocoa culture, later by the cellulose industry and by uncontrolled urbanization.

Paisagem da zona da Mata no nordeste
Zona da Mata landscape in the northeast

In the patches of green that remain, many animals are threatened with extinction, such as the micoleão, the muriqui monkey, the otter, the armadillo-canastra and the jaguar.

This sub-region has the highest population concentration; it is more urbanized and has better infrastructure concerning, above all, telecommunication and transport.

The Zona da Mata sub-region has the highest concentration of administrative institutions in the Northeast, where the largest capitals are concentrated; higher concentration in per capita income; trade and services are the main activities. In addition to these aspects, one can list:

– Climate is tropical humid, and the soil is fertile due to the regularity of rainfall (intertropical region);

– Natural vegetation is the Atlantic Forest, which suffers great destruction;

– Agricultural activity is diversified, but in large estates, consisting of monocultures, such as sugar cane, cocoa, coffee, tobacco, etc. Although these intensive agricultural activities do not stand out in the region, there are extensive production crops that cannot be ruled out;

– Tourism is widespread in the region, with lush beaches and warm weather for much of the year due to its proximity to the equator;

– Increased flow of people (especially tourism), goods, information, knowledge, financial and commercial;

– Strong real estate speculation;

– Higher concentration of slums;

– Higher concentration of educational institutions;

– Region with great opportunity for the application of sustainable energy, such as wind power (due to coastal and trade winds);

– Largest concentrator of urban problems, such as air pollution; traffic; violence; heat islands; waste emissions; destruction of fauna and flora;

– Very accelerated occupation, linked to the historical process on the coast. It should be noted that Salvador was once the Brazilian capital.


Entering the territory from the Zona da Mata, one arrives at the Agreste.

A transitional area without defined boundaries, this sub-region is characterized by land that is sometimes wet and full of swamps, sometimes dry in long stretches.

Agreste nordestino
Agreste nordestino

In the stretches where it rains with some regularity, families plant for their own sustenance. In the dry areas, extensive livestock farming is practiced. It is in the Agreste that the largest goat herd in the country is concentrated.

The Agreste is the spatial portion that corresponds to what is characterized as the transition area between the semi-arid Sertão (with predominance of Caatinga vegetation) and the Zona da Mata (consisting of Atlantic Forest).

Among some of the main characteristics are

– Rugged relief, with emphasis on the region called Planalto da Borborema;

– Land structure formed with small and medium-sized properties, with the practice of polyculture (various agricultural crops) and extensive livestock (highlighting the search for expansion into the interior);

– Certain spaces may suffer seasonal droughts and dry spells; rainfall regimes are irregular and rivers are temporary;

– Relatively slow occupation compared to the Zona da Mata.

– The monoculture that can be highlighted in this region is cotton and coffee;

– Large food production;

– Cultivation of sisal (extraction of fibers for the production of carpets, bags, ropes, etc.).

– Tourist attractions through events related to local festivals.


The Sertão, presents itself as the area with the greatest economic difficulties in the Northeast. Much of this sub-region is in what is called the “drought polygon”, over the center of the Northeast region.

Sertão nordestino
Sertão nordestino

Among some main characteristics, the following stand out

– Low demographic index and strong demographic dispersion (spatially dispersed population);

– Region with transition area between Cerrado and Caatinga, with very low and irregular rainfall regime, marked by intense (seasonal) droughts;

Predominant vegetation of caatinga.

– This region is dependent on water from the São Francisco river, considered the only perennial (constant) water in the region, whether for agriculture, personal consumption, livestock or energy generation.

– The largest population concentrations in this region are found near the river, in this case in valleys, such as the Cariri and São Francisco.

– Livestock farming is extensive, usually beef (cattle suffer greatly from lack of water).

– Agricultural activity is concentrated near water resources, thus enabling irrigated cultivation in the region, whether with fruits, flowers, sugar cane, corn, beans, cotton, etc.

– Characteristic of the Vegetation (caatinga), with shrubs (especially aroeira, angico and juazeiro); with Bromeliads and Cacti (especially mandacaru and xique-xique do Sertão).

The dryness of part of the Agreste foreshadows the vegetation caatinga, which extends over eight states – only Sergipe is left out.

It is the only exclusively Brazilian biome, and is characterized by two seasons, rainy and dry.

Trilha Cores da Caatinga no nordeste
Caatinga Colors Trail in the northeast

What is caatinga

The word caatinga, in Tupi, means “white forest” and accurately describes the landscape of the sertão in the dry season, when the leaves and trunks of trees and shrubs take on a grayish color and disappear.

The caatinga soil, dry, cracks. With the rainy season, the green shows its tones again.

Caatinga hides a rich biodiversity

Under the apparent sterility, the caatinga hides a rich biodiversity the flora includes cacti such as mandacaru, xiquexique, palm, shrubs and trees such as castor bean, hazelnut and piaçaba – and also species of noble wood, such as baraúna and cumaru; typical tree of the hinterland is the juazeiro, the only species that remains evergreen.

Among the animals, there are manuferos such as the mocó, the cutia, the preá, the gambá, the deer-catueiro and the sagüi-do-nordeste, as well as lizards, snakes and birds – suiá, picuí, carca rá and asa-branca.

From the middle of the Piauí territory, there is a new change in the scenario. As far as Maranhão, there are palm forests, the so-called coconut forests. This is the Mid-North, another transitional strip, this time between the sertão and the equatorial Amazon region.

The local palm trees – so much more exuberant the closer they get to the Amazon – give signs that the climate is getting wet again.

Abundant in buriti, oiticica, carnauba and babassu, the species provide oil and wax for the industry, especially cosmetics, and are home to an important bird fauna, with inhambus, saracuras, vultures, hawks, macaws, as well as marsupials, bats and bush rats, reptiles and predatory mammals.


The Mid-North is a sub-region of the Northeast that is related to the political-administrative region of the North.

Sub-região meio-norte do nordeste
Mid-north sub-region of the northeast

Meio-Norte constitutes most of Maranhão and a large portion of Piauí (west of the territory).

Some of its main characteristics are

– Transition area between the Amazon Forest and the Cerrado. At the same time, it is also a transition area between the Cerrado and the Caatinga. Thus, it is a transition strip between the Amazon and the semi-arid hinterland of the Northeast;

– Its vegetation is characterized by coconut, carnauba and babassus forests.

– It is in this region that the social movement of the coconut pickers (who claim against the large landowners who monopolize the land and production, in addition to the exploitation of labor) occurs.

– Relatively high rainfall, especially in the west. This is due to the movement of the Atlantic equatorial mass (AEM);

– The region sustains plant extractivism, thus keeping much of the labor force in the field. This process occurs in coconut forest agriculture, especially babassu, and also in cotton, sugarcane (decreasing, but still using “cold buoys”) and rice (rice farming);

– Livestock farming is extensive (rudimentary);

– Destruction of vegetation by intensive use of pastures;

– From the extraction of Carnauba, wax can be removed, used for numerous industries, whether lubricants, plastics, adhesives and perfumery.


The great rivers of the Northeast are the São Francisco and the Parnaíba.

The others play a less important role in the life of the population, and are often intermittent, i.e. they dry up during droughts.

5.1 São Francisco River

The São Francisco River – affectionately called Velho Chico by the riverside populations – rises in Minas Gerais and runs through Bahia, Pernambuco, Alagoas and Sergipe. It thus crosses the driest areas of the Northeast.

Discussions about the possibility of diverting part of its waters to drier regions are old (the idea was first mooted in the Empire) and recurrent; since 2000 the project has been taken up again by the federal government, under intense controversy.

The important hydroelectric potential of the Velho Chico is used mainly in the Sobradinho, Xingó and Paulo Afonso plants.

5.2 Parnaíba River

The Parnaíba River bathes Ceará, Piauí and Maranhão. Its mouth, on the border of the last two states, forms the Parnaíba Delta – the largest open sea in the Americas – which has 70% of its extension in Maranhão.

It is an important area of environmental preservation, where ecotourism has been developing.

The Northeast is fringed by 3500 kilometers of beaches, which is equivalent to a third of the Brazilian coastline.

In this long line crystallizes the classic image of the region, the one that attracts the largest number of visitors and illustrates the tourism booklets.

5.3 Dunes, cliffs, reefs, lagoons, natural pools, restingas and mangroves

They are dunes, cliffs, reefs, lagoons, natural pools, sandbanks and mangroves they serve.

As habitat for various animal species – from turtles to manatees and humpback whales, from crabs to lobsters, in addition to the abundant supply of fish that sustains entire communities.

The possibilities opened up by this mosaic of scenery and cultures are many – traveling through the Northeast is to explore them, in a succession of surprises and discoveries.

Geography of the Northeast – Northeast has four climatic sub-regions

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