Federal Republic of Brazil
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Contributor: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Contact: Jean Bonnal

Federal Republic of Brazil

The terms and data used in this publication are in no way an indication of the authors' position regarding the legal status of the countries, territories, cities, or zones mentioned, or of their authorities or borders.

A. General Country Data

Surface Area8,456,510 sq. km
Population (millions)167.6
Population Growth1.7%
Urban Population78.2%
Density (1995)20 inh/sq. km
GDP (1994) Billions US $ 639.56
GDP per Capita US $ 3,815
Currency Real
National Budget23% of GDP
Human Development Indicator0.783
HDI Ranking (out of 174 countries)68

Borders, Topography and Climate

Brazil is the largest country in South America, occupying about half of the total surface area of the continent. It is bordered by Venezuela, Guyana, Surinam, French Guyana, and the Atlantic Ocean on the eastst; by Uruguay on the south, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru on the west; and by Colombia on the north-west. A vast region of high lands, called the Brazilian Highlands, and the Amazon Basin are the main topographical characteristics of the country. The region of highlands is an eroded plateau; most of the south-eastern half of Brazil is covered by shield. With an altitude rising from about 300 m to 1000 m, the plateau is irregularly criss-crossed by a range of mountains interspersed with river valleys. The Amazon River Basin occupies more than a third of the country's surface area. This territory is covered with humid tropical forests known as the Amazon Forests. Brazil's climate ranges from temperate to tropical. In the Amazon Basin, the annual average temperatures vary from 27 degrees C to 32 degrees C. Precipitation is abundant, reaching 2,030 mm per year, and in certain regions up to 5,080.mm East of the central plateau of Brazil, the climate is subtropical, but because of the high altitude, there are variations in temperature. This region often suffers from severe droughts.

Characteristics, and Recent Developments of the Political System

Brazil is a federal and constitutional republic (the extant constitution goes back to 5 October 1988). Its comprises 26 states plus the district capital, Brasilia. The capital was formerly Rio de Janeiro, but Brasilia was built in the interior and became the new capital in 1960 in order to establish a balance. The legislative body, the Congress comprises the Senate (81 senators elected for a term of 8 years, and the House of Deputies, 513 members elected for a term of four years). The number of deputies from each state is in proportion to the state's population. Each of the twenty-six states has its own administration with poorly defined powers compared to those of the federal government.

Agriculture in Brazil

The Brazilian agricultural sector is highly developed. 23.3% of Brazil's 57 million workers are engaged in agriculture. Though only 62 million hectares of the land are cultivated (less than 7.5% of the country's surface area), and the sector contributes only 11% of the GDP, the country is competitive in a number of agricultural activities : Brazil is the largest producer and exporter of coffee and concentrated orange juice, and the second largest exporter of soy. Other major products are rice, corn, sugar cane, and cocoa. Brazil is also a livestock rearing country, second in the world for pig raising.

In spite of deforestation of about 2 million hectares between 1979 and 1990, 58% of Brazilian territory is still covered with forest. The rate of deforestation is decreasing with the implementation of preservation measures and fiscal reforms aiming at protecting the environment. This new direction is important and necessary not only for the protection of the extraordinary biodiversity of Brazil (more than 20% of the world's plant types are found there), but also for the crucial role that forests play in the absorption of carbon dioxide.

Current Economic Situation

The government installed in March 1990 launched a very ambitious economic reform program aimed at modernizing the economy, price stabilization, deregulation, and free trade. An agreement was signed with IMF in 1992, which opened the way later for an external debt restructuring agreement to be signed with foreign banks (April 1994). In July 1994, a new currency, the real was put in circulation to fight inflation. Unlike the cruzado, the former currency, the real was not subject to rapid devaluation and inflation weakened considerably since its introduction. The privatization, fiscal recovery, and trade liberalization policies got a new boost with the new government of president F. CARDOSO, elected in October 1994, and reelected in 1998.

B. On-going Decentralization Process

Background, Objectives, and Legal Framework

Decentralization in Brazil dates back a long time. Drafted in the 19th century, established by the 1891 constitution, and confirmed since by other constitutional laws, federalist decentralization distributes power among the 26 states and the five thousand municipalities of the federation. Thus, in spite of periods of military dictatorship, elections for Congress, state assemblies, the majority of mayors and city counselors, were held somehow or other. The on-going decentralization process started at the end of the 1980s when the country adopted an advanced federalist charter, which was strengthened by an increase in fiscal resources for the states and municipalities, at the expense of direct and indirect taxes formerly collected by the federal government.

In a way the extent of federalism and decentralization in Brazil can be interpreted as a decision of the federal level to solve the problem of diminishing budgetary resources within the context of stabilization and structural adjustment policies. The objective of the on-going decentralization is thus to share the costs of adjustment among the states. The government undertook constitutional reform in 1989 in order to put the current decentralization process into effect.

Functions, Resources, and Autonomy of Decentralized Entities

The 1989 constitutional reform assigned new functions to the intermediate level of government (states), especially in the area of decision-making, implementation, and financing. Given the budgetary constraints surrounding the decentralization process, the decentralized entities have only a portion of the resources they need to carry out their new functions. They do have autonomy in the use of their resources but it is limited and in some cases poorly defined.

C. Decentralization and Rural Development

Forms of Decentralization, Agricultural and Rural Development Policy Formulation

There is no decentralization process relating to the agricultural sector as such; it is rather arrangements between the national government and the states, within the context of Brazilian federalism. Thus the dominant form of decentralization is the deconcentration of central level services. Consequently, the Ministry of Agriculture did not undergo any real restructuring, even if the municipalities are asked each time to intervene in agrarian reform, rural development, and agricultural support services.

Modalities for planning and strategic program formulation are national level prerogatives and authority flows downward. However, due to the long tradition of federalism in Brazil, there is variation of policy to take into account regional and production characteristics.

No advanced form of consultation or coordination was put into effect. Hence all actions relating to equipment and rural infrastructure, financing and control, monitoring and evaluation, are the exclusive responsibility of the national level.

Decentralization and Agricultural Support Services

For the major agricultural support services also (training, extension, research, fertilizers, seeds, irrigation), policy determination is the exclusive domain of the national level, with the exception of inputs, for which the states have decision-making powers. The financing of these services is shared by the national government and the states, except for training and irrigation, which are the exclusive responsibility of the national level. The principal actor in the delivery of these services is the public sector, apart from the supply of inputs, for which the private sector, like in many other countries, started to play a dominant role in the last few years.

Support Policies, Constraints and Evaluation of the Decentralization Process

To the extent that the developments noted above are more the result of traditional Brazilian federalism than of decentralization, there is no major support policy for decentralization : information dissemination, training on the new responsibilities, and organizational support. As a result, it is easy to understand that the major constraint on Brazilian decentralization policy is the lack of capacity of local governments and civil society organizations.

The positive impact of decentralization, or more precisely, of the advanced forms of federalism, is almost insignificant. It involves only social infrastructure and environmental protection. Besides, the impact in these areas is not necessarily the result of decentralization as such, but rather of certain social programs of the national government, which relied on the municipalities for their implementation, or of the role played by Brazil in the international effort to protect the environment. Another problem is the lack of participation of beneficiaries in national, regional, and local policy formulation.


To summarize, Brazil put into effect in the last few years, policies which could be described more as a strengthening of federalism than of decentralization. The limited autonomy of the states and the inadequacy of fiscal resources are not perhaps an ideal situation, because they increase the chances of the reemergence of institutional void in a certain number of areas, especially so because the want of an information policy on the decentralization process does not facilitate the coordination of activities or consultations on the proper use of the insufficient resources at the disposal of the subnational entities.