Maranhao, Brazil Overview

Juçara, buriti, bacaba, carnaúba, babaçu… Maranhão is known as “land of palm trees”, the name given to it by Fróis de Abreu, in a 1931 book, but as early as 1614 Claude d’Abbeville boasted: “It is a true palm garden. ” And Gonçalves Dias sighed, in “Canção do exílio”: “My land has palm trees…”

According to, the state of Maranhão is located in the Northeast region, where it occupies an area of ​​333,366 km2. Located in the transition area between the Northeast and the Amazon, it is limited to the north with the Atlantic Ocean, to the west with Pará, to the southwest with Tocantins, and to the southeast and east with Piauí. Maranhão has the most diverse morphological characteristics, from the Amazon rainforest and the northeastern caatinga to the area considered the only Brazilian desert, the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park – more than 200km2 of white sand dunes and freshwater lagoons, which evaporate during the dry season.

Physical geography

Geology and relief

Of flat relief, Maranhão has 75% of the territory below 200m in height and only ten percent above 300m. The geomorphological picture consists of two units: the coastal lowland and the plateau. The relief dominates the relief of hills and boards, carved in sandstones of the Barreiras series.

In certain parts of the coast, including the island of São Luís, located in the center of the so-called gulf of Maranhão, this relief reaches up to the coast line. In others, it is separated from the sea by a strip of low, flat terrain, subject to flooding during the rainy season. It is the coastal plain itself, which at the bottom of the gulf takes the name of Perises. To the east of the Maranhão gulf, these lands assume the character of wide sands with dune formations, which integrate the coast of Lençóis, up to the bay of Tutoia.

The plateau occupies the entire interior of the state with a tabular relief

It has the appearance of a set of plateaus carved in sedimentary terrains (schist sandstones and shales). In the vicinity of the Maranhão gulf, the elevations reach only 150 to 200m in height; further south, 300 to 400m; and in the vicinity of the watershed, between the Parnaíba and Tocantins basins, they reach 600m. The plateau valleys separate the plateaus from each other by means of deep indentations, which is why the plateaus have steep cliffs in contrast to the regular top.


There are three types of climate in Maranhão: the tropical super humid monsoon, the tropical with autumn rains and the tropical with summer rains. The three have similar thermal regimes, with high annual averages, which vary around 26o C, but differ in terms of rainfall. The first type, dominant in the western part of the state, has the highest totals (about 2,000 mm per year); the other two have reduced rainfall (from 1,250 to 1,500 mm per year) and a well-marked dry season, and differ from one another, as its name indicates, by the time of the rains.

Vegetation. A vegetation of forest, fields and savannah covers the territory of Maranhão. Forests occupy the entire northwestern portion of the state, that is, most of the area located to the west of the Itapecuru River. In these forests, babassu palm, a basic product of the local extractive economy, occurs in great abundance. The fields dominate around the gulf of Maranhão and on the western coast. The savannah cover the eastern and southern regions. In the coastal strip, the vegetation assumes varied features: flooded fields, mangroves, shrub formations.

Hydrography. Almost the entire drainage of the state is made from south to north through numerous independent rivers that go to the Atlantic: Gurupi, Turiaçu, Pindaré, Mearim, Itapecuru and Parnaíba. To the southwest of the state, a small part of the flow is towards the west. Small tributaries of the right bank of Tocantins integrate it.


In the center-north of the state – in the whole region around the gulf of Maranhão and to the south of it (valleys of the rivers Pindaré, Mearim, Grajaú and Itapecuru) – the highest demographic densities are registered. In the rest of the state, the population is scarce. There is a strong proportion of blacks and mulattos, in addition to indigenous remnants of the Tupi and Jê groups.

With the exception of the western end of the state, which belongs to the area of ​​influence of Belém, the entire Maranhão territory is an integral part of the region polarized by Recife. The economic action of the Pernambuco metropolis takes place in Maranhão through São Luís, for most of the state territory, and Teresina, capital of Piauí, for some municipalities located along the border with that state.

Maranhão’s urbanization index is low, with about a third of the population in urban areas. Imperatriz, Caxias, Codó and Bacabal follow in importance to the state capital, São Luís. The other urban centers are modest: Santa Luzia, Barra do Corda, Timon, Pedreiras, Monção, Açailândia, Santa Inês, Coroatá, Penalva are the most populated.

Maranhao, Brazil Overview