divulgação Alcântara, once the provincial colonial capital
Usually classified as part of the Northeast, Maranhão actually occupies a transitional region – a place where the sandy beaches and semi-arid sertão of the Northeast meet the hot and humid Amazon. It ranks as the eighth largest state of Brazil and the second largest of the Northeast, with an area of 333,565 square kilometers. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the north, Piauí to the east and southeast, Tocantins to the southeast and south, and Pará to the west. The climate is tropical, with an average temperature of 24 degrees centigrade and average annual rainfall of between 1,200 and 2,000 millimeters. The calendar is divided into the rainy season, from November-December to April-May, and the “dry” season comprised of the rest of the year when there is less rainfall. There are regions with unique features and climates, like the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, with extensive sand dunes that trap rainwater to form freshwater lakes; and the Parnaíba Delta, shared with neighboring Piauí, with its swamps, lagoons, streams and islands.
Maranhão’s official estimated population in 2005 was 6.1 million, of which about 1 million resided in the state capital São Luís. Maranhão boosters like to tout their state’s multiculturalism. Indeed its mixture of European, African and Native American influences is reflected in the local music and the colorful, canaval-like Bumba-meu-boi street festival in June.
The Portuguese mostly ignored the region during much of the colonial period – so much so that it was the French who founded today’s capital São Luís (named for King Louis XIII) on an island just off the mainland in 1612. The Portuguese regained control three years later. The Dutch made an incursion in the region a few decades later but were also soon ousted. In the 18th century cotton exports created an economic boom, but profit margins relied on slave labor and stagnation set in after abolition in the late 19th century. In recent decades development efforts have focused on providing port services for the region’s mineral exports, aluminum smelting, timber, agriculture, cattle ranching and tourism. Brazil’s satellite launch facility is located in the town of Alcântara, once the provincial colonial capital. A rocket exploded in 2003 destroying the launch pad and killing 21 people.
The family of ex-President José Sarney dominates the local media and to a large extent the state’s politics. A former governor of Maranhão, Sarney changed his electoral residence to Amapá after finishing his term as president and has represented that state as a senator since he was first elected in 1990. His daughter Roseana has served as governor of Maranhão and his son Sarney Filho is a member of Congress and former minister.
Historically Maranhão was known for ship construction. The state still produces some great traditional boats, and a museum in São Luís is dedicated to the practice.