An Introduction to Brazil for Volunteers

The reasons to visit Brazil are as endless as its beaches. Brazil is South America’s largest country, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and sharing its remaining borders with Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. Brazil’s lush Amazon jungle and Atlantic Forest teem with wildlife, while its cities pulse with Afro-Brazilian beats, samba music, and Carnival. Colorful fishing villages and cosmopolitan cities line 7,491 kilometers (4,657 mi) of sandy beaches.

With 197 million residents, Brazil is the region’s most populous country. More than 20 million people live either in the political capital of Rio de Janeiro or in the business capital of São Paulo. Thanks to a flourishing economy, Brazil is a relatively wealthy country, with a gross national income of US$10,790 per capita (2011 World Bank figures).

The sun sets on a Rio beach with small two-person boats floating int he calm water.
Beach view in Rio de Janeiro. Photo © Gilberto Santa Rosa, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

As in much of Latin America, however, there is a significant disparity in the distribution of wealth. In Brazil, one in every five person lives in poverty. Nearly 10 percent of the population is illiterate, while one in five are functionally illiterate (reading and writing skills are insufficient to manage beyond the most basic daily living and employment tasks).

Due to bureaucratic restrictions, Brazil has fewer local organizations catering to international volunteers than many of its neighbors. However, independent opportunities can still be found. Volunteers can work with disadvantaged youth in favelas (urban slums), plant trees in the Atlantic Forest, teach English in a tourist beach town, or even brainstorm new ideas in jewelry and fashion design at a small business association in a community center.

Brazil is Latin America’s only Portuguese-speaking country. It was a Portuguese colony from 1500 until 1822, and the language remains as its legacy.

Check out this video on community gardening in Rio de Janeiro from Iko Poran, an organization that places volunteers in a variety of programs around the city:

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America.