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São Francisco River Basin

It was the first time the Genovese navigator Américo Vespúcio, commander of the expedition that had left from Lisbon 64 days before in the direction of the New World, saw that River flowing amidst coconut tree forests, mangroves, dunes and golden beaches. It was the 4th of October, 1501, the day of Saint Francis of Assisi, who lent his name to the river, which had earlier been called the Opará (river-sea) by the natives living along its banks.

After 21 years, the Portuguese crown founded Penedo, the first settlement 40 km from the shore, where a fort would be constructed in 1637 by the Dutch, who controlled the mouth of the river up until 1645. In 1553, the first exploratory expedition was mounted along the River banks.

Twenty years later, Explorer Garcia d’Ávila, with a land concession grant, a sesmaria, in hand, took ownership of 70 leagues of land between the São Francisco and Parnaíba Rivers in the state of Piauí, where he constructed innumerous corrals, further advancing local occupation. In the following two centuries, the River would be called the “National Unity River”, after several exploratory expeditions, called bandeiras, were undertaken along with Catholic Church missions, which faced the challenges posed by the Caatinga, the resistance of indigenous peoples and slaves of African descent living in Quilombos  who had run away from the sugar mills.

When gold was discovered in 1675, a profusion of settlements and villages sprung up, mainly in the Alto São Francisco region, where prosperity increased until the decline of mining activities, which were then replaced by agricultural initiatives in the XIX century.  

The São Francisco River basin is the third largest in the country, one of the twelve watershed regions in Brazil. It drains over an area of 640,000 km² (7.5% of the Brazilian territory) and supplies approximately 14 million inhabitants in 504 different municipalities, among which the most populated area is the Metropolitan Belo Horizonte Region, through which runs the Das Velhas River. The watershed is subdivided into four regions: Alto São Francisco, from its source to the city of Pirapora in Minas Gerais; Médio São Francisco, to Remanso in Bahia; Sub-médio São Francisco, to Paulo Afonso, BA and Baixo São Francisco, to the river mouth.

The main biomes found in the region are the Caatinga, Cerrado, and the Atlantic Forest, as the river runs through the Brazilian backlands, the sertão, in regions with a semi-arid climate, for that reason being also called “the Brazilian Nile”. 

This river basin is of the utmost importance for local development, for many reasons. There are approximately 300,000 ha of irrigated land in the region, with the production of fruit for export (grapes, mangoes, among others) in the São Francisco Valley being especially noteworthy. Dry-land farming, cattle-raising and mining are also among the main economic activities.

Tourism offers cultural, historical and natural attractions, such as parks, and the region’s diverse flora and fauna. The generation of electric energy by several hydroelectric plants along the river and on its tributaries, supplies the north of the State and the entire Northeastern region of the country.

There are two navigable stretches along the São Francisco waterway, between Piranhas in the state of Alagoas and the river mouth, and between Pirapora in Minas Gerais and Petrolina, in the state of Pernambuco, a stretch with innumerous marginal lakes, which are true natural spawning grounds of the fish species that are essential for fishing activities. The activity is controlled and involves a number of fishermen who commercialize a great variety of fish.

The fishermen are also the source of a singular culture, plenty of legends and stories such as the Nego and Mãe D’água story, the Minhocão and the Carrancas. With regard to fish farming, Cemig and Codevasf regularly undertake fish stocking activities upstream from the Três Marias dam. 

São Francisco River and its main tributaries
Under federal stewardship, the São Francisco River is the largest of all rivers 100% within national territory as it runs over 2,700 km. It flows into the Atlantic Ocean at its mouth, which is on the border between the states of Sergipe and Alagoas, near Piaçabuçu in Alagoas. Initially, it was believed that the River rose at the Chapadão do Zagaia, in the Canastra Mountain Range National Park (in São Roque de Minas) in the south of the State, 1,428 meters above sea level. However, according to recent studies conducted by Codevasf, the River rises in the Araxá mountain range, in Medeiros, which is currently considered the source of the Samburá River.

The São Francisco has 36 large tributaries, among which 19 are perennial watercourses. The main ones are, on the left banks, the Abaeté, Paracatu, Urucuia, Carinhanha, Corrente and Grande Rivers, and, on its right banks, the Pará, Paraopeba, Das Velhas, Jequitaí, Pacuí and Verde Grande Rivers.

The São Francisco River watershed is located in the Southeastern, Mid-Western and Northeastern regions, crossing seven different federate states (Minas Gerais, Bahia, Goiás, the Federal District, Pernambuco, Sergipe and Alagoas). The watershed faces the Grande River basin to the south, the Paranaíba, Tocantins and Araguaia River basins to the west, the Doce, Jequitinhonha, Pardo, De Contas, Paraguaçu and Itapecuru to the east, and, to the north it has borders with the Occidental Northeastern Atlantic and Paraíba watersheds.

Plants on the São Francisco River basin


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