National parks are the oldest type of protected area in Brazil. Their goal is to preserve ecosystems of great ecological importance and scenic beauty, and to support scientific research, education, environmental interpretation, recreation and eco-tourism through contact with nature. At the federal level the parks are managed by the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation. State parks fall under the same regulations as national parks. Both types are now defined by law 9.985 of July 2000. They are classed as IUCN protected area category II.
The parks are publicly owned, and any privately owned land within their boundary must be expropriated. Existing landowners and communities with land use rights have to be relocated and given compensation. With strictly limited budgets, poor land records and inefficient bureaucracy it can take many years to complete this process.
Conditions for public visits are defined in the park's management plan. Officially a park may not be visited by the public unless it has a management plan and public use plan. Scientific research requires prior authorization from the responsible agency and is subject to conditions and restrictions.
The concept of "national park" was first defined in the 1934 forest code. The system of national parks started in 1937 with the creation of Itatiaia National Park. Another two national parks were created in 1939, then after a period of 20 years, the program of park creation was restarted in the late 1950s. The Ubajara National Park was created in 1959, protecting a limestone cave in the semi-arid caatinga biome of the north east. The Paulo Afonso and Sete Quedas national parks were created in 1948 and 1961 respectively to let visitors see exceptional waterfalls and rapids. Although all countries define national parks as permanent, Brazil violated this principal and submerged the features under the dams of hydroelectric power plants.
The forest code was revised in 1965 to cover all types of native vegetation, not just "forests". National parks and the newly-defined biological reserves were defined as having the goal of "protecting exceptional natural attributes, reconciling the full protection of flora, fauna and natural beauties with the use for educational, recreational and scientific purposes." Under the 1934 and 1965 codes the parks and other conservation units have been created by executive decree. As a result, Congress has tended not to give strong support to the parks, but they have been protected against ongoing congressional attempts to shrink or eliminate the parks.