The Caatinga Biosphere Reserve is characterized by Caatinga vegetation (a word of Tupi native Indian origin meaning ‘white forest’), as well as ‘Martius’ (Silva aestu aphylla) decidous forest in the drought period, the typical vegetation of the interior of northeastern Brazil.
The name "Caatinga" is a Tupi word meaning "white forest" or "white vegetation" (caa = forest, vegetation, tinga = white). Caatinga is a xeric shrubland and thorn forest, which consists primarily of small, thorny trees that shed their leaves seasonally. Cacti, thick-stemmed plants, thorny brush, and arid-adapted grasses make up the ground layer. Many annual plants grow, flower, and die during the brief rainy season.
Through the buffer and transition areas, the Caatinga Biosphere Reserve sets up ecological corridors among the diverse core areas, and it is also linked to the contiguous Mata Atlántica Biosphere Reserve and Cerrado Biosphere Reserve.
The Caatinga Biosphere Reserve is implementing a strategy of promoting the preservation of biodiversity, the development of research activities, environmental monitoring and education, sustainable development as well as the improvement of livelihoods of the people of northeastern Brazil. Some 210,000 people (2002) live in the Biosphere Reserve, mainly living from dry farming and cattle raising.
There is also a great dependency on forestry products and several Caatinga plants are considered as having medicinal properties.
Strategies aiming at the sustainable use of the Caatinga are part of the research agenda of the government and non-governmental organisations in the region. These strategies need in particular to reconcile traditional agriculture with irrigated fruit production.