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Cerrado: appreciation grows for Brazil’s savannah, even as it vanishes

  • The Brazilian Cerrado – a vast savannah – once covered two million square kilometers (772,204 square miles), an area bigger than Great Britain, France and Germany combined, stretching to the east and south of the Amazon.
  • Long undervalued by scientists and environmental activists, researchers are today realizing that the Cerrado is incredibly biodiverse. The biome supports more than 10,000 plant species, over 900 bird and 300 mammal species.
  • The Cerrado’s deep-rooted plants and its soils also sequester huge amounts of carbon, making the region’s preservation key to curbing climate change, and to reducing Brazil’s deforestation and CO2 emissions to help meet its Paris carbon reduction pledge.
  • Agribusiness – hampered by Brazilian laws in the Amazon – has moved into the Cerrado in a big way. More than half of the biome’s native vegetation has already disappeared, as soy and cattle production rapidly replace habitat. This series explores the dynamics of change convulsing the region.
A view of the Cerrado savannah and plateau tablelands. Photo by Alicia Prager

This is the first of six stories in a series by journalists Alicia Prager and Flávia Milhorance who travelled to the Cerrado in February for Mongabay to assess the impacts of agribusiness on the region’s environment and people. View a Cerrado series overview video here.

We bounce down a potholed red sand road that cuts through a seemingly impenetrable green thicket that rises up on either side. It’s the wet season in Western Bahia state, Brazil, and the Cerrado blossoms.

The long undervalued vastness through which we drive is the most biodiverse savannah in the world: 5 percent of the planet’s animals and plants are native to this biome. More than 10,000 plant species, over 900 different birds and 300 types of mammals live here. Scientists also recently learned that the region’s deep growing grasses, shrubs and trees, along with soils, play an outsized role in storing large amounts of carbon – a hedge against global warming.

The Cerrado, as big as it is today, is much diminished. It once covered two million square kilometers (772,204 square miles); an area bigger than Great Britain, France and Germany combined; more than 20 percent of Brazil’s territory; stretching out to the east and south of the Amazon. Today less than half remains in a natural state, and a mere 7.5 percent has been officially protected.

Standing in the shadow of its internationally renowned brother, the Amazon, the biome is deeply threatened. Deforestation happens at a faster pace in the Cerrado than in the Amazon, with most of this rapid landscape conversion driven by cattle ranching and soy production.

The Cerrado is the country’s latest industrial agribusiness frontier, and its legal protections remain weak. However, in recent years local and national voices began calling for this forgotten biome’s protection – an outcry that has now been heard and magnified by environmental scientists and activists around the world.

Mongabay contributors Alicia Prager and Flávia Milhorance on assignment for Mongabay, drive over a river in the Cerrado, February 2018. Photo by Flávia Milhorance
A jaguarundi* caught on camera as it crosses a dirt road. Photo by Natália Machado / Federal University of Goiás

In October 2017, twenty-three global companies – mostly supermarkets and fast food chains – signed the Cerrado Manifesto, a call for action to stop deforestation there. Within three months that nearly tripled to 61 co-signers. The cause gained further attention at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos.

In addition, a national campaign to conserve the Cerrado (“No Cerrado, no water, no life”) is gaining momentum. Today, the initiative’s 43 participating organizations, including the NGOs ActionAid and Rede Social, and the government’s Federal Public Ministry (MPF), are pushing the Brazilian government, the United Nations, World Bank and other institutions, for better surveillance of the ongoing environmental harm, and of impacts on traditional and indigenous people living there.

“This campaign is a result of the increasing awareness of the Cerrado’s importance. It seeks a [form of] development that is less predatory to the people and the environment,” said Gerardo Cerdas Vega, from Action Aid, which has published a report documenting the impacts of deforestation by agribusiness on the Cerrado.

A giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus). Photo by Fernando Trujillo / IUCN

Forest losses in the Cerrado biome, 2000 to 2014. Please click the map for the interactive version. Credit: Willie Shubert  / Map for Environment

More than 100 threatened species

What was it that finally brought the spotlight of world attention to the Brazilian savannah?

First off, it was the biome’s rich biodiversity and its rapid diminishment. Nearly half of the 10,000+ plant species that grow there are unique to the region. But a further reduction of the Cerrado due to farming would likely lead to an irreversible mass species extinction, researchers warn. At least 137 animal species are currently endangered in the biome, estimates Mariella Superina, from the IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources which maintains the global Red List of threatened species.

Take the giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus), for instance. It is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, is very susceptible to land use change, and struggling to adapt as the Cerrado’s native grass, shrubs and trees are converted to farmland. There’s no exact species count, but according to Superina, the population has decreased significantly. Current estimates put its density at less than four giant armadillos per 100 square kilometres (39 square miles). That, along with worsening habitat fragmentation, reduces the chances P. maximus will find a mate. The species’ food supply is also threatened, as expanding agribusiness uses insecticides to wipe out the bugs on which the insect-eating armadillos thrive. (Brazil uses more pesticides than any other nation on earth, and soy production is especially pesticide intensive.)

Another iconic Cerrado species is the northern tiger cat (Leopardus tigrinus), a small feline weighing on average about 2.4 kilograms (5.3 pounds). It is especially in danger because most of its range lies within the unprotected parts of the Cerrado, and so is highly affected by the conversion of habitat to farmland. L. tigrinus occupies widely dispersed territories, so faces a similar difficulty to the giant armadillo, as it tries to locate mates across a fragmented landscape. The IUCN Red List describes the northern tiger cat as Vulnerable, but researchers expect a further sharp decrease in coming years.

A northern tiger cat (Leopardus Tigrinus). Photo credit: miguel vanegas on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA
A pair of burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia). Photo by Nathália Machado / Federal University of Goiás

“A forest upside down”

The public imagination tends to see savannahs as dull. But a few hours drive across the Cerrado reveals a richness of habitats. The region’s vegetation – scattered across more than two million square kilometers – takes many different shapes. The lowlands boast stretches of woodland covered with mid-to-large sized trees with gnarled branches. Climbing into the chapadões, as the Cerrado’s plateaus are called, grasses and shrubs take over. Patches of crooked low-growing trees are sparsely scattered between rocky outcrops. The plateau savannah is the primary target of agribusiness, as these lands are easiest to deforest; flat and easier to plow, plant, and harvest with large tractors; and receive more rain.

The Cerrado has two main seasons: wet and dry. Annual severe droughts, lasting from April to September, lead to recurrent spontaneous bushfires. Flora and fauna, faced with these harsh conditions, were required long ago to evolve traits assuring resilience and adaptation to precipitation extremes. Add to this the exchange of species between the neighboring Amazon and Atlantic Rainforest, which allowed the Cerrado to develop over the eons into a robust and very diverse biome, concludes a U.S. study published in the PNAS journal.

Above ground, trees evolved a thick and corky bark to guard themselves from flames and to ensure quick recovery. Some even benefit from regular wildfires, which clear space in the habitat and stimulate seed release. Additionally, long roots are needed to tap deep-down water sources in the dry season. A typical Cerrado tree is the pau-terra (Qualea grandiflora), whose taproots allow it to access deep soil layers that remain moist even after months without rain.

“The Cerrado is a forest upside down,” explains Rafael Loyola, a professor at the Federal University of Goiás. This largely invisible but exuberant underground ecology has not only caused people to underappreciate it, but also makes the habitat more difficult to restore once disturbed. “Simply planting a bunch of trees does not bring the Cerrado back,” he says.

A typical view of the savannah landscape. Photo by Flávia Milhorance
A rufous-tailed jacamar (Galbula ruficauda). Photo by Nathália Machado / Federal University of Goiás

The wholesale replacement of Cerrado trees with pastures and crops might also be changing the regional hydrological cycle, which could further hinder the restoration of native ecosystems, says Marcelo Simon, with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA). Recent research shows that forest conversion to agriculture may be deepening Brazil’s droughts, to the detriment of trees and other native plantlife.

A constant companion on drives through the Cerrado is the buriti (Mauritia flexuosa), a large fan palm which overlooks the forest or frames the iconic veredas, as Brazilians call the frequent clearings created by grasslands and wetlands. Traditional inhabitants use the buriti for a wide array of purposes: they produce medicine from it, eat the vitamin A-rich fruit, press the plant to produce oil, and use the palm leaves as rainproof roofing. The buriti isn’t the only plant used by traditional communities, who also value the many fruits produced by the Cerrado. Amongst the most popular are the pequi (Caryocar brasiliense) and the araticum-do-cerrado (Annona crassiflora), also called marolo or cascudo.

Local people depend on these fruits for variety in their diets, and so did we. No matter how behind schedule we were, or who was guiding us around the countryside of Western Bahia, they always found time for a quick roadside stop to pick fruit – to eat or to show to us. A locals’ trained eyes could quickly spot the ripest pequi or araticum-do-cerrado from afar.

Many of these fruits remain unknown to the majority of Brazilians, but are essential for maintaining Cerrado residents’ intimate relationship with nature. Full bags of rounded yellow pequis exuded a strong fruity aroma in our car all during our trip. The peels are as thick as the bark of trees and require great patience if you wish to penetrate these delicious gems – maybe that’s a metaphor and lesson that needs to be applied to this savannah by Brazil and the world.

Buriti fruit. Photo by Flávia Milhorance
Joelma de Souza Santos displays guava fruits. Among the most popular local fruits are the pequi (Caryocar brasiliense) and the araticum-do-cerrado (Annona crassiflora), also called marolo or cascudo. Photo by Alicia Prager

Birthplace of waters

The Cerrado’s magnificent biological diversity provides just one reason for saving it. Researchers also stress the importance of the region as a vast, crucial Brazilian watershed.

Located in the center of the country and composed of many plateaus, the biome aids the distribution of water to other parts of the nation. It feeds eight of 12 water basins in Brazil, among those the Amazon, Paraguay and São Francisco rivers, plus three aquifers: Guarani, Bambuí and Urucuia.”But the removal of native vegetation reduces the resilience of the ecosystem and its capacity to store and deliver that water”, says Bernardo Strassburg, founder of the International Institute for Sustainability in Rio de Janeiro.

There’s another critically important reason to protect the biome – a reason that concerns more than the people of Brazil. Deforestation accounts for a high percentage of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions, but the deep-growing vegetation of the Cerrado stores huge amounts of carbon. However, as agribusiness converts savannah to soy fields and cow pastures, that carbon storage capacity is diminishing.

The maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus) is among 60 IUCN listed Vulnerable Cerrado animal species. Other Red List Cerrado mammals include the Cerrado fox (Lycalopex vetulus), giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), jaguar (Panthera onca), the Tapir (Tapirus terrestres) marsh deer (Blastocerus dichotomus), and pampas deer (Ozotoceros bezoarticus). Photo by Náthalia Machado / Federal University of Goiás
Waterfalls flow down from the Cerrado’s plateaus to feed Brazil’s rivers. Photo by Flávia Milhorance

According to a report by Chain Reaction Research, a U.S. research institute, the Cerrado biome’s deforestation between 2013 and 2015 (when 1.9 million hectares, or 7,335 square miles were cleared), accounted for 29 percent of Brazil’s carbon emissions over that period.

Unfortunately for a world desperate to curb greenhouse gas releases, Brazilian law could allow the further removal of up to 80 percent of the Cerrado’s native vegetation. Should this intense deforestation be allowed to reach its legal limits, another 385 million tons of CO2 could be released into the atmosphere, according to research by the Conservation Biogeography Lab at Brazil’s Federal University of Goiás.

Scientists who now understand that the Cerrado has a crucial role to play in carbon storage, are urging that the government pass tougher laws conserving the savannah.

But the biome could be in serious trouble, even without the continued conversion of forests by agribusiness. Climate change is taking its toll too, causing more severe dry seasons. Rainfall is predicted to decrease by 10 to 20 percent by 2040, says EMBRAPA’s Simon. Other studies predict more frequent wildfires due to deepening drought, which could threaten native species and carbon storage.

A black-tufted marmoset (Callithrix penicillata), a forest canopy species. Photo by Donald Hobern, Flickr CC

Strategically “empty”

Historically, official documents and political speeches long declared the Cerrado to be an empty space sitting in the middle of Brazil, says Clóvis Caribé, a researcher from the Federal University of Bahia. “This argument was used by the government and corporations to take the development plan further following the economic dynamics, but disregarding indigenous groups and traditional communities that lived there for long.”

Migration to this “empty” central region first intensified in the 1960s, with the construction of the nation’s capital, Brasília. It intensified again a decade later, as agricultural expansion and infrastructure projects came to the biome. Today, more than 25 million people live in the Cerrado, 15 percent of Brazil’s people.

For many decades, the Cerrado’s poor-soil savannah was compared unfavorably with the biodiversity-rich Amazon and Atlantic Rainforest, Simon explains. As a result, many in government and industry saw the biome as a sacrifice zone, to be surrendered to agribusiness and Brazilian economic progress. As a result, even as efforts grew to save the Amazon, few such efforts bloomed in the Cerrado. Fortunately, that’s changing.

At last we turned off a bumpy dirt road onto asphalt. Big trucks transporting commodities sped past us on their way to Brazilian coastal ports where their cargoes would be transferred to oceangoing ships for export. Beside the pavement, a seemingly never-ending soy field stretched in every direction to the horizon. Meanwhile, as we drove on, and as you read this, Brazil’s agricultural frontier continues expanding, and the Cerrado biome continues to shrink.

*Correction: The photo of the jaguarundi was originally misidentified as a puma; thanks goes to our readers for catching the error.

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A late afternoon view of the Cerrado savannah. Photo by Flávia Milhorance