Conservation news

The unknown Cerrado and its colossal biological relevance (commentary)

  • Following the International Day for Biological Diversity, a leader of the Partnership Fund for Critical Ecosystems draws attention to the environmental importance of the most biodiverse tropical savanna on the planet.
  • In the Cerrado, cradle of Brazilian waters and habitat for 5% of the world’s biodiversity, the rate of deforestation is 2.5 times that of the Amazon.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

The fires that ravaged the Amazon last year have put Brazil in the headlines around the world. The iconic rainforest stores millions of tons of carbon dioxide – its burning means a less stable climate across the Earth. However, the fires also devastated another South American biome in the same proportion, but the news coverage of this disaster was scarce.

There are 200 million hectares of the most biodiverse tropical savanna on the planet located in the center of Brazil (with small portions in Bolivia and Paraguay), with 5% of the world’s species: the Cerrado, as well as the Amazon, also holds an amount of carbon that is fundamental to the world’s climate balance.

The ignorance regarding its importance is probably due to what is not visible in its landscape: about 70% of the Cerrado biomass is ground based, so the preservation of the carbon reservoirs in the soil is of great importance for the balance of the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. As the biome goes through a long dry season each year, the trees of the Cerrado have adapted, growing downwards instead of upwards in search of water.

Because of this, most Brazilians consider the Cerrado an “ugly forest”, since most of the trees in the biome are not tall, as it is the case in the magnificent Amazon.

Last week we celebrated the International Day for Biological Diversity (May 22) and it is crucial to consider the contribution of this biome: the rivers and rainfall within the Cerrado are connected to almost the entirety of Brazil – bringing water to agriculture, hydroelectric power, and human consumption.

Besides the 12,070 plant species and 1,050 vertebrate animal species, currently, about 46 million people live off the region’s natural resources: indigenous peoples, traditional communities, family producers, urban populations, and important sectors such as agribusiness and mining. The Brazilian Cerrado currently concentrates much of the production of globally important agricultural commodities.

The second-largest underground water reservoir in the world – the Guarani Aquifer – as well as the planet’s largest flooded plain – the Pantanal – rely on the Cerrado springs; and its ecosystem is seriously threatened if we continue with the alarming deforestation promoted by large-scale agriculture, which has so far devastated 50% of the biome. And that is before the fires swept away much of the region in 2019.

Research shows that deforestation in the Cerrado is 2.5 times higher than in the Amazon, and even so, this data does not generate so much social commotion. In regions such as MATOPIBA, an acronym related to the expanding agricultural frontier in the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia, the scenario is quite serious – by 2010 – 60% of the original coverage had already been converted into pastures and monocultures, and much of what remains has already suffered some kind of anthropic intervention.

The celebration of Biodiversity should remind us that we share our existence with several other living beings, and in the case of the Cerrado, these beings are the maned wolf, the giant anteater, and fruits such as pequi, sour coconut and baru. One way of interpreting biodiversity is to consider that it is a reflection of the interaction of all the elements that make life possible. Thus, we need to be responsible for our direct influence on the maintenance of biodiversity, its use, and consequences on human, animal, and plant life; either in the Cerrado or in any biome or ecosystem.

COVID-19 is the most recent example of human interference in natural processes and its consequences. The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) recently released a note reinforcing the need to reconcile the return to economic activity with the protection of ecosystems and biodiversity maintenance.

If the destruction of ecosystems persists, we will have a significant increase in the likelihood of new pandemics. We have 1.7 million viruses in nature still unidentified. Keeping forests standing prevents us from coming into contact with sources of new diseases. The lesson that the pandemic leaves us is to recognize the vital need to ensure sustainable development to maintain our ecosystems preserved if we wish to sustain our existence as human beings.

This situation makes us look once again at this unknown Cerrado, which more than ever, if highlighted and protected, will contribute with essential elements, such as water and natural resources, to overcome this and any future crisis.

At the moment, initiatives such as those being launched by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and the International Institute of Education of Brazil are helping to find the way towards this new model for sustainable development and biodiversity conservation. The Fund has 52 partner institutions, all united by the conservation of the Cerrado’s biodiversity and the services it provides to Brazilians.

The actions from our partners involve 6,335 people and safeguard 11,533,753 hectares of the biome. In addition, they contribute to the processing of 108,125.76 kg of raw material extracted from the Cerrado, which promotes an R$ 119,264.00 increase in income for the communities in native seed sales and R$ 245,443.78 in Cerrado fruit.

The great results we have achieved so far surely bring us a reason to celebrate this International Day of Biodiversity. These impacts show that it is possible to bear plenty of rewards when we integrate the use of biodiversity with its protection, which bring direct benefits to those people who share their lives with the Cerrado.

Michael Becker is the leader of the regional implementation team of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), which has been working since 2000 to ensure the contribution of civil society to the conservation of rich and highly threatened ecosystems. In Brazil, since 2016, CEPF has been working with the support of the International Institute of Education of Brazil (IEB), a Brazilian third sector institution dedicated to educate and empower people. These are the organizations that are part of the network:

Banner image by Gregoire Dubois.