A fast disappearing natural landscape

The Cerrado lies at the heart of Brazil, linking four of the nation’s five biomes. The most biologically diverse savanna in the world, it holds around 5% of the planet’s biodiversity, and feeds two-thirds of Brazil’s major watersheds.

But that value is not immediately visible to visitors: The Cerrado is not as striking nor as obviously impressive as the two forest systems it is wedged between; the Amazon to the west and Atlantic forest to the east. To appreciate the Amazon, it is enough to go to the forest and look up at the awe-inspiring trees, says Sampaio, a savanna restoration expert. “But to appreciate the Cerrado,” he says, “you have to kneel down on the earth and look at a tiny patch of ground that might contain dozens of unique species you would otherwise have never noticed.”

The Cerrado conceals its worth in another way. The Amazon’s lush forest canopy makes itself obvious as being key to carbon storage, but the Cerrado’s golden grasses, wizened trees and woody shrubs hide their value deep underground. Some scientists suggest that up to 70% of the region’s carbon is stored in its deep, tangled root systems, giving it the moniker, “the underground forest.”

But even as Sampaio and others rush to save the Cerrado, its native vegetation is vanishing. Everywhere, native flora is being cut, bulldozed and burned — with underground root systems ripped up and left smoldering in blackened fields to make way for cattle, soy, and cotton (three lucrative Brazilian commodity crops).

During his undergrad and masters research, Sampaio remembers feeling conflicted about studying conservation on the Cerrado ecotone — the biodiverse area where the Cerrado meets the Amazon — when clearly, everything left to protect there was fast being converted to pasture and cropland.

“I was working alongside the bulldozers,” he remembers, studying species that were disappearing before his eyes.

The Cerrado: More than half the biome’s native vegetation area has been lost. Image by Terpsichores CC-BY-SA-3.0.

From 1985 to 2017, 24.7 million hectares (61 million acres) of Cerrado native vegetation were lost — an area the size of the U.S. state of Michigan; now only around half of the original flora remains. Today, annual Cerrado native vegetation loss runs about twice as high as in the Amazon.

This widespread agricultural conversion has degraded and weakened once hardy ecosystems, facilitated the spread of invasive African grasses brought in to feed cattle, reduced the biome’s carbon sequestration potential, and decreased water availability and quality not only in the savanna, but for Brazil’s major cities which rely heavily on the Cerrado aquifers.

However, these threats aren’t equally distributed. “In the north and central Cerrado, [agribusiness is] still actively deforesting land,” says Daniel Vieira, a forest engineer at Embrapa involved in Restaura Cerrado for several years. “But in the south, the main deforestation has already happened. We have much more degraded land.” And this is where Restaura Cerrado is conducting its work — not trying to conserve existing native vegetation, but seeking to restore its worn out agricultural lands in the hope of bringing the savanna’s historical ecosystems back into full bloom.

Alexandre Sampaio during one of the first harvests of native seed grasses in 2011. Photo by Daniel Vieira.

Re-growing from the ground up

When Sampaio and Schmidt started working on Cerrado restoration in Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park in Goiás state in 2010, they were met by a dearth of science. While much work had been done globally to create workable tree and forest restoration models, little was known about savanna biome restoration.

“The belief was that by bringing back trees, other native plants would come back,” says Sampaio. In a forest-dominated landscape like the Amazon, where trees crowd out most plants growing close to the ground, like invasive grasses, that model holds true. “But this isn’t how a savanna works,” notes Sampaio. There aren’t enough trees there, and they don’t grow densely, or big enough, to shade out invasive species, like African grasses.

Historically in Brazil, ecological restoration and landscape design projects only considered and planted a biome’s tree species, leaving out the grasses and shrubs that not only characterize the Cerrado, but which represent more than 60% of its plant diversity (around 7,000 species), many of which serve fundamental ecological functions.

This is a pattern duplicated around the world, with non-forested landscapes receiving not only less scientific attention and government support, but increasingly under threat from massive tree-planting campaigns that threaten to supplant native grassland ecosystems. In Brazil and the Cerrado, that has sometimes meant the planting of exotic eucalyptus plantations, grown to provide the world with toilet paper, but offering little ecological value.

Sampaio and Schmidt reasoned differently. They decided that if you were going to restore a savanna, you had to start with the grasses. And that is exactly what they did.

Starting in 2010, they experimented, growing native Cerrado grasses on one-hectare-sized plots. In those first years, they observed how the native herbaceous layer — grasses and other ground-hugging herbs — establishes itself, and how difficult it is to control and keep out invasive grasses.

They found that, to combat these unwanted exotics, they needed to mechanically clear fields and seed a lot of fast growing native grasses — a technique that yielded a good germination and growth rate. Their research network soon expanded, encompassing students from the University of Brasília, Embrapa, and the Cerrado Seeds Network.

“It was definitely a ‘learning-by-doing’ experience,” says Embrapa’s Vieira. “Working in the 300 hectare [741 acre] Chapada dos Veadeiros plot allowed us to learn a lot about restoration ecology, and in general about the basic ecology of the Cerrado.”

Upscaling field experiments

In 2015, Restaura Cerrado got the opportunity to put their research into practice. An electrical transmission line company, Norte Brasil Transmissora de Energia, was building intrastate powerlines. To compensate for land clearing, the firm partnered with Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park — a UN World Heritage site — to restore a 100-hectare degraded section of parkland.

Park managers agreed, with one caveat: the restoration had to be done with native Cerrado vegetation, using the new techniques pioneered by Restaura Cerrado. That condition created an initial hurdle: the power company contract required that the group plant trees. “The technicians didn’t understand why we should plant grasses not trees,” explains Sampaio.”

Once that misunderstanding was resolved, another question arose: where to find enough native seed to restore 100 hectares? By 2015, a satisfactory answer was found. The project had been working with 40 Cerrado families, training them to collect and prepare seeds. Those families were recruited to supply seeds to the powerline company.

Hand-spreading native Cerrado seeds. Image by Fernando Tatagiba / ICMBio.

One such collector was Claudomiro de Almeida Cortes. Born and raised in Chapada dos Veadeiros, he had worked in the park first as a firefighter and then as a field technician, fostering a deep respect for nature. “I have a great responsibility, which is to take care of the heritage that is the Cerrado,” he told Mongabay. “Without the Cerrado there is no water, clean air, nothing, no life.”

The demand for native plants by the power company was so great, that de Almeida Cortes started a seed collecting association, which he dubbed Cerrado de Pé, or “Standing Cerrado.”

The association now includes 80 families, 30 of which belong to the Kalunga community, the largest quilombola community in Brazil (quilombolas are descendants of runaway slaves).

“We are at the forefront of developing new and novel techniques appropriate for restoring the Cerrado biome,” says de Almeida Cortes, who continues working in close collaboration with Restaura Cerrado. Today, his association supplies a growing number of restoration projects with 70 different native species varieties. But that’s just the beginning: de Almeida Cortes says his association will have more than 200 native Cerrado species ready for commercial use in the next 2 years.

Restoration as sustainable development

Conservationists aren’t the only ones to appreciate the potential of restoration. A 2020 study found that a restoration economy based on native seeds in Brazil could generate up to $146 million dollars annually and employ up to 57,000 people.

Already, new seed companies are sprouting up. One of the Cerrado de Pé Association’s partners is Barbara Pacheco, the CEO of VerdeNovo, a small seed company. A biologist by training, Pacheco worked for years with Embrapa doing ecological restoration before founding her own socio-environmental company which employs 17 seed collectors in three Cerrado states.

For her, restoration has become a key talking point when trying to alter the views of people living in the savanna. “We have a collector who used to harvest wood from the Cerrado,” she says. ”Today, he works with native seed, which supplements his income. He says he’s changed his outlook; he doesn’t think about felling trees, instead he sees potential in the ground around him.”

But Pacheco continues worrying about the ongoing degradation and destruction: She and others fear that if there isn’t sufficient native vegetation left, that seed reservoir populations will decrease, and some rare plants might get far rarer — making it difficult to find and collect genetically diverse native seed varieties.

The view ahead: seeding the future

According to scientists, restoration is among the most effective and cheapest means for mitigating climate change, especially when replanting degraded or abandoned lands. In addition, Studies show that restoration can promote sustainable development, food security, and potentially employ many thousands of people — generating roughly 200 new jobs for every 1,000 hectares restored.

As part of the Bonn Challenge — with its global goal of restoring 350 million hectares by 2030 — Brazil has pledged to recover 12 million hectares of native vegetation. One massive opportunity for this large-scale restoration — and for the sustainable native seed industry — exists in the Cerrado, where a quarter of the savanna is now composed of pastureland, almost 40% of which is degraded.

That being said, reforestation continues garnering the bulk of attention from companies, governments, and international organizations including the UN, with savanna restoration still lagging behind in funding, research and public awareness.

“It’s hard to change people’s mentality around restoration,” explains Sampaio. “It’s hard to get them interested in tiny plants they can barely see when the symbol of something like planting a tree seedling is still so strong.”

Still a big job ahead: A Restaura Cerrado participant is dwarfed by the vastness of the Cerrado savanna landscape. Image by Fernando Tatagiba / ICMBio.

Still, he’s optimistic that organizations like Restaura Cerrado will show the way forward for savanna restoration. Little by little, the world is learning to value this unique biome type. Already, a new partnership between Restaura Cerrado and Caminas University in São Paulo plans to study the role Cerrado species play in ecosystem restoration, something, he says, researchers know little about.

Small legislative wins are occurring too, says Vieira. Brasília’s Federal District, for example, has implemented pilot regulations requiring areas that were originally covered in grasses to be replanted with native grasses, rather than trees or exotics.

Perhaps the biggest sign of change is seen with city consumers. In the past six years, Siqueira has launched an urban landscaping business model, built around native Cerrado gardens. Working in close collaboration with the Cerrado de Pé Association and Restaura Cerrado, she has sourced and selected a variety of Cerrado plant species for her clients. In the process, she’s gone from knowing virtually nothing about Brazil’s Cerrado, to being one of its biggest restoration advocates.

“Once you understand just how unique the Cerrado is, it’s hard not to feel awe and feel inspired,” she says. “I also realized the Cerrado is a place that not only needs me, but I need it too.”

Mauricio Angelo contributed reporting to this story.

Hear Mariana Siqueira describe this restoration work on Mongabay’s podcast, click play here:

Banner image: Restaura Cerrado volunteers seed the savanna.

Correction: This story originally called the Cerrado the largest savanna in the world. However, that distinction belongs to the African savanna.

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For Mariana Siqueira (center), an important part of understanding how to build native Cerrado gardens is to go into the field herself and harvest native seeds. Image by Amalia Robredo.
Article published by Glenn Scherer
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