Conservation news

Study shows more than half of Cerrado’s cattle pasture can be restored

  • Cattle pasture occupies an area larger than France in Brazil’s Cerrado biome, or 29% of the planet’s most biodiverse savanna.
  • Research from the University of Brasília shows that more than half of this pastureland can potentially be restored back to its native state.
  • The research identifies priority areas for restoration and describes possible ways to get there, which it stresses will require strong political will and stakeholder engagement.
  • Restoration of this pastureland would mean no more of the native Cerrado would need to be cleared to support the beef industry, at the same time conserving biodiversity.

Much of the land that’s been cleared for pasture in the Brazilian Cerrado could potentially be restored to its previous savanna state while still leaving enough space for the country’s beef industry, according to research from the University of Brasília (UnB).

More than 50% of the biome’s native vegetation has been destroyed, and deforestation there is spreading faster than in the neighboring Amazon. Cattle pasture occupies 29% of land in the Cerrado, or some 57 million hectares (140 million acres) — an area larger than France — but can mostly be restored, with the buy-in of all stakeholders and strong political will.

In her master’s thesis, UnB ecology student Jéssica Schüler makes the case that no more land needs to be deforested. Schüler’s supervisor, UnB professor and leading Cerrado expert Mercedes Bustamante, says achieving this would require addressing the interests of all involved parties.

“The tools exist, and they can be improved. Today it’s impossible to deny that the information is there. What is missing is governance. And decision-making based on the best information available,” she says.

Schüler’s research includes a map detailing priority regions for restorable pastureland in the Cerrado, based on biodiversity gains, natural potential for regeneration, and agricultural aptitude. She looked at habitat connectivity in different regions of the biome together with the extent of degradation to identify areas with greater potential for natural regeneration.

The results show that 45% of the pastureland has a low to intermediate level of potential for restoration, 10% has intermediate to high potential, and 1% has high potential.

In practice, more than half of the area converted for pasture shows good capacity for restoration. Projects adapted to the varied local environments in the Cerrado, which covers 24% of Brazil’s territory, could bring benefits to all, but challenges abound, Schüler says.

“Restoration of the Cerrado is complicated because it is a complex system that will take a long time,” she says, adding that making a plan of action is possible with the information available today. “Agriculture must be contemplated in a more intelligent fashion; the technology already exists.”

Pastures in the northern Cerrado, which borders the Amazon Rainforest, have a higher potential for successful regeneration than those further south. Image courtesy of Jéssica Schüler (2020).

Less bureaucracy, more intelligence

Another issue she highlights is the uneven geographic distribution of degradation across the Cerrado, and hence the opportunities for restoration. Most of the pastureland with high regeneration potential is located in the northern Cerrado, where it borders the Amazon. Across the Cerrado, ranchers and farmers are required to maintain 20-35% natural vegetation on their land, known as the legal reserve. While many ranches fall short of this requirement, there’s generally greater compliance in the north compared to the southwestern and central Cerrado regions that fall in the states of Minas Gerais, Goiás and Mato Grosso do Sul.

Brazil is a signatory to international treaties, like the Paris Agreement, that encourage ecosystem restoration. It also has policies aimed at this, including the National Native Vegetation Recuperation Policy (Planaveg), published in 2017 and which calls for restoring 12 million hectares (30 million acres) across Brazil by 2030.

The Rural Environmental Registry (CAR) is an important tool in keeping track of this. All rural properties — farms and ranches — are required to self-declare on the online registry, with georeferenced boundaries for their legal reserves, permanently preserved areas (or APPs), restricted-use areas, and areas that were deforested before 2008.

Ultimately, all deforestation activities must be authorized by the relevant authorities, who in turn must consider various factors, Bustamante says. If the environmental agency has a tool to map and evaluate the location of the hydrographic basin, the property size and other factors, it can negotiate an authorization under certain terms and conditions.

Authorization to clear vegetation, Bustamante says, “can no longer be merely bureaucratic, which is what they have become.” Under such an informed system, she adds, landowners could be required to coordinate the zoning of their legal reserves with those of their neighbors, such that they create a continuous protected ecological corridor.

This is how the 4.6-million-hectare (11.4-million-acre) deficit of legal reserves in the Cerrado can be resolved, according to Schüler’s thesis, recouping it from the 6.3 million hectares (15.6 million acres) of pastureland with the greatest potential for regeneration.

Genetic diversity and local solutions

Seeds also play a vital role in the restoration of savanna degraded for pasture.

Schüler notes that the Cerrado has an enormous variety of native grasses, most of whose seeds are spread by birds and mammals like the maned wolf.

“The Cerrado’s grasses are very important for ecosystem services, and raising cattle on native grasses is a much more sustainable alternative than using planted pasture,” she says.

To better understand the natural regeneration dynamic in the Cerrado and test the precision of remote-sensing technology, Schüler carried out a field evaluation inside Brasília National Park based on data from the MapBiomas project. She also evaluated the regeneration potential within four different ecoregions of the Cerrado: the Paraná Basalts (straddling the states of Paraná, São Paulo and Minas Gerais); the Central Plains (Goiás and Minas Gerais); the Upper São Francisco River (Minas Gerais); and the São Francisco River Karst Depression (Minas Gerais, Bahia, and Piauí).

From these evaluations, Schüler says she lesson learned it’s important to consider the local diversity of each of the biome’s different regions. The Federal District, home to Brasília National Park, for instance, will require a different restoration approach than the other regions closer to the Caatinga biome or the Amazon, which have different climates.

“We must consider spatial heterogeny because of the Cerrado’s size and complexity,” Schüler says. “It makes no sense not to consider this when restoring and protecting it.”

Her thesis forms part of a wider research project seeking an integrated approach for the Cerrado, which looks at the nexus between water systems, power and food security, and the role of traditional communities. The next objective is to better understand the influence of fire on vegetation regeneration and climate dynamics. The researchers have requested a deadline extension to at least the end of the year from the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq).

 
Banner image: A herd of buffalo on a ranch in Ceilândia, in the Federal District of Brazil. Cattle ranching has transformed nearly a third of the Cerrado savanna and scrubland into pasture. Image by Wenderson Araujo/Trilux.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on April 7, 2021.