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A tale of two biomes as deforestation surges in Cerrado but wanes in Amazon

Far from a barren, dry savanna, the Cerrado is made up of diverse landscapes replete with lush vegetation and thousands of wildlife species. Eight of the 12 river basins in Brazil originate from this region. Image © Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.

  • Brazil has managed to bring down spiraling rates of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest in the first half of this year, but the neighboring Cerrado savanna has seen a wave of environmental destruction during the same period.
  • The country’s second largest biome, the Cerrado is seeing its highest deforestation figure since 2018; satellite data show 3,281 hectares (8,107 acres) per day have been cleared since the start of the year through Aug. 4.
  • The leading causes of the rising deforestation rates in the Cerrado are a disparity in conservation efforts across Brazil’s biomes, an unsustainable economic model that prioritizes monocultures, and escalating levels of illegal native vegetation clearing.
  • Given the importance of the Cerrado to replenish watersheds across the continent, its destruction would affect not just Brazil but South America too, experts warn, adding that the region’s water, food and energy security are at stake.

Protecting the Amazon has garnered significant international attention, and for good reason, given its pivotal role in regulating the global climate and harboring immense biodiversity. However, with the world focused on the rainforest’s preservation, a neighboring biome faces an alarming surge in destruction: the Cerrado.

This biodiverse savanna sprawls over 20% of Brazil’s territory — an area the size of Mexico — making it the second-largest biome in the country, dwarfed only by the Amazon. Known as the “cradle of waters,” it plays a vital role in replenishing the main Brazilian and South American watersheds, as well as providing energy and food security for millions of people.

Despite its social and ecological significance, it’s one of Brazil’s most depleted biomes having lost half its native vegetation cover to deforestation at a rate around three times greater than that of the Amazon.

“Brazil is not just made up of the Amazon, it has several giant biomes,” Paulo Bellonia, president of the NGO Save Cerrado, told Mongabay. “All of them are important, but the Cerrado is being pushed aside. We need to preserve the Cerrado as well as the Amazon.”

Aerial photo of the Cerrado
The Cerrado biome is made up of a mosaic of ecosystems, including dry forests, grasslands, wetlands, savannas, shrublands and wet forests. It’s also home to tens of thousands of Indigenous peoples, although their officially demarcated territories represent just 5% of the entire biome area. Image © Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.

Brazil’s new government has managed to curtail Amazon deforestation in the first seven months of this year by 42% compared to the same period in 2022, thanks to the implementation of the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (PPCDAm), scaling up fines for environmental violations, and cracking down on illegal activities.

In stark contrast, the Cerrado is experiencing a surge in deforestation rates. From the start of this year until Aug. 4 (the most recent figures published), deforestation alerts for 5,071 square kilometers (1,958 square miles) of Cerrado were registered, compared to 4,265 km2 (1,647 mi2) in the corresponding period last year, according to data from Brazilian satellite monitoring system DETER. Experts say the deforestation rate this year may even be an underestimate due to cloud cover, meaning the figures could be even higher.

“We usually have a low detection of [deforestation] alerts in the rainy season due to cloud cover, and also due to the agricultural calendar itself. Therefore, this significant increase in deforestation in the first quarter compared to the last two years is quite worrying,” Fernanda Ribeiro, a researcher at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), said in a statement.

Approximately 85% of all Cerrado deforestation in the first seven months of this year occurred in just four states — Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia — which make up the Brazilian agricultural frontier known as Matopiba. The majority of Cerrado deforestation (87%) in the same period can be traced back to private properties. In the state of Bahia, the third largest Cerrado deforester after Maranhão and Tocantins, 96% of deforestation occurred within estates registered to Brazil’s Rural Environmental Registry (CAR), an online land record.

Deforestation in the Cerrado has been on the rise since 2019, according to data from Brazilian satellite system PRODES.
Deforestation in the Cerrado has been on the rise since 2019, according to data from Brazilian satellite system PRODES. Data from TerraBrasilis (PRODES).

‘The Cerrado was chosen to die’

The divergence between the fates of the Amazon and the Cerrado raises the question: Why is deforestation going down in one biome but soaring in the other?

Experts say that the Cerrado’s escalating deforestation is linked primarily to land-use regulations that favor sweeping agricultural expansion, notably for soy and beef production, and a lack of solid conservation efforts to tackle spiraling rates of illegal clearing.

“Brazil invests in a predatory economic model that intensifies monoculture with an emphasis on agricultural commodities,” Rosângela Corrêa, general director of the virtual Cerrado Museum, told Mongabay. “While the world only sees the Amazon Rainforest, the Cerrado was chosen to die to serve international interests, especially China,” the biggest importer of Brazilian soy.

Land-use regulations require that 80% of private land in the Amazon Rainforest must be preserved by law. In the Cerrado biome, however, private landowners are legally permitted to clear between 65 and 80% of native vegetation on their land with the correct environmental licensing. Despite the significant allowance for legal vegetation clearing, a report from the Life Center Institute (ICV), an NGO, found that 88% of the deforestation in the Cerrado in 2019 was illegal.

“We need the government to establish integrated actions by strengthening command-and-control bodies, in addition to implementing severe punishments against land grabbers and illegal loggers,” Corrêa said.

Pie chart of deforestation in different states.
The states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia make up Brazil’s Matopiba agricultural frontier, responsible for the majority of the deforestation in the Cerrado so far this year. Bahia is the most deforested state in the biome this year, accounting for more than a quarter of all Cerrado vegetation loss. Data from TerraBrasilis (DETER).

The current government plans to implement an anti deforestation action plan for the Cerrado, or PPCerrado, in October this year, a similar plan to the Amazon’s PPCDAm. The exact details of the new PPCerrado have not yet been disclosed, but experts speculate there’s unlikely to be much change to the existing legal deforestation allowance of up to 80%.

“It’s doubtful because of the political reality in Brazil and the pressure from the agribusiness sector,” Bellonia said.

Although President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has vowed to prioritize the environmental agenda, the agribusiness lobby remains a powerful force within Congress.

Only 7.5% of the Cerrado falls within legally protected public areas, compared to 46% of the Amazon, and only about 5% is recognized as Indigenous territory. Demarcating more Indigenous lands would be one way to increase the coverage of conservation areas.

“Certainly the process of regularization and demarcation of Indigenous territories and traditional communities is one of the elements that would guarantee the permanence of the Cerrado,” Haroldo Heleno, a regional coordinator with the Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), an advocacy group affiliated with the Catholic Church, told Mongabay. “Communities in the Cerrado have a very strong relationship with the land and water. Demarcating their land helps the recovery of the Cerrado and protect what has yet to be lost.”

Agribusiness Rush in the MATOPIBA Region.
The Matopiba region is pivotal for Brazil’s agriculture, helping make the country the world’s leading exporter of soybeans. Environmental groups call for strong environmental protection policies and more sustainable farming practices to help protect the Cerrado while still encouraging economic growth. Image © Fernanda Ligabue/Greenpeace.

Devastating consequences

The effects of deforestation in the Cerrado extend to the neighboring Amazon. A 2013 study showed how deforestation in the savanna could influence the rainforest’s climate dynamics by causing an increased water deficit. Cerrado deforestation is already linked to a 10% reduction in water recycled into the atmosphere annually, and a 0.9° Celsius (1.6° Fahrenheit) increase in land surface temperature across the biome, according to a 2022 study.

Maintaining native Cerrado vegetation is crucial for Brazil’s water systems as they support the rain cycle through evapotranspiration. The loss of this vegetation leads to increased droughts, according to a 2018 study. As most of the soy farms in Matopiba are rainfed, “limited rainfall and high evaporation may lead to sharp decreases in productivity,” according to the study — highlighting that by clearing the Cerrado for commercial farming, the agribusiness sector is also threatening its own interests. Drought can be devastating: in both the 2012-2013 and 2015-2016 seasons, soy yields were up to 40% lower here than in Brazil as a whole due to irregular water cycles.

“Without a doubt, the country’s water, food and energy security are at stake,” Corrêa said.

Experts call for the expansion of conservation initiatives to prioritize the Cerrado and the Amazon equally. Kyle Saukas, deputy director of communications for the consultancy Climate Advisers, a part of the Chain Reaction Research consortium, told Mongabay: “The Cerrado must be treated with the same urgency as the Amazon for the benefit of both the people who depend on its local ecosystem services and people worldwide for its positive carbon storage [and] biodiversity benefits.”

Vast croplands spread for miles across the Cerrado. Approximately half of the biome has had its native vegetation converted into land for soy, corn and cattle. Image © Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.

Banner image: Far from a barren, dry savanna, the Cerrado is made up of diverse landscapes replete with lush vegetation and thousands of wildlife species. Eight of the 12 river basins in Brazil originate from this region. Image © Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.

Historic EU law against deforestation-linked imports ignores Brazil’s Cerrado


Pires, G. F., & Costa, M. H. (2013). Deforestation causes different subregional effects on the Amazon bioclimatic equilibrium. Geophysical Research Letters, 40(14), 3618-3623. doi:10.1002/grl.50570

Rodrigues, A. A., Macedo, M. N., Silvério, D. V., Maracahipes, L., Coe, M. T., Brando, P. M., … Bustamante, M. C. (2022). Cerrado deforestation threatens regional climate and water availability for agriculture and ecosystems. Global Change Biology, 28(22), 6807-6822. doi:10.1111/gcb.16386

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