Between the Amazon and the Atlantic: Brazil’s threatened savannas

By 2008, almost half the Cerrado’s original vegetation had been lost to agricultural expansion.
Vast areas of the Cerrado have been converted into pastureland, corn, sugarcane and soybean plantations.

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The Amazon rainforest has long been a focus for environmentalists, scientists and policy makers, but they are now starting to also pay more attention to Brazil’s other major ecosystem – the unique savannas and woodlands known as the Cerrado.

Since the 1970s, vast areas of the Cerrado have been converted into pastureland, corn, sugarcane and soybean plantations, fuelling Brazil’s economy and feeding its people, but taking a toll on the ecosystem’s rich biodiversity. And while international concern over the fate of the Amazon is widespread, few people outside Brazil have heard of the Cerrado.

Its mosaic landscape of scrub, grass, and woodland stretches across one fifth of Brazil, covering between 1.5 million and 2 million square kilometers between the Amazon rainforest and the Atlantic Ocean.

It is home to some of the richest diversity of plant species of any savanna in the world, and hosts many unique animals, including the giant anteater, giant armadillo and maned wolf. And it is an important water source, too – its rivers drain into the vast wetlands of the Pantanal.

But by 2008, almost half the Cerrado’s original vegetation had been lost to agricultural expansion. According to Brazil’s Environment Ministry, on average as much as 14,000 square kilometers were converted for farming per year between 2002 and 2008 – although the data sources are more imprecise than for the Amazon.

This region now produces 60 percent of the country’s coffee and soy, and 86 percent of its cotton, while supporting 72 million head of cattle.

‘The Cerrado is drier, in terms of climate, and especially for some of the grains that are being cultivated, it is actually often more apt for land-use expansion than the wet, humid climate of the Amazon,” said Sven Wunder, Principal Scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Rio de Janeiro.

“So the Cerrado is facing strong pressures – and we cannot actually exclude that some leakage has been going on, from pressures on the Amazon to pressures on the Cerrado region,” he said.

The “forgotten” Cerrado

Francisco Oliveira Filho, Executive Secretary of Brazil’s Ministry of Environment, concedes that “the Cerrado was indeed forgotten for a while.”

“It wouldn’t be fair to say that no actions were taken in the Cerrado; it’s just that this region was not the top priority,” he said.

The government had to act in the Amazon, he said, to ensure forest loss reductions there because, according to the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) latest report, nearly 60 percent of Brazil’s emissions come from forest loss, which is more concentrated in the Amazon than in the Cerrado.

“With this work under way, attention was then directed to the Cerrado, our second priority,” Oliveira said. “The Cerrado requires special attention; we need to reconcile development and conservation here to ensure the region is not lost.”

To do this, in 2010 Brazil’s government announced a $200 million Action Plan to Prevent and Control Deforestation and Wildfires in the Cerrado Biome (PPCerrado).

Our country is a top world soybean and meat producer, with good production practices

George Ferreira

It is part of the country’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation, and sits alongside the plan developed for the Amazon in 2003, the PPPCDaM, which brought together 14 ministries to tackle Amazonian deforestation, and which has shown some encouraging results.

“The difference [between the Cerrado Plan and the Amazon one] is that it’s more recent, so it’s still being adjusted, and results are still modest. We achieved a deforestation reduction in the Cerrado in 2008-2009, but there’s a lot to do,” Oliveira said.

The government says land conversion fell to 7,637 square kilometers from 2008 to 2009. That’s roughly equivalent to what was lost in the Amazon in the same year, but represents a higher proportion of the total area, as the Cerrado is smaller.

National and international attention

Oliveira says foreign donors are targeting their funding to address problems in the Cerrado, and are collaborating with the government under the new plan.

The Forest Investment Program is sponsoring a forest inventory for the Cerrado, as well as the government’s low-carbon agricultural program, which offers credit to farmers who sign up to reduce their carbon footprint by recovering degraded land, planting commercial forests, and treating animal waste.

It also supports the development of monitoring tools specifically for the Cerrado, to identify illegal deforestation (which is less common than in the Amazon) and to measure carbon emissions.

Monitoring deforestation is simpler in the Amazon than in the Cerrado, Oliveira said. The Amazon rainforest looks more uniform from a satellite, so deforestation is readily spotted, while the more varied savanna environment requires more complex tools to distinguish healthy from degraded areas.

Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) is experimenting with several methods to do this, including the use of satellite maps that illuminate soil types rather than vegetation.

From 2008 to 2010, Brazil’s Institute of Environment and Natural Resources (IBAMA) tested a program in the Cerrado, using data from INPE to identify where deforestation was occurring illegally.

This year, they’re resuming operations there, and are planning to do the same in all of Brazil’s biomes: the Atlantic forests, Caatinga, Pantanal, and Pampa.

“It’s important to stress that appropriate, legal activities exist, which contribute to Brazil’s GDP,” said George Ferreira, coordinator of environmental monitoring at IBAMA. “Our country is a top world soybean and meat producer, with good production practices.”

“However, there are always people who act illegally and use resources in a predatory or destructive manner for their own benefit. These individuals are the target of IBAMA’s actions,” he said. “To stop this migration of deforesters across biomes, we’re performing operations to fight the destruction of natural vegetation not only in the Amazon but throughout Brazil.”

Another international project aims to prevent, control and monitor bushfires in the Cerrado and is supported by Germany’s aid program, GIZ.

Although fire is a natural part of the Cerrado ecosystem – many of its species are uniquely adapted to fire and drought conditions – fire patterns have changed with the human occupation of the area, and fires have become more frequent, Oliveira said.

“There are some protected areas in Jalapão, an area with high fire intensity in Tocantins state, which are harmed by fire coming from surrounding private properties,” he said. “So we are working to enhance fire management to stop fire from affecting these protected areas.”

Oliveira believes that these new initiatives, combined with improved agricultural productivity and strategic protected areas, will ensure the Cerrado’s vast savannas continue to provide food while safeguarding biodiversity, carbon stocks and water.

“This compromise is our main objective, which is attainable, fortunately. We can indeed foster development while ensuring conservation.”

For more information on the issues discussed in this article, please contact Sven Wunder at s.wunder@cgiar.org 

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