It may not be as well-known as the Amazon region, but conservationists and biologists say Brazil’s Cerrado region is perhaps no less important. The tropical savanna biome spans over 21 percent of Brazilian territory. Ample plateaus looming amid flat lowlands define what the World Wide Fund For Nature called the “world’s biologically richest savanna.” But the arid landscape is increasingly a part of public conversation amongst environmentalists, most recently with 23 major companies participating in a campaign to stop deforestation in the area.
Deforestation, however, is not the biggest threat to the Cerrado – and nor is most of it even illegal. Brazil’s Forest Code states that landowners in the region are required to conserve 20 percent of the land. This might seem low in comparison to the Amazon, which is public land and where 80 percent must be dedicated to conservation purposes. But the Cerrado is still above the global protection requirements, which sit at just 17 percent, and in line with the country’s Forest Code.
Instead, experts warn that monoculture farming poses a significant danger to the sustainability of the Cerrado landscape. Of the Cerrado’s 54 million hectares, 22 million are occupied by grain monocultures, largely soybeans and corn – and on top of that, eucalyptus monocultures are another big crop, despite not being natural to savanna regions. The Cerrado is large enough that specialists believe changes to its ecosystem could have very real impacts for the rest of the country, which are already beginning to be felt in nearby cities.
Federal support for conservation is lacking, according to the Pastoral Land Commission, which is currently leading a campaign with ActionAid and several other NGOs to protect the Cerrado region. The rural lobby’s power and influence in Congress seem to be increasing, as bumper harvests this year were credited with ending the country’s longest-ever recession.
Meanwhile, as the Chinese demand for soybeans continues to increase, Brazil’s agricultural industry sets its sights on fulfilling it as a way of further boosting the country’s economy. Moreover, a handful of prominent individuals, including current agriculture minister Blairo Maggi, are set to profit heavily from the industry.
Losses to biodiversity
According to the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), the Cerrado has 58 conservation areas. Between them, they are home to 6,000 native plant species, 800 bird species, 200 types of mammals, 180 reptile species, plus 150 amphibian and 1,200 fish species. The International Institute for Sustainability (IIS) estimates that the area has already lost 46 percent of its native vegetation, with an estimated 20 percent remaining completely untouched.
But in addition to the IIS’s projected loss of 1,140 species if deforestation of the biome continues at the current rate, monoculture farming could also play a large part in eliminating the area’s biodiversity. This, according to Sergio Collaço de Carvalho, a biologist and doctoral researcher on environmental protection areas as public goods at the University of Oxford, could have practical consequences for Brazilian industry.
“Biodiversity and conserved ecosystems are a source of new materials. A lot of medications and industrial products are developed from stuff found in biodiversity,” he told The Brazilian Report. “In terms of commercializing things, you have the potential value of finding new active substances in the biodiversity of the Cerrado.”
Critics of monoculture also argue that it is a food security issue, as planting only identical or very similar plant species leaves crops vulnerable to disease. Outside of new pharmaceutical products, Collaço emphasizes that biodiversity is important for current farming practices to survive in the area. “You can look at crop value in terms of pollinations,” he said. “Horticulture depends on pollination, so you need an ecosystem that can provide that.”
Jacob Binsztock, a geography professor at the Federal Fluminense Unversity (UFF) in Rio de Janeiro, says that landowners in the Cerrado made their purchases in the 1960s and 1970s, when land in the center-west region was cheaper. But, he warns, monoculture farming’s threats to biodiversity have more consequences than species disappearing or potential obstacles for food security.
“We no longer have the amount of water we had in the past,” he told The Brazilian Report. “You have a rather predatory use of water in that region. There is no have a water optimization or water storage control, and you have areas that are already lacking water because of the intensive agricultural usage. All this makes a picture of the water issue.”
Collaço, who spent his teenage years in Brasília – a city constructed within the biome – says that the Cerrado’s water issues are already beginning to show up in cities nearby. Having witnessed real estate speculation and development of the area growing up, accompanied by the advances made by agriculture interests on the landscape, Collaço says he has already witnessed huge changes to the landscape, accompanied by huge consequences.
“I saw urban infrastructure collapsing, amidst the huge water crisis. You have water tables going down and being less and less sustainable,” he said. “It has to do with changing global patterns in the climate, it has a lot to do also with a less sustainable landscape that absorbs less water.”
According to Gerardo Cerdas Vega, a policy and program analyst at ActionAid, another issue when it comes to protecting the Cerrado region is that people largely view it as uninhabited. “The expansion of agriculture in this region was always legitimized by a systematic invisibilization of the people who live there,” he said to The Brazilian Report.
Despite approximately 80 percent of Brazil’s population being concentrated on coastlines, the Cerrado region is home to more than 80 known indigenous groups, in addition to countless quilombos and ten different types of traditional and peasant communities. Vega says that some of these groups have been in the area for centuries, and other for millennia.
“Various types of people have their lives associated with the preservation of the Cerrado,” he said to The Brazilian Report. “Land-grabbing is also a phenomenon that is very common in this biome, especially in the Matopiba region which is an area of expansion.”
Vega says that people are often pushed off the land by private landowners looking to expand monoculture territories, despite the fact that much of the area’s soils aren’t the right types or of sufficient quality to adequately serve large-scale farming. The federal government has already demonstrated inaction in protecting indigenous and quilombo settlements this year, creating a potential for impunity in key regions like Matopiba.
Not yet lost
Although Vega says that the Cerrado has already lost approximately 45 percent of its biodiversity, there is a chance to save what remains. Sérgio Collaço de Carvalho, too, says that he sees “a lot of cause for hope” in recent findings, but that pressing issues should be addressed quickly.
“Recently there was a record spotting of spotted jaguars in Brasília,” Collaço said. “It’s a small place, and the area around it has been battered and destroyed and converted into agriculture. It’s a top predator that requires a lot of land – so the biodiversity is still there.”