The Brazilian biome suffering more than the Amazon

. Jul 24, 2020
amazon cerrado deforestation A Cerrado fire going out of control. Photo: Fernando Tatagiba/ICMBio

Early in June, the Environment and Sustainability Agency of the Center-West state of Goiás launched a major clampdown operation in the municipality of Cavalcante — a tourism hotspot in the Chapada dos Veadeiros national park. In a single day, agents identified 24 spots of deforestation and illegal mining, among them a previously untouched area of savannah transformed into cattle pasture by Cavalcante Mayor Josemar Saraiva Freire — who was fined BRL 169,000 (USD 31,500) and saw two of the City Hall’s own diggers seized, which he had used to carry out the crime. 

During the same operation, inspectors witnessed the destruction of 500 hectares of native savannah land within the Kalunga quilombo, which are traditional communities founded by runaway slaves throughout Brazil’s long-running slave trade.

While the eyes of the world are trained on the Amazon rainforest — with good reason — it is Brazil’s savannah-like Cerrado region which is suffering the most from deforestation.

While around 70 percent of the Amazon is public land, and rural producers must keep 80 percent of their properties intact, the Cerrado is mostly in the hands of private landowners. The area is Brazil&#8217;s agricultural engine and houses riverbeds that serve as the sources of three of South America&#8217;s biggest river basins. But it has already lost half of its original vegetation coverage to pastures and crops such as soy, corn, and cotton. The other half is highly fragmented, which compromises the biome&#8217;s ability to preserve its biodiversity.</p> <p>Spanning 11 states, the Cerrado occupies around 22 percent of Brazil. According to the latest <a href="">Annual Deforestation Report</a> by NGO MapBiomas, there were 7,400 deforestation alerts in the Cerrado area —&nbsp;against 47,200 in the Amazon. But the discrepancy is much narrower when it comes to actual deforested area: while 770,100 hectares of forest were destroyed in the Amazon — an average of 16 ha per alert — around 408,600 ha were lost in the Cerrado, over three times more on average per deforestation alert.</p> <p>While destruction of native vegetation is less common in the Cerrado, when it does happen it is far more extensive.</p> <p>Combined, the Amazon and Cerrado comprised 96 percent of all deforestation alerts and 96.7 percent of the total deforested area in 2019. These are the two best-monitored biomes in Brazil, presenting continuous deforestation monitoring systems with methodological approaches adapted for each respective regions.</p> <iframe src="" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Current laws don&#8217;t prevent deforestation</h2> <p>Unlike the Amazon region, the agrarian issues in the Cerrado are fairly uncontroversial, as most of the land is already under private ownership. According to the current Forest Code, landowners are only required to keep 20 percent of their property untouched —&nbsp;against the 80 percent minimum in the Amazon. Still, most deforestation in the biome bears all the signs of illegality —&nbsp;either because producers jump the gun and cut down natural vegetation before gaining permission, or because they are simply trespassing onto protected areas, according to MapBiomas.</p> <p>&#8220;It is testament to the state&#8217;s lack of management capacity — and political will — to make this system work. There was this theory that land rectification would be enough to curb illegal deforestation —&nbsp;but we have proof that this alone doesn&#8217;t work,&#8221; says researcher Mercedes Bustamante, an expert on the Cerrado at the Biological Sciences Institute of the University of Brasília.</p> <p>Satellite data shows that deforestation in the Cerrado has decreased in recent years —&nbsp;but that doesn&#8217;t mean the biome is not under immense pressure from private interests. Ms. Bustamante says landowners commonly deforest large expanses of land over a single year, when conditions are favorable —&nbsp;and then gradually occupy this territory in subsequent years according to their needs.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img src="" alt="deforestation mapbiomas" class="wp-image-45100" srcset=" 963w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 963px) 100vw, 963px" /><figcaption>Image: MapBiomas</figcaption></figure> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Brazilian agricultural exports tainted by Cerrado and Amazon deforestation</h2> <p>A study entitled “<a href="">The rotten apples of Brazil’s agribusiness</a>,” published in the latest issue of Science magazine, shows that up to 22 percent of Brazilian soybean exports —&nbsp;and 17 percent of beef exports&nbsp;— which leave the Amazon and Cerrado biomes and head to the European Union may have been produced on illegally deforested land. Last week, the government finally made a commitment to preserve the rainforest.</p> <p>Based on data from 2008 to 2019, the study identified 2.4 million hectares illegally deforested both in the Amazon and Cerrado —&nbsp;an area 16 times the size of the city of São Paulo, and bigger than the country of Slovenia. Interestingly, two-thirds of the deforestation in these biomes occurred on just 2 percent of rural properties, precisely those which produce soybeans and rear cattle.</p> <p>Brazil&#8217;s lack of control over its land use has turned the country into an international pariah — with investors, big agricultural corporations, and other governments ganging up on the country. Some European Union nations are using the rising deforestation as justification for blocking the Mercosur-EU free-trade agreement. Last week, Vice President Hamilton Mourão said the administration &#8220;has lost control of the narrative&#8221; and is on the &#8220;defensive&#8221; when it comes to environmental issues. However, no concrete measure has been proposed.

Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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