The Importance of Being Cerrado: Brazil's Other Huge, Endangered Ecosystem

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Chris McGowan California native living in Brazil, journalist with diverse interests, author of 2 books on Brazilian music, novelist, poet, hiker, stargazer, and father of twins

Everyone knows the vital importance of the Amazon rain forest for our planet, but few are aware that right next door is another endangered ecosystem of great size and considerable importance. The Cerrado is a vast savanna that stretches across two million square kilometers in central Brazil and is about the size of Alaska and California put together. The Cerrado deserves our attention: it is one of the oldest and most diverse tropical ecosystems and is under grave threat because of the country's agricultural boom. The Cerrado has lost 48% of its original vegetation and is disappearing faster than the Amazon rain forest; it may be gone before we realize what we've lost. And its health affects its neighboring biome's health; many large tributaries of the Amazon River originate in the Cerrado.

The Cerrado consists of open grasslands, grasslands mixed with shrubs and small trees, and dry-forest woodlands. The region is much drier than the Amazon, which it borders along the latter's southeastern edge; the Cerrado has a long annual dry season and its plants are drought-tolerant and often fire-adapted. Jaguars, giant anteaters, maned wolves, foxes, pampas deer, tapirs, capybaras, and monkeys live in the Cerrado, as do nearly 200 other mammals, 600 bird species, 220 reptiles, and more than 10,000 plant species (44% endemic, according to Conservation International). The Cerrado is the most biologically diverse savanna on Earth. It is the home of many of Brazil's indigenous peoples, who have been adversely affected by the deforestation, and the location of major cities like Brasília, the country's capital.

The acidic red soils of the Cerrado were considered infertile until the late 20th century. Then, thanks to research by Embrapa, a Brazilian government agency, a suitable mixture of phosphorus and lime was applied to Cerrado soils, turning them into prime farmland. The agricultural boom that resulted is startling: the region now contributes the majority of Brazil's enormous soybean output, and a substantial part of its corn, rice, and cotton production. It is also leads the country in cattle ranching. Farmers are stripping the Cerrado of its native vegetation to plant crops, create pasture for livestock, and to make charcoal for the steel industry. According to a Sept. 6th, 2009 article in the newspaper O Globo, 48.5% of the Cerrado region had lost its natural vegetation as of 2008, a big jump from the 38.9% figure for 2002. The figures come from a study by Brazil's Ministry of the Environment (MMA); some scientists cite higher numbers.

These figures are even scarier when one considers that only 10.6% of the Cerrado had been cleared as of 1970, according to scientists Carlos A. Klink and Adriana G. Moreira, in an article in the book The Cerrados of Brazil: Ecology and Natural History of a Neotropical Savanna. This rapid conversion of the Cerrado has helped to power the Brazilian economy in recent years, and there is big money at stake. It is not surprising then that those who promote agriculture in the Cerrado tend to describe its natural vegetation as "scrub" and "wasteland." They also take pains to misleadingly argue that biofuel will have no effect on the Cerrado, when indirectly it could have a devastating effect by shifting even more soy farming and cattle ranching to the region (see my blog Biofuel Could Eat Brazil's Savannas & Deforest the Amazon).

There are arguments that abandoned pastureland in the Cerrado can provide plenty of space for more agriculture and that the region can easily become the breadbasket of the world. Embrapa maintains that "production in the Cerrado can increase on existing lands with greater efficiency, not needing expansion. Grain production in the Cerrado, for example, increased 129.7 percent from 1991 to 2007, but the area harvested increased by only 25.9 percent," wrote Sara Llana in the Nov. 12, 2008 Christian Science Monitor. Nevertheless, the pace of Cerrado destruction continues unabated, with 194,000 square kilometers of deforestation from 2002 to 2008, according to the MMA study quoted by O Globo.

If we lose the Cerrado, we lose the possible medical and other uses that may one day come from the known and unknown species of the biome. In addition, the Cerrado is a large part of the watershed for the mighty San Francisco and Paraguay River systems, and contains 700,000 square kilometers of land located within the Amazon Basin (the total area that drains into the Amazon River system; not to be confused with the Amazon rain forest). If farmers remove the native Cerrado vegetation, ruin its ecosystems, and pour fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides onto hundreds of thousands of square kilometers there, the Amazon rain forest downstream will suffer from pollution and a possible loss of rainfall. Brazil will be despoiling some of its most important water resources. In addition, Cerrado deforestation is a major part of Brazil's carbon emissions every year, a problem that must be addressed.

The loss of Cerrado vegetation is also a blow to the culinary world. The region has native fruits like araticum, buriti, cagaita, ingá, jatobá, magaba, pitaya, pitomba and pequi that are eaten regionally but are often little known in the rest of Brazil. One of my favorites is the delicious baru nut, which comes from the baruzeiro tree (dipteryx alata). The brown nut has a rich taste and high mineral and protein content; it is every bit as appealing as popular nuts like almonds, peanuts and cashews and would sell well on the international market. Unfortunately, the tree is considered "vulnerable" by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), which has written, "the species has suffered from habitat conversion to agriculture. In addition, exploitation of its excellent timber and medicinal seeds has led to massive declines in population numbers."

At the present rate of destruction, the Cerrado ecosystem could disappear almost entirely within a few decades. Less than two percent of the Cerrado is located within national parks or conservation areas, according to the Nature Conservancy (in addition, a percentage of native habitat is supposed to be protected on all private land, by law).

Fortunately, Brazil's environmental minister Carlos Minc is one individual who is conscious of the Cerrado's plight. Speaking of the deforestation of the Amazon and the Cerrado on Sept. 10, he commented, "Happily, with government programs we managed to reduce the deforestion of the Amazon biome by half. The bad news is we couldn't do the same for the Cerrado." That day, Minc announced a plan to prevent deforestation and wildfires in the Cerrado biomes, along the lines of similar plans currently in action in the Amazon.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's first environmental minister, Marina Silva, resigned in May of 2008, frustrated by interference by agricultural interests (and her boss), especially in terms of her attempts to protect the Amazon. She is now running for president herself next year, against Lula's hand-picked candidate, Dilma Rousseff. Carlos Minc took over Silva's job and has also clashed with the agricultural lobby, yet seems to be making progress. He says that Brazil will increase the amount of Cerrado land under protection. Let's hope Minc keeps working hard to save the Amazon and the Cerrado both, and that he isn't fired by Lula, who usually puts development first.