The Cerrado: Brazil’s other biodiverse region loses ground

Published on Food Crisis and the Global Land Grab, by Fred Pearce, April 14, 2011.

While Brazil touts its efforts to slow destruction of the Amazon, another biodiverse region of the country is being cleared for large-scale farming. But unlike the heralded rainforest it borders, the loss of the cerrado and its rich tropical savanna so far has failed to attract much notice.

Brazil is justly proud of how much it has reduced deforestation in the Amazon, with rates of forest loss down 70 percent since 2004. Indeed, delegates to last year’s world biodiversity conference in Nagoya, Japan, and climate conference in Cancun, Mexico, could hardly miss the Brazilian government’s boasting about its conservation achievements.

But how has this been accomplished? The answer, at least in part, is by invading a new ecological frontier of equal importance — but with much less public visibility. Today, Brazil’s bush clearers from agribusiness are moving across the cerrado, the most biologically rich savanna in the world, which occupies a huge expanse of the high plains of central Brazil on the Atlantic side of the Amazon basin. 

In recent years, the rate of ecological destruction in the cerrado has been twice that in the Amazon. And while the majority of the Amazon rainforest survives, more than 60 percent of the cerrado’s former 200 million hectares has disappeared under the plow, mostly within the last two decades.

The cerrado has its own rich array of unusual mammals, including armadillos, anteaters, tapirs, and maned wolves, as well as thousands of endemic vascular plants adapted to drought and fire. But while the cerrado shares a place with the Amazon on Conservation International’s list of the world’s top 25 biodiversity hotspots, so far the outrage over its devastation has remained minimal.

This month the Brazilian environment ministry claimed that the rate of ecological loss in the cerrado declined between 2008 and 2009. But when I visited the region last month, nobody agreed with that assessment, and even local environment regulators saw no end to the land-clearing in sight.

The soils of the cerrado — a complex mosaic of grass and woodland — were once regarded as too acidic to grow crops. But since Brazil’s agronomists began applying industrial quantities of lime in the 1980s, these soils have been transformed. The cerrado now produces 70 percent of Brazil’s farm output.

As more roads and railways penetrate the once empty interior north of the country’s shiny modernist 1960s capital, Brasilia, the land rush is intensifying and land prices are soaring. While most of the corn grown in the cerrado is consumed in Brazil, and much of the sugar cane goes to fill the tanks of the country’s ethanol-fueled vehicles, the soya, cotton, coffee, and other crops largely go for export.

The world’s largest soya grower, Blairo Maggi, was also until recently the governor of the cerrado state of Mato Grosso. Thanks to industrial-scale farmers like him, Brazil is today the world’s largest exporter of soya, beef, chicken, sugar, ethanol, tobacco, and orange juice. The success has been so complete that the World Bank and others now see the industrializing of the cerrado as a model for transforming Africa’s savanna grasslands … //

… Is the strategy working? I certainly met farmers who now talk the talk — but only, they made clear, if conservation and profit can go together. And some of the effects of Conservation International’s interventions have been perverse.

When I asked Kurek how his the newfound respect for environmental the law was going, he told me an unexpected story. CI’s help with the minutiae of conservation bureaucracy meant he now had an environment licence that allowed him to clear another 4,000 hectares of bush on his land. “We were waiting for the environmental licence before going ahead with the clearance, and CI helped us get it,” he said.

However, Kurek was keen to underline how wildlife could thrive on his farm. “We see maned wolves here sometimes,” he told me as we drove around his domain. “And rhea.” Right on cue, one of the large flightless birds shot out of a soya field and ran down the track ahead of our SUV. We chased it for a mile before the exhausted bird found an exit back into the field. Nature is surviving here, but only just.

And for how much longer? At Barreiras airport, as I checked in for the flight home, a delegation of more than 20 Chinese were arriving in a private plane. Local journalists besieged them as they explained that they were from the Chongqing Grain Group and had $2.4 billion to spend setting up a plant in the city to process 1.5 billion tons of soya beans a year. The plant will displace Bunge’s LEM operation as Brazil’s largest soya processing plant, and could handle half the state’s current soy harvest. Most of the output is destined to feed cattle to meet China’s soaring demand for meat.

The Portuguese word cerrado literally translates as “closed” or “inaccessible.” But now that the cerrado is open and accessible, it may be doomed. (full long text).

(ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He serves as environmental consultant for New Scientist magazine and is the author of numerous books, including When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. In recent articles for Yale Environment 360, Pearce has written about how an agribusiness boom threatens Africa’s second-largest mammal migration and about a dispute in Africa over rights to the waters of the Nile).

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