Between the Amazon and the Atlantic: Southern Cone threatened savannas

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.

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

Source: Kate Evans | CIFOR