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Orange and red sunset with trees

The death of the world’s richest savannah is going unnoticed

A walk in Brazil’s Cerrado never fails to inspire wonder, but it’s being destroyed faster than the Amazon Rainforest.

Intro

A short stroll in the Cerrado sees glades of trees with porous cork-like bark give way to grasslands in which exquisite flowers are contrasted with the formidable spiked palms that neighbour them. Insects whose eccentric forms shame the best of Hollywood’s alien creations share this strange world with everything from jaguars and tapirs to anteaters and armadillos. Their numerous footprints are a reminder of just how exceptionally wild this place still is. 

Biologically, the wooded grassland of the Cerrado is the richest savannah in the world, home to over 4,800 plant and vertebrate species that are found nowhere else, and a grand total of over 7,000 plant species: the richest flora of any of the world’s savannahs by a wide margin. Many of its larger residents are both iconic and endangered: jaguars, giant anteaters, tapirs and maned wolves. In addition to its exceptional conservation value, the Cerrado is an internationally important carbon store, locking up the equivalent of 13.7 billion tons of CO2; much of this is stored below ground, as the plants of the Cerrado have evolved to cope with long dry seasons by developing extensive root systems, which equate to 70% of their total biomass. 

Yet it is vanishing without international outcry; over the last 35 years, half of the Cerrado has been converted into agricultural land, and less than 20 per cent of the original area remains undisturbed. This loss is ongoing, due to the expansion of both soy and beef production in Brazil.

Cerrado landscape with river and dry land

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Consequently, the deforestation rate in the Cerrado, and the resultant greenhouse gas emissions, exceed even those of the neighbouring Amazon Rainforest. Approximately 140,000 km2 (an area larger than England) of native vegetation was cleared in the Cerrado between 2006 and 2017, twice the area of vegetation lost in the Amazon during the same period. With just 7.5% of its area protected (in comparison with 46% of the Amazon) and less than 3% designated as fully protected conservation area, the Cerrado surely ranks among the world’s most threatened ecosystems, and yet international condemnation of its destruction has never materialised. 

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“Only 10,000 km2 of pristine Cerrado remains. There is still time, but we need to make that time count.”

Para

I have spent the last three months conducting research in the Cantão State Park, an extraordinary transitional zone in which the Amazon Rainforest meets the Cerrado. The park protects seasonally flooding Amazonian forest and its inhabitants, including giant otters and Araguaia river dolphins. However, the adjacent patches of Cerrado are only protected by the goodwill of the local population. These few patches are disproportionately important to the park’s forest wildlife, as they provide a vital dry refuge when the Amazon floods. A reverse migration occurs in the dry season when water and food are limited in the Cerrado but abundant in the forest. This seasonal back-and-forth between the Amazon and the Cerrado underpins the exceptional biodiversity of the region and has allowed the local jaguars to grow larger than any in the Amazon.

I first arrived at the research station along a desolate road bordered by soy plantations that stretched to the horizon; these plantations had been pristine savannah just five years earlier. Only the appearance of an occasional rhea broke the monotony of the now monocultured landscape. 

Brazil’s Soy Moratorium forbids major trading companies from purchasing soybeans produced on recently deforested areas. It was designed to protect the Amazon from soy cultivation but does not apply to the Cerrado. This meant that in 2015, 48% of Brazil’s soybean production was harvested in the Cerrado. Of the remaining Cerrado, 90% is suitable for growing soybeans. If this land is cleared the resultant greenhouse gas emissions will make a tragic joke of Brazil’s commitment to international climate and biodiversity conventions. Expanding the Soy Moratorium to the Cerrado is crucial. It has been predicted that its enforcement would save 36,000km 2 of native vegetation from the soy industry over the coming three decades. 

The vast majority of Brazil’s soy (82%) goes to China for livestock feed, so pressure from consumers is unlikely to be an effective weapon in the defence of the Cerrado. Last year, a petition signed by over half a million people demanding the protection of the Cerrado was presented to the Brazilian National Congress. However, given the extreme anti-environmental stance of Brazil’s current government, international pressure is essential, whether it comes from NGOs, industry, foreign governments or intergovernmental organizations. Only 10,000 km2 of pristine Cerrado remains. There is still time, but we need to make that time count.

Annona squamosa tree with edible fruit

Two Cerrado plants you can find in the Rainforest Biome

Annona squamosa

A small tree, native to the tropical Americas and West Indies, but grown throughout the tropics and warm subtropics for its delicious fruit, known as sugar-apples. The leaves are used in India, Thailand, and tropical America as a traditional treatment for dysentery and urinary-tract infections, and in Mexico they are rubbed on floors and placed in chicken coops to repel lice. This widespread use drew the attention of researchers, who discovered that the young leaves may be useful in the treatment of diabetes.

Person holding kettle with cup of yerba mate drink on log

Ilex paraguariensis

Ilex paraguariensis

Yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) was first cultivated by the indigenous communities in southern Brazil, long before European colonization. The dry leaves and twigs of the tree are used to make a popular beverage known as maté (or as tereré when it is served cold). Maté is traditionally consumed in central and southern regions of South America, but has also become popular in the Druze community in Syria and Lebanon. Maté has now made its way into various energy drinks, and can even be bought as a canned iced tea.

Image credits

Annona squamosa: Muhamad Farihin, Unsplash. Ilex paraguariensis: Ryan Ancill, Unsplash. All other images: Iris Berger.

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