Experts spotlight plight of Brazil’s Cerrado


Cattle ranching and soy cultivation are displacing the flora and fauna of Brazil’s savanna at a torrid pace. (Photo by Tiago Foresti/IPAMi)

At a time when the Brazilian Amazon has become the focus of worldwide concern about the dangers of tropical deforestation, the Cerrado, a vast, wooded tropical savannah and the Amazon’s uncharismatic but ecologically important southern neighbor, has been largely ignored. The problem is not merely media inattention, but—more importantly—financial neglect. While the Brazilian Amazon over the last decade has attracted close to US$1.5 billion in donations for conservation efforts, mainly from foreign governments and multilateral lenders, international support for protection of the Cerrado has consisted of an occasional foreign grant typically amounting to less than US$10 million. Brazilian government priorities reflect that disparity, with comparatively far more public money and manpower devoted to safeguarding the Amazon.

The Cerrado accounts for nearly 24% of Brazil’s land area, constituting the country’s second largest biome behind the Amazon, which covers 37%. Spanning a nine-state region of north-central Brazil, it ranks as the world’s most biologically rich savanna. Yet the Cerrado, which also is home to several large cities, among them the national capital of Brasília, has emerged in recent decades as the country’s agricultural-export engine. It accounts for 63% of Brazil’s soybean output and 33% of its beef production, according to the government. Largely as a result, it is suffering significantly greater forest loss than the country’s Amazon region as ranching and crop-farming expand, with nearly 50% of its woodlands now cleared compared to 20% in the case of the country’s Amazon region.

In 2015, the first and thus far only year official deforestation figures have been issued for the Cerrado, land clearing there consumed 9,483 square kilometers (3,661 sq. miles), or an area nearly half the size of the U.S. state of New Jersey. That compares to Amazon deforestation in the same year of 6,207 square kilometers (2,397 sq. miles). At the same time, the proportion of land earmarked for government protection in the Cerrado is only 8%, compared to 46% in the Amazon.

The savanna’s plight has prompted experts to sound the alarm. A March 2017 study published in the scientific journal Nature, Ecology & Evolution forecast that under a business-as-usual scenario, the Cerrado will lose a third of its remaining vegetation cover by 2050. This, it says, would set the stage for “an extinction episode of global significance.” The study said agribusiness expansion into the Cerrado will drive 480 additional endemic plant species to extinction by 2050, or over three times the 139 plant extinctions recorded globally to date.

The Cerrado has more than 11,000 plant species, 44% of them endemic to the biome and many used by local communities for food, medicine and handicrafts. The region is home to over 800 bird species, and at least 137 of its animal species are “threatened with extinction,” says one of two reference studies that Brazil’s Environment Ministry uses as the basis for its biodiversity figures. Among the endangered animals are the jaguar, giant anteater, giant armadillo and maned wolf, South America’s largest canid.

“The Cerrado stands to lose much of its endemic biodiversity unless the government greatly shifts priorities to reconcile agricultural expansion, which it prioritizes, with conservation,” says Bernardo Strassburg, coauthor of the Nature, Ecology & Evolution study. (See Q&A—this issue.) “This shift is especially needed in the Cerrado, the world’s most endangered and biodiverse savannah.”

In April 2017, a month after publication of the Nature, Ecology & Evolution study, Brazil’s two top scientific associations—the Brazilian Society for Scientific Progress (SBPC) and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC)—called on the government to take action. They published an open letter to the ministries of environment, agriculture and science and technology, warning: “The Cerrado, whose little-known biodiversity could yield products that benefit humanity, suffers from Brazil’s highest deforestation rate, one whose magnitude and velocity are without historic precedent. So at least 20% of it needs protection.”

Then in September 2017, the environmental groups WWF and Greenpeace developed and launched the “Cerrado Manifesto,” which identified agribusiness, particularly soy cultivation, as the main driver of deforestation and land conversion of the savanna. The manifesto called on all participants in the agricultural production and supply chain—including retailers, grain traders, meat-packers and producers—to put land clearing to a stop. Said the document: “The future of the Cerrado is in the hands of the market.”

In October, at a meeting hosted by Britain’s Prince Charles, twenty-three global food companies—most of them large supermarket and fast-food chains, including Walmart, Carrefour and McDonald’s—endorsed the ambitious, albeit broad-brush goals of the Cerrado Manifesto. By January of this year, sixty-two companies had signed on. The manifesto, though, lacks teeth. It does not spell out specific actions, and was not signed by any of the multinational grain traders and processors active in Brazil, among them Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Amaggi, Bunge, and Cargill.

Grain companies have conducted a successful moratorium on purchases of soy grown in Brazilian Amazon areas deforested after July 2006, when that initiative was launched. The effort is credited with confining soy crops to only 1% of Brazilian Amazon land. Though the grain companies express support for Cerrado conservation, they have not specified why they did not sign the manifesto. Environmentalists are calling for a more active commitment.

“Deforestation in a poorly protected Cerrado will continue unless there is more private-sector, supply-chain support for halting it, similar to that received by the Amazon soy moratorium, the most effective private-sector initiative for deforestation-free commodity production,” says Anahita Yousefi, the campaign director for Mighty Earth, a U.S.-based green group.

Supermarket chains like Carrefour and Walmart acknowledge the challenges of implementing the Cerrado Manifesto’s broad goal of halting land clearing in the region. Doing so would require the installation of a geo-monitoring system that would involve crosschecking maps filed by soy and beef producers with high-resolution satellite images of Cerrado deforestation, says Paulo Pianez, director of sustainability at Carrefour in Brazil.

“Setting up this monitoring system is complicated because the government has not yet made those images available as it does for Brazil’s Amazon,” Pianez says. “And even with such images it will be difficult to identify if the savannah has been deforested or if it is natural grassland.”

Most Cerrado deforestation is legal because the Forest Code, Brazil’s main forest-protection law, has significantly looser land-clearing restrictions for the Cerrado than for the Amazon. In the Amazon, private landowners are required to keep 80% of their property uncut, although compliance with the rule is uneven at best. In the Cerrado, landowners whose property borders the Amazon must keep 35% of their property in intact, and those elsewhere on the savanna only have to keep 20% uncut.

Barring a change in the forest law, the only alternative to tightening deforestation limits on private land would be government purchase of such property for conservation—an expensive proposition, since 75% of the Cerrado is privately owned. “The government has historically prioritized combating deforestation in the Amazon, mainly because of its biodiversity and impact on climate change,” says Jair Schmitt, the Environment Ministry’s director of forestry. “Although the government has also tried to protect the Cerrado, doing so presents challenges—among them, balancing agricultural production with protection and the high value, in terms of price, of privately owned Cerrado land.”

Edson Eyji Sano, head of remote sensing at Ibama, the enforcement arm of the Environment Ministry, cites other challenges. “It’s hard to curb illegal Cerrado deforestation because 90% of our field agents patrol the Amazon, which leaves the remaining 10% to combat deforestation elsewhere,” Sano says. “Ibama still does not get government satellite analysis of [near-real-time] satellite images of the Cerrado for rapid-response to illegal cutting there. And because Cerrado vegetation is much less dense than Amazon vegetation, it can be cleared more quickly, making enforcement against illegal clearing harder.”

Environmentalists contend that the Amazon soy moratorium has pushed the soy-growing frontier south and east into the poorly protected Cerrado, especially the Matopiba, the northern Cerrado region east of the Amazon. The region’s name is an acronym describing an area that includes portions of four Cerrado states: Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí, and Bahia.

“Since the soy moratorium was created in 2006, Amazon farmers have migrated into the Matopiba, Brazil’s newest soy frontier, because it is the most preserved part of the Cerrado, with lots of flat and fertile land for sale,” says Rodrigo Medeiros, vice president of Conservation International in Brazil. “Although the southern Cerrado is [better] for growing soy because it gets more rain than the Matopiba, its land is more expensive and there’s much less of it for sale.”

A 2016 study showed that agriculture by 2014 had covered 12% of the Cerrado, with soy cultivation expanding fast. From 2000 to 2014, soy farming’s footprint in the region grew by 76%—and in the Matopiba portion by 253%. But industry groups dispute the view that such growth is due in part to relocation of soy operations displaced from the Amazon by the soy moratorium. “The soy moratorium has had little influence on soy expansion in the Cerrado, including in the Matopiba,” says Bernardo Pires, sustainability manager of the Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oil Industries (Abiove), a soy traders and processors group that spearheaded the Amazon soy moratorium. “Most of the soy planted in the Cerrado has been consolidating since the 1990s. And the moratorium, which started in July 2006, is much more recent.”

Rodrigo Lima, director general of the consulting firm Agroicone, acknowledges that under Brazil’s Forest Law, a great deal of private Cerrado land still could be cleared legally. But he adds: “This isn’t necessary because there are 18.5 million hectares [71,429 sq. miles, an area nearly the size of the U.S. state of South Dakota] of medium-to-high-productivity Cerrado cattle pasture on which soy could be cultivated.”

Efficient grazing urged

The Nature, Ecology & Evolution study makes the same argument. It contends that if Cerrado ranchers boost the average number of cattle on each hectare from 1.3 to 2.3, they can lease spare land to soybean farmers and help halt the expansion of soy crops into areas still covered by native vegetation. “Because the level of cattle productivity in the Cerrado tends to be low, it’s easier and far less costly to increase cattle yields there compared to soy yields, which are high,” says Simon Hall, tropical forests and agriculture manager of the National Wildlife Federation. “But this is only part of the equation needed to halt Cerrado deforestation. You need private-sector initiatives, like those of the Amazon soy moratorium, and an agricultural policy with financing cheap enough to encourage landowners to more efficiently cultivate soy—say, on existing pastureland—without deforestation.”

In 2011, the government attempted to promote more sustainable farming and ranching by launching a Low-Carbon Agriculture and Livestock (ABC) program, which by the end of 2017 had provided loans totaling R$15.3 billion (US$4.6 billion). One of the program’s goals was to restore 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of degraded pasture nationwide by the end of 2020, a target some experts say is unlikely to be reached. By the end of 2017, only 7.85 million hectares (19.4 million acres) of pastureland had been restored, just 33% of it in the Cerrado.

Edson Leite, a researcher with the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply who has helped implement the ABC program, acknowledges that such efforts come against a backdrop of government support for bringing more land into production. But he defends ABC’s record: “Although the ministry promotes the expansion of the soy frontier through the legal clearing of new land, the ABC program’s financing for increased productivity on the same amount of land has curbed the need to clear more native Cerrado land, especially for pastures.”

Counters Lima: “The program will fall short of its goals because its loan-collateral requirements are high and its loan interest rates are nowhere near low enough to encourage a significant livestock productivity increase.”

Rail lines on way

One development that could spur Cerrado soy farming is the installation of rail service there. Two railways designed to haul soy, one nearly halfway complete and the other in the planning stage, will greatly lower transport costs and thereby fuel cultivation of the crop over a wider area of the savanna, environmentalists and scientists argue. “Railways into the Cerrado offer a far more profitable and cost-effective route to major export markets like China than roads do,” says Ian Thompson, vice president of the Brazilian arm of The Nature Conservancy. “And because China’s growing middle class guarantees long-term soy demand, those railways will undeniably drive more clearing of that savanna by agribusiness.”

Scientists say a clear picture of the environmental impacts of increased agricultural activity must be developed and acted on soon or serious consequences will be felt both within and beyond the Cerrado. The region, they point out, feeds eight of Brazil’s 12 main watersheds, including the Amazon, Tocantins and São Francisco river basins, and contributes to three large aquifers—the Guaraní, Bambuí and Urucuia. Overall, the Cerrado accounts for 43% of Brazil’s surface water outside the Amazon.

That water supply, researchers note, hinges on preservation of cover vegetation whose deep roots carry rainwater to underground aquifers that replenish rivers. The savanna roots, often described as an “upside-down forest,” serves not only as a source of water, but also of carbon sequestration. Experts also point out that if untrammeled Cerrado deforestation continues and the flow of water into major rivers is reduced, hydroelectricity production would fall. This is no small concern in Brazil, which depends on dams for 70% of its electricity.

- Michael Kepp

Simon Hall
Tropical Forests and Agriculture Manager
National Wildlife Federation
Washington, D.C., United States
Tel: (202) 797-6614
Rodrigo Lima
Director General
São Paulo, Brazil
Tel: +(55 11) 3025-0500
Rodrigo Medeiros
Vice President
Conservation International, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Tel: +(55 21) 2173-6374
Paulo Pianez
Director of Sustainability
Carrefour in Brazil
Tel: +(55 11) 3514-0709
Bernardo Pires
Sustainability Manager
Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oil Industries (Abiove)
São Paulo, Brazil
Tel: +(55 11) 5536-0733
Bernardo Strassburg
Professor of Sustainability
Pontific Catholic University, Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Tel: +(55 21) 3875-6218
Ian Thompson
Vice President, Brazilian arm of
The Nature Conservancy
Belém, Pará, Brazil
Tel: +(55 91) 4008-6221
Anahita Yousefi
Campaign Director
Mighty Earth
Washington, D.C., United States
Documents & Resources
  1. The 2017 report on the Cerrado in the journal Nature, Ecology & Evolution, “Moment of Truth for the Cerrado Hotspot,” is available in English here