EU policies to protect the Amazon threaten other Brazilian ecosystems

An aerial view shows deforestation near a forest on the border between Amazonia and Cerrado in Nova Xavantina, Mato Grosso state, Brazil July 28, 2021

An aerial view shows deforestation near a forest on the border between Amazonia and Cerrado in Nova Xavantina, Mato Grosso state, Brazil July 28, 2021. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

A broader view of threats from agricultural expansion is needed in Brazil

By Domingos J. Rodrigues, Geraldo W. Fernandes, Helena G. Bergallo, and Tainá C. Rocha. The authors are affiliated with the Brazilian Knowledge Center on Biodiversity and a range of other universities and academic institutions.

A new European Union policy to limit imports of products that encourage deforestation or come from areas of illegal deforestation in the Amazon has a blind spot: It overlooks other key natural areas in the country that are just as important for protecting biodiversity and providing ecosystem services.

Areas such as the Cerrado – Brazil’s vast tropical savannah – could suffer more deforestation and environmental degradation, despite the EU’s well-intentioned policies, if pressure to cut deforestation in Amazonia leads to those carrying it out moving to other nearby ecosystems.

The Cerrado is most at risk. It is the second largest biome in South America and a hotspot of global biodiversity, with many species that live nowhere else. The Cerrado also produces considerable amounts of water that feed into eight of the 12 Brazilian watershed basins.

Three of these – Amazonia, Tocantins-Araguaia, and São Francisco – contribute significantly to the world’s food security through grain and beef production as well as to water security and poverty alleviation. 

The Cerrado is already one of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet, with more than 46% of its native vegetation suppressed – a percentage higher than the Amazon, even after all of its losses.

In 2020, nearly 45% of the region had been scarred by human activities, with the main contributor – 61% - being the aggressive conversion of natural land for agribusiness. 

More recently, the Cerrado was coined a “sacrificial zone” because of the ineffective and insufficient public policies to protect it. This is currently reflected in the expansion of agribusiness in the Brazilian states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia, considered the last agricultural frontier in the country. 

But the Amazon and the Cerrado are linked. They interact through water vapor circulating in the atmosphere. Land use conversion in the Cerrado alters the climatic conditions in different parts of the Amazon. 

A significant portion of the water that reaches the Cerrado is transported in ‘aerial rivers’ - air currents that carry water vapor across Amazonia towards other regions of Brazil and adjoining countries. 

The Cerrado’s native vegetation is important for the maintenance of that system, because the vegetation's deep root systems contribute to retaining and incorporating water in the soil, which helps generate rain, especially in dry years.

Developing international policies – like those aimed at protecting the Amazon – that also consider the broader picture are a key step towards sound global conservation. If only forested ecosystems are protected, it may not be enough.

The Cerrado too must be shielded against predatory enterprises and illegal expansion of agribusiness, particularly that likely to be displaced from the Amazon or the Cerrado-Amazon transition zone. 

Without effective policies, land use change in the Cerrado will intensify, leading to an increase in agricultural monocultures, more climate-change-driving emissions and a decrease in native vegetation, biodiversity, rain cycles and water availability, which will in turn affect agribusiness.

But policies that help maintain broader ecosystems can help achieve sustainable development, not least because environmental instability can hurt agriculture.

Policies like the European Union’s need to account for threats to other habitats and species as well – and now is the time to revise them.

Hernani F. M. Oliveira, Vitor N. T. Borges-Junior, Guarino Colli, Stephannie Fernandes, Nathan C. Fonsêca, Adrian A. Garda, Aretha F. Guimarães, Carlos E. V. Grelle, André V. Nunes, Lucas N. Perillo, Ricardo R. da Silveira-Filho, Helena Streit, Tiago S. P. Toma, Pedro L. Viana and Fábio O. Roque also contributed to this piece.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • Extreme weather
  • Adaptation
  • Climate policy
  • Agriculture and farming
  • Loss and damage
  • Forests
  • Biodiversity

Get our climate newsletter. Free. Every week.

By providing your email, you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Latest on Context