What is Brazil's Cerrado - and why should the world care?

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

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

What’s the context?

Deforestation has slowed in the Amazon, but concern is growing about losses in the Cerrado savannah as farmers seek new land

  • Deforestation alerts drop in Amazon, rise in Cerrado
  • Weaker protections leave savannah more vulnerable
  • More than half of Cerrado biome now destroyed

RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazil's efforts to halt deforestation, and global concerns about climate change and nature loss, are largely focused on the shrinking Amazon rainforest, about 60% of which falls in Brazil.

But while Amazon protections have been achieving positive results over the last year, agricultural expansion - the major cause of deforestation in Brazil - is still on the rise in other parts of the country, satellite data shows.

Hardest hit is the Cerrado, a vast tropical savannah that is home to a wide variety of wildlife and is a key source of water for much of South America.

A network of satellite deforestation sensors issued 50% fewer alerts in Brazil's Amazon states last year compared to 2022. But in the Cerrado, notifications rose 43% to a record, according to preliminary data from Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

Here's why the Cerrado is so important and how it is endangered:

What is the Cerrado?

Covering an area of more than 7,800 square km (3,000 square miles), the Cerrado is South America's second-largest biome after the Amazon. It covers about 23% of Brazil's territory, an area bigger than Mexico or about four times the size of France.

It is the world's most biodiverse savannah, with new species identified every year, and is home to endangered animals such as the maned wolf and giant anteater.

Although the Cerrado is generally described as a tropical savannah, it also includes forest areas, both of which are vital to slowing global warming by absorbing and storing carbon.

How much of the Cerrado has been lost and why should it be protected?

About 52% of the Cerrado has been lost, mostly to make way for soy plantations and cattle pastures, according to the latest estimates from MapBiomas, a collaboration between universities, nonprofits and technology firms. Brazil's Amazon, in comparison, has lost about 18.5% of its original area, overwhelmingly to grazing land.

The Cerrado is sometimes called an "upside-down forest", with carbon-storing root systems reaching up to 15 metres (49 ft) deep in the ground. The Amazon, comparatively, has relatively shallow-rooted trees.

According to data from the IPAM environmental institute used to estimate carbon emissions from deforestation, each hectare of the Cerrado stores 25-80 tons of CO2 equivalent, depending on the type of vegetation, whereas forested areas in the Amazon store an average 165 tons per hectare.

Other than carbon, the Cerrado's root systems also store water that is vital to replenishing eight of the 12 Brazilian watershed basins as well as key aquifers, leading it to be called "Brazil's water tank".

Those systems take centuries to mature, and cannot be easily recovered once replaced with pasture or agricultural monocultures. Rivers born in Brazil's Cerrado feed basins in all the other Brazilian biomes, including parts of the Amazon, and also basins in Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina.

But research published in 2023 found that rivers within the Cerrado have lost 15.4% of their surface water since 1985 due to deforestation and climate change. It estimated that about 34% would be lost by 2050 if deforestation continues at current rates.

Deforestation also threatens the biome's biodiversity, endangering 137 animal species, including the jaguar and giant armadillo, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.

What is driving deforestation in the Cerrado?

Less stringent protection measures are in place for the Cerrado than the Amazon.

About 60% of the Cerrado's remaining vegetation lies within private properties, with only 8.21% of its territory belonging to protected areas, making it the country's least-protected biome, according to data from the government and the IPAM.

Whereas 80% of the area within each private property in the Amazon must be covered by natural vegetation under current legislation, just 20%-35% of each Cerrado property is subject to the requirement.

While much of the Cerrado's deforestation is carried out illegally, those rules potentially allow at least 30 million hectares (74 million acres) of the biome – an area bigger than the United Kingdom – to be legally cleared.

Nearly half of the area cleared in the Cerrado between 1985 and 2022 is now pasture, with the rest used for grains production, according to research by MapBiomas.

Soybeans - of which Brazil is the world's biggest exporter - occupy three-quarters of the Cerrado's cropland, MapBiomas found.

What is being done to protect the Cerrado?

In November 2023, the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva relaunched a plan to protect the Cerrado, reviving proposals abandoned under his far-right predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro.

Among its goals are designating more publicly owned land as conservation units, or other protected areas, and improving the tracking of fires and deforestation, both legal and illegal.

In December, the government also launched a programme to offer farmers subsidies to revitalise degraded pasture or convert it for agriculture - giving them a way to boost output without moving into new areas. In exchange, farmers would have to stop clearing more areas within their properties.

Officials are also considering creating a Biome Fund which, similar to the Amazon Fund, would collect funds from foreign governments for conservation efforts.

Initiatives to protect the Amazon have been gaining strength - which has in some cases boosted pressure on other less-protected areas such as the Cerrado, some researchers argue.

A "soybean moratorium", through which traders voluntarily refrain from buying soy produced in areas deforested since 2008, and a recent European Union law banning imports of commodities linked to deforestation protect the Amazon, but leave the Cerrado and other areas open for business. 

Analysis from Trase - a platform that crosses data on commodity exports with deforestation in their place of origin - shows recent Brazilian soy and beef exports to the EU were more strongly exposed to deforestation in the Cerrado, not the Amazon.

At the same time, scientists have been calling for reforms to Brazil's Forest Code to protect more privately owned lands in the Cerrado, as well as expanding global initiatives such as the soy moratorium to the Cerrado and other natural areas.

(Reporting by Andre Cabette Fabio; Editing by Laurie Goering and Helen Popper.)

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  • Loss and damage
  • Forests
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