The Cerrado: Brazil's Second Biggest Biome, Part 1 of 2

Conservationists Begin to Heal Fragmented Cerrado

By David Dudenhoefer

RIO VERDE, Brazil, June 9, 2003 (ENS) - The countryside surrounding this city of 100,000 in central Brazil is dominated by vast soybean plantations where hardly a tree is left standing. But 64 year old Benjamin Menezes, a local expert on medicinal plants, remembers when the region was covered with cerrado - a mosaic of savanna and forest that once extended over two million square kilometers in central Brazil.

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Soy plantation outside Rio Verde (Photo © D. Dudenhoefer)
The country’s second largest biome after the Amazon rainforest, the cerrado covers 23 percent of Brazil’s national territory – an area about the size of Mexico. It is composed of some 10,000 plant species, 44 percent of which are endemic, and is home to 170 reptile and amphibian species, 161 mammal species and 837 bird species, among them the blue and gold macaw, the toco toucan, and the ostrich like rhea.

That wealth of plants and animals led Conservation International to designate the cerrado one of Brazil’s two biodiversity hot spots; the second being the Atlantic Forest. But nearly two-thirds of the cerrado biome has been destroyed, or severely degraded, and the state of Goiás, in which Rio Verde lies, is one of the most altered regions.

“From the 1970s onward, the cerrado here has been almost completely destroyed,” said Menezes, who explained that many plants with medicinal value are now extremely rare.

Brazil’s soybean export boom triggered most of the deforestation around Rio Verde, but according to University of Brasilia ecologist Carlos Klink, the expansion of cattle pasture has claimed much more cerrado on a national scale.

“In the cerrado, the culprit is more agribusiness and ranching than small farmers,” he said.

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The maned wolf, Chrysocyon brachyurus, a rare cerrado species (Photo © D. Dudenhoefer)
Klink explained that the extensive development of central Brazil during the last 50 years resulted in fragmentation of the cerrado – a serious problem for large mammals such as the maned wolf, cerrado deer and giant anteater. He noted that a mere 1.5 percent of the cerrado biome is protected within conservation areas, as opposed to between five and six percent of the country’s Amazon rain forest.

Donald Sawyer, director of the Instituto Sociedade, População e Natureza (ISPN), claimed that the cerrado has not received the attention from environmentalists it deserves.

He explained that while a mere 20 percent of the cerrado remains in its original state, about 80 percent of the Amazon forest is standing, but deforestation in the Amazon tends to generate much more concern.

Sawyer said that whereas more than 500 organizations are active in Brazil’s Amazon Working Group, a similar network called the Rede Cerrado, to which ISPN belongs, has only 60 member groups.

“The cerrado is extremely important in terms of biodiversity,” Sawyer said, adding that among its thousands of endemic plants are the wild relatives of food crops such as the cashew, peanut, passion fruit and pineapple. He said the cerrado also takes in the watersheds of several major rivers and most of Brazil’s hydroelectric projects.

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Vegetation of the semi-arid cerrado in northern Minas Gerais state, near Montes Claros (Photo © D. Dudenhoefer)
Sawyer said that despite the relatively small size of their movement, representatives of the Rede Cerrado have met with Brazil’s Environment and Agriculture Ministries to discuss conservation and sustainable development strategies. The Rede includes an array of environmental organizations ranging from WWF-Brazil to smaller groups such as ISPN and Ecologia e Ação.

ISPN is the national host institution for the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme (SGP), which in Brazil works exclusively in the cerrado. ISPN has awarded SGP grants and provided support for more than 100 projects to develop alternative uses for the cerrado, such as harvesting its fruits and seeds, or keeping native bees for honey.

One grant to a group Menezes helped found, the Movimento Popular de Rio Verde, financed the creation of a nursery for cerrado tree species that has already produced and distributed about 2,000 saplings.

“I think these kinds of projects are crucial,” said Klink. “They are good examples of what can be done.”

Klink said he is encouraged by a recent increase in awareness of the cerrado. He noted that several state governments have created incentives for preserving cerrado on private land and the U.S. Agency for International Development has shown interest in the biome.

“I think this is a very important moment for the cerrado,” he said.