Cerrado: Brazil's tropical woodland

By Jeremy Hance [Last update July 29, 2020]



Amazon | Mata Atlantica | Geography | Biodiversity | Forests | Deforestation | Threats | Conservation | News

FACTS ON THE CERRADO

Land Areas: From approximately 2,031,990 square kilometers originally to 438,910 square kilometers today.
Countries: Almost entirely in Brazil, though it extends a little into Paraguay and Bolivia.
Biodiversity: 10,400 species of plants, nearly half of which are endemic; 935 species of birds; 780 freshwater fish;113 amphibians; 180 reptiles; and almost 300 mammal species. In three insect orders surveyed: 14,425 species have been catalogued.
Extent of Habitat Cover: Just over 21 percent of the cerrado remains.
Habitat Loss Rate: 21,000 square kilometers of cerrado was destroyed annually between 2002 and 2008, twice the rate of the Amazon rainforest. Between 1984 and 2004, the cerrado ecosystem declined by 1.1 percent every year.
Causes of Habitat Loss: Mechanized soy farms, cattle ranches, and some other crops.

OVERVIEW: THE CERRADO

The cerrado is a vast tropical and subtropical biome covering more than 20 percent of Brazil, it includes a number of ecosystems from tall closed forests to marshlands to open grassland. The largest savannah in South America, the name of the ecosystem, cerrado, translates as 'closed', and the region was long-considered by Brazilians as essentially worthless land. That was until the 1960s when farmers from the US began conditioning the soil with the chemical lime, improving its quality and growing capacity, and thereby transforming the savannah into agricultural fields.

Now the cerrado is one of Brazil's most threatened ecosystems. Half of the ecosystem has been destroyed for mechanized soy farms and cattle ranches. Over the past decade, two million hectares of the cerrado vanished every year to agriculture and pasture. Conservationists predict the possibility of a complete eradication of the ecosystem by 2030.

Long ignored by conservationists and environmentalists the cerrado is home to a shocking number of species, even given comparisons to its biologically-rich neighbors: the Amazon and the nearly-vanished Atlantic Forest. Of the ecosystems' some 10,000 species of plant, nearly half are endemic to the cerrado. Nearly a thousand birds and three-hundred mammals have been recorded in the cerrado as well. For a wooded savannah ecosystem with a long dry season, the cerrado is extremely rich in life.

Researchers have also begun to recognize the cerrado's importance for Brazil's waterways, since the headwaters of many of the nation's rivers begin in this savannah. The ecosystem plays an important role in carbon-cycling. In some years, carbon emissions from the destruction of the cerrado can exceed those from the destruction of the Amazon.

POLITICAL GEOGRAPHY OF THE CERRADO

The cerrado lies almost entirely in Brazil, though a small extent reaches into northeastern Paraguay and eastern Bolivia.

The ecosystem covers a number of central Brazilian states including Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Goiás Distrito Federal, and Tocantins; as well as western Minas Gerais and Bahia; southern Maranhão and Piauí; and small portions of São Paulo and Paraná.

ECOSYSTEMS OF THE CERRADO

The cerrado is tropical savannah characterized by the annual average temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius) to nearly 79 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius). The dry colder season extends from May to October. The soil is mostly nutrient poor.

The cerrado biome is home to a variety of ecosystems, including dry forests, grasslands, wetlands, shrublands, savannah, gallery forests, and even wet forests.

Gallery forests are trees and vegetation that line rivers and other waterways in otherwise savannah-type landscapes.

Tapir. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

BIODIVERSITY PROFILE OF THE CERRADO

The cerrado is home to a surprising level of biodiversity, in fact some experts have stated that it is the most biologically rich savannah in the world. The region includes megafauna like jaguar, giant anteater, maned wolf, the greater rhea, and the giant armadillo, but the biggest stand-outs are the region's diverse plants and insects.

In total, researchers have found nearly 300 species of mammals, 780 fish, 300 amphibians and reptiles, and 935 species of bird in the cerrado region. In addition, over 14,000 species of insect have been identified from just three insect orders out of 32: Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps, and sawflies), and Isoptera (termites).

But the biggest biological stunner of the cerrado is its plant species: 4,400 of the cerrado's 10,000 species of plants are found no-where else in the world. Due to a long dry season, these plants have evolved remarkable resistance both to fire and drought.

The uniqueness of the cerrado's plant life—and the rampant destruction of the ecosystem—makes these species especially vulnerable to extinction. A recent study estimated that plant species in the cerrado are twice as likely to go extinct than plants in other Brazilian ecosystems, including the Amazon.

New species are still being found in the cerrado: in 2007 two new species of lizard were described by researchers and in 2008 researchers announced the discovery of 14 species new to science: 8 fish, 3 reptiles, a bird, and even a new mammal.

While new species are being discovered, others have gone extinct. The candango mouse (Juscelinomys candango) was first described in 1965, but hasn't been seen since losing all of its habitat to urban development and suburban sprawl in Brasilia.

Some largely endemic species of the cerrado include:

  • The dwarf tinamou (Taoniscus nanus) is a small bird endemic to the cerrado. It is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List due to habitat loss.
  • The maned wolf's (Chrysocyon brachyurusrange) range is almost entirely found in the cerrado. Reddish in color this canid boasts long-legs likely for stalking and hunting in tall grasses. It is listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List also due to habitat loss.
  • The cerrado boasts 26 species of the reptiles known as snake-lizards in the genus Amphisbaenidae. Underground dwellers, most Amphisbaenas are without limbs. Six of these snake-lizards are known only in the cerrado.
  • The white-winged nightjar (Eleothreptus candicans) is listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. As their name implies nightjars are most active after dark or during twilight and early morning.
  • Americas' heaviest bird, the greater rhea (Rhea americana) haunts much of the cerrado. Males of this ostrich-like bird are the sole care takers of offspring. Like another megaufauna of the cerrado, the maned wolf, the greater rhea is considered Near Threatened.


CERRADO LOSS

The cerrado is disappearing twice as fast as the Amazon rainforest with 21,000 square kilometers (over 2 million hectares) of savannah destroyed annually between 2002 and 2008.

A 2007 Conservation International study found that by 1985, 27 percent of the cerrado was lost. In less than twenty years (2004) the percentage lost rose to 57. During that time the cerrado declined 1.1 percent every year, while the Brazilian Amazon declined by less than 0.5 percent per year over the past decade.

Annual deforestation in the cerrado

CURRENT THREATS TO THE CERRADO

While there are not numerous threats against the cerrado, the threats that remain are massive in terms of impact and habitat loss. Mechanized soy farming and livestock rearing have caused the loss of half of the cerrado, most of which has occurred in the last 50 years after an agricultural revolution in the 1960s when chemical lime was added to the nutrient-poor soils. Brazil's government pushed such development by constructing a new captial city, Brasilia, in the state of Goias; this included building highways and infrastructure that made shipping agricultural and livestock products easy and cheap. Today only 21 percent of the original cerrado remains.

In addition, the spread of soy and other crops (corn and rice) have indirectly impacted the Amazon rainforest: a boom in agriculture has pushed livestock from the cerrado into the Amazon's edges leading to continuing deforestation of the world's biggest rainforest.

PROTECTED AREAS IN THE CERRADO

To date approximately 7.5 percent of the cerrado is under protection.

Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park: Located in the state of Goias, Brazil, Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park spreads over 655 square kilometers on some of Brazil's highest plateaus. Sporting large canyons, dramatic mountains, and stunning waterfalls, this protected area in the cerrado has been listed as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site.

Emas National Park: Named after the greater rhea, Emas National Park is also a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. Home to rhea, jaguar, giant anteater, maned wolf, and pumas, the park, which is dominated in part by termite mounds, lies in central western Brazil and covers 1,300 square kilometers.

Serra do Tombador Nature Preserve: This is a private reserve created by the Nature Conservancy and the Brazilian organization, O Boticario. Covering 89 square miles kilometers, the reserve is small compared to some of the National Parks but represents a non-government designated protected area. The Nature Conservancy hopes to establish a corridor between the Serra do Tombador Nature Preserve and Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park.

PHOTOS FROM THE CERRADO


Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina

Hyacinth Macaw

Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina

Pair of Greater Rhea

Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina

Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina

Jabiru stork

Chapada dos Guimaraes

Cleared cerrado


Jaguar (Panthera onca). Photo by Rhett A. Butler



This species of lizard of the genus Bachia is one of the new species discovered during the expedition. Although there are other species of the genus in the Cerrado (almost all discovered and described only recently), this new species has only been recorded in the Ecological Station. The absence of legs and the sharply pointed snout help in locomotion over the surface layer of sandy soil, predominating in all the Jalapao, formed by the natural erosion of the escarpments of the Serra Geral plateaus. Photos by Miguel Trefaut Rodrigues


Some of the recorded species are relatively rare and little known, like this small fat-tailed mouse opossum of the genus Thylamys, registered for the first time in the Jalapao. Although this species was described from a Cerrado enclave within the Caatinga region, recent surveys have shown that the range of this species is concentrated in the northern portion of the Cerrado savannas. Photo by Agustin Camacho


Other species such as this horned toad believed to be new to science of the genus Proceratophrys occupy very restricted areas. Protected areas like the EESGT are fundamental, because they shelter large populations of the species, reducing the threat of extinction from destruction of the habitats outside the reserves. Photo by Paula Hanna Valdujo.


This species of amphibian (Corythomantis greeningi) occurs mainly in the Caatinga region, with only scant recordings in the Cerrado.The discovery of this species in the EESGT is the first recorded for the Jalapao region. The secretions of its skin can cause irritation to the eyes and nose. Photo by Paula Hanna Valdujo



Top: Stenocercus quinarius lizard in Brazil (photo by Cristiano Nogueira). Bottom: Stenocercus squarrosus lizard in Serra das Confusões National Park, Brazil (photo by Andre Pessoa).

 

THE LATEST CERRADO NEWS FROM MONGABAY

Crimefighting NGO tracks Brazil wildlife trade on WhatsApp and Facebook
- A nonprofit, the National Network Combating Wild Animal Trafficking (RENCTAS) was founded in 1999, and since then has won international awards and acclaim for its innovative approach to tracking and combating the global illegal wildlife trade, especially the sourcing of animals in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest and Cerrado savanna biomes.
- The group’s pioneering strategy: use social media to track the sale and movement of animals out of Brazil, and turn over the data to law enforcement. In 1999, it identified nearly 6,000 ads featuring the illegal sale of animals on e-commerce platforms. By 2019, it reported 3.5 million advertisements for the illegal trade on social networks.
- The most trafficked Brazilian animals currently: the double-collared seedeater (Sporophila caerulescens); a small, finch-like songbird with a yellow bill that thrives in the southern Cerrado, and the white-cheeked spider monkey (Ateles marginatus), found across the Amazon basin. Sales of animals have been tracked to 200+ illegal trafficking organizations.
- Tragically, of the millions of Brazilian animals captured, sold, resold, and transported, only an estimated 1 in 10 ever reach Brazilian and foreign consumers alive. The rest, ripped from their homes, starved and abused, die in transit.

France falls short in ending deforestation linked to imported soy
- A new agreement signed by eight grocery store chains in France is aimed at ending the importation of soybeans grown on deforested lands.
- France introduced a national strategy to address deforestation in supply chains in 2018.
- But environmental and watchdog NGOs say the country must go beyond voluntary commitments from companies and mandate an end to trade with producers linked to deforestation.

Multiplying Amazon river ports open new Brazil-to-China commodities routes
- Nearly 100 major industrial river ports have been built on the Brazilian Amazon’s major rivers over the past two decades. Many of the projects have been internationally financed and built by commodities companies with little government oversight.
- These ports have transformed the region, opening it to agribusiness and the export of commodities, especially soy, to China and the rest of the world. However, this boom in port infrastructure often came at the expense of the environment and traditional riverine communities.
- Today, more than 40 additional major river ports are planned in the Amazon biome on the Tapajós, Tocantins, Madeira and other rivers, projects again being pursued largely without taking cumulative socioenvironmental impacts into account.
- “What resources do these soy men bring to our city?” asked Manoel Munduruku, an Indigenous leader. “They only bring destruction.”

Marmosets trafficked as pets now threaten native species in Atlantic forest
- Decades of illegal trafficking have led to the movement of marmosets from Brazil’s Cerrado and Caatinga biomes into the southeastern Atlantic rainforest, where they now threaten the survival of native species.
- According to a study, the invasive marmosets crossbreed with native species, producing a hybrid population that could lead to the extinction of the endemic species.
- One of the native Atlantic rainforest species, the buffy-tufted-ear marmoset (Callithrix aurita), is one of the world’s 25 most endangered primate species.

‘Digital land grab’ deprives traditional LatAm peoples of ancestral lands: Report
- South American nations, including Brazil and Colombia, are increasingly using georeferencing technology for registering land ownership.
- However, if this high-tech digital technique is not backed up by traditional ground truthing surveys, it can be used by landgrabbers and agribusiness companies to fraudulently obtain deeds depriving traditional communities of their collective ancestral lands, according to a new report.
- The georeferenced process is being partly funded by the World Bank, which has provided US $45.5 million for digital registration of private rural properties in Brazil. Georeferencing is allowing the international financial sector to play a key role in converting large tracts of rainforest and savanna into agribusiness lands.
- To prevent this form of land theft, prospective landowners’ claims need to be independently verified via a centralized governmental land registration system organized to resolve land conflicts and to detect and eliminate local and regional corruption.

At-risk Cerrado mammals need fully-protected parks to survive: Researchers
- A newly published camera trap study tracked 21 species of large mammal in Brazil’s Cerrado savanna biome from 2012-2017.
- The cameras were deployed in both fully protected state and federal parks and less protected mixed-use areas known as APAs where humans live, farm and ranch.
- The probability of finding large, threatened species in true reserves was 5 to 10 times higher than in the APAs for pumas, tapirs, giant anteaters, maned wolves, white-lipped and collared peccaries, and other Neotropical mammals.
- With half the Cerrado biome’s two million square kilometers of native vegetation already converted to cattle ranches, soy plantations and other croplands, conserving remaining habitat is urgent if large mammals are to survive there. The new study will help land managers better preserve biodiversity.

Harvard fund evades justice in land-grabbing case over Cerrado farm
- In September, the court in Brazil’s Bahia state ruled that a company in which Harvard University’s endowment fund was invested had illegally acquired the land for a large farm in the Cerrado grasslands.
- The Gleba Campo Largo farm, spanning 140,000 hectares (346,000 acres), has for years been the focus of violent land disputes.
- The farm’s registered owner is Caracol Agropecuária Ltda., a company that the Harvard Management Company is believed to have poured an estimated $59 million into over the course of about a decade.
- The Harvard Management Company fully divested from Caracol in June 2019, avoiding Bahia’s State Justice recent condemnation.

In Brazil’s Bahia, peasant farmers and cowboys keep the Cerrado alive
- For over a century, communities in Brazil’s western Bahia have preserved the Cerrado grasslands through a form of communal land management that allows them to raise cattle, harvest native fruits and grow organic food crops sustainably.
- They sell their wide range of produce — from beans to flour — at farmers’ markets in nearby towns, but this activity has been curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Major soy, corn and cotton producers are also increasingly present in the area.
- Their massive plantations dry up the rivers used by the communities and contaminate the water with pesticides, threatening their sustainable way of life.

In search of the ‘forest ghost,’ South America’s cryptic giant armadillo
- Since 2010, the Giant Armadillo Project has been dedicated to researching the world’s largest armadillo, an animal that, despite its size and range across almost every country in South America, is one of the world’s least recognized animals.
- The researchers have made key findings since then, among them: the burrows that the giant armadillo digs, which can be up to 5 meters (16 feet) long, serve as shelter from extreme temperatures for at least 70 other species, including birds, reptiles and mammals.
- The species is categorized as vulnerable, with the advance of agribusiness — and the attendant deforestation and road construction that come with it — the main threat to the giant armadillo.

For Brazil’s most trafficked parrot, the poaching is relentless
- Every year between August and September, poachers in the Brazilian Cerrado steal turquoise-fronted parrot hatchlings from their nests to supply the exotic pet market.
- The main destination is the São Paulo metropolitan area, where at least 12,000 baby birds are taken every year, usually packed in boxes without water or ventilation.
- The species is the most widely traded of Brazil’s parrots, sought after because it’s relatively easy to train to “talk.”
- Conservationists say law enforcement efforts to tackle the trafficking have failed, and warn that the dwindling wild population of the bird will have ripple effects within its ecosystem.

Harvard’s half-billion land stake in Brazil marred by conflict and abuse
- Harvard University has plowed $450 million of its $40 billion endowment in Brazil, most of it to buying up at least 405,000 hectares (1 million acres) of land in the Cerrado.
- This is a region where major landowners have racked up human rights violations against smallholder farmers and crimes against the environment.
- Most investments in land in this region are purely speculative; while the land goes unused, locals are deprived of their water sources, farmland and other resources.
- Harvard would not comment on its Brazilian investments specifically, but said it is trying to divest from unsustainable ventures. But even as it has trouble finding buyers for the farms, it continues to profit from the appreciating value of the land.

Only a few ‘rotten apples’ causing most illegal Brazil deforestation: Study
- It is well known that agribusiness — especially cattle and soy production — is the major driver of illegal deforestation in Brazil, which has seen soaring rates of forest destruction since the election of Jair Bolsonaro. Many of those agricultural commodities end up being exported to the European Union.
- But little has been done to curb the problem, partly due to lack of government will, and partly due to the fact that the precise amount of illegal deforestation linked to exported meat and soy has never been identified, while ranches and plantations and their owners mostly responsible are difficult to pinpoint.
- Now a new potentially game changing study finds that while around 20% of all agricultural exports from Brazil to the EU appear to come from illegally deforested areas in the Amazon rainforest and Cerrado savanna, only about 2% of producers are responsible for the majority of that illegal deforestation.
- The study methods have the potential to advance supply chain traceability, showing that it is now possible to trace agricultural products from illegal deforested areas all the way to foreign consumers, making it far easier for nations and companies to curb deforestation — if they have the will.

Brazil’s past finance ministers defend environment against Bolsonaro
- In a surprise move, 17 former Brazilian Finance ministers and Central Bank presidents came out strongly this week against the environmental policies of President Jair Bolsonaro’s government.
- The letter signed by the 17 economic authorities presents four proposals for a green economy for the post-pandemic era: public and private investments in a low carbon economy; zero deforestation in the Amazon and the Cerrado; an increase in climate resilience; and a boost in new technology research and development.
- The letter comes as pressure mounts on Bolsonaro to scrap his plan for Amazon economic development, which would allow mining and agribusiness on indigenous and conserved lands leading to massive deforestation. EU nations, international investors and companies have all condemned Bolsonaro’s environment record in recent days.

Corn growers in Brazil’s Cerrado reap a hostile climate of their own making
- Agribusiness entities that deforested vast swaths of the Cerrado biome in Brazil to grow corn are now suffering a drop in production because of climate changes brought about by their own actions.
- That’s the finding of a new study that shows the loss of native vegetation has led to more warm nights and changes in rainfall patterns, affecting corn crops that require moderate temperatures and reliable rainfall.
- The study’s authors say everyone loses from this scenario, and call for keeping the native vegetation in place as much as possible.
- International pressure and a serious commitment from agribusiness, which is largely resistant to efforts to preserve the Cerrado, might be the way to stop deforestation, they suggest.

World’s top tapir expert prepares for unprecedented Amazon mission
- Brazilian conservation biologist Patrícia Medici first won a Whitley Award, the “Green Oscars” for conservation science, in 2008; this year, she’s the recipient of the top tier of the prize, the Whitley Gold Award.
- She will use the $75,000 prize to fund the new stage of her studies, in which she plans for the first time to study the lowland tapir in the Amazon.
- Medici has already spent two decades studying the species, South America’s largest land mammal, in the Atlantic Forest, the Pantanal wetlands, and the Cerrado grassland.
- She hopes to use the next stage of the study, in the Amazon, to expand understanding of the species by seeing how it reacts to deforestation driven by mining, large-scale agriculture, and logging.

China and EU appetite for soy drives Brazilian deforestation, climate change: Study
- A recent study highlights how demand for Brazilian soy by Europe and China is stoking deforestation, thereby increasing carbon emissions, especially in Brazil’s Cerrado savanna biome, followed by the Amazon rainforest.
- The extent to which Brazilian soy production and trade contribute to climate change depends largely on the location where soybeans are grown. Soy exported from some municipalities in Brazil’s Cerrado, for example, contributes 200 times more total greenhouse gas emissions than soy coming from other parts of the country.
- China was the world’s largest importer of Brazilian soy from 2010 to 2015 and responsible for 51% of associated carbon dioxide emissions, with the European Union responsible for about 30%. However, EU soy imports (sourced from the northern Cerrado) were linked to more recent deforestation than China’s imports.
- The study is the first to offer an estimate of carbon emissions across Brazil’s entire soy sector. The data obtained by analyzing 90,000 supply chain streams could help policymakers curb emissions by designing low-carbon supply chains, with more effective forest conservation, and making improvements in transport infrastructure.

Brazil’s native bees are vital for agriculture, but are being killed by it
- Native Brazilian bees provide several environmental services, the most important being pollination of plants, including agricultural crops.
- Stingless beekeeping also helps to keep the forest standing, as honey farmers tend to preserve the environment and restore areas used in their activity.
- But food production based on monoculture and heavy on pesticide use is threatening native bee populations.
- The western honey bee (Apis mellifera), an imported species, dominates Brazil’s beekeeping and its research into the harmful effects of pesticides; but studies show that pesticides affect stingless bees more intensely.

The mining map: Who’s eyeing the gold on Brazil’s indigenous lands?
- Miners have their eyes on reserves that have been officially demarcated for 15 years and are inhabited by isolated indigenous peoples.
- Applications to mine on indigenous lands in the Amazon have increased by 91% under the Bolsonaro administration.
- The majority of applications to mine on indigenous lands are for areas in Pará, Mato Grosso, and Roraima.
- Among the applicants are mining giant Anglo American, small-scale cooperatives whose members are embroiled in a range of environmental violations, and even a São Paulo-based architect.

As bioethanol demand rises, biodiversity will fall in Cerrado, study says
- An area half the size of Switzerland in Brazil’s savanna-like Cerrado biome could see its biodiversity plummet as sugarcane farms expand to meet global demand for bioethanol, a new study says.
- Researchers calculated that some parts of the Cerrado could see up to 100% loss of mammalian species richness; endangered animals like the maned wolf will be the most affected.
- The Atlantic Forest and the Pantanal wetlands will also be affected, largely a result of growers of other crops moving into those areas as sugarcane farms take over their current areas.
- The study authors say there’s still a chance to mitigate those impacts by increasing agricultural productivity, protecting natural areas, and developing second-generation bioethanol made from a mix of sugarcane and eucalyptus.

‘We are invisible’: Brazilian Cerrado quilombos fight for land and lives
- Thousands of quilombos — communities formed by descendants of runaway slaves — exist in Brazil, but lack of resources, structural racism, and a lethargic bureaucracy prevents them from gaining official title and control over their traditional lands, despite guarantees under the 1988 Constitution.
- The Brazilian government’s Quilombola Program has mapped more than 3,000 communities, but less than 200 have had their lands officially demarcated, and even fewer have been given full title.
- In the Brazilian Cerrado, on the nation’s agricultural frontier, rapid deforestation by expanding agribusiness, depletion of water resources, and an unsympathetic government are further complicating the resolution of the long-time struggle over land rights.
- The Baião quilombo, visited by Mongabay last year, is just one such community. Located in Tocantins state, its members say its demarcation rights have been long denied by the Brazilian government, while the adjacent Ipiranga farm has steadily expanded to encroach on traditional community lands.