Apr 12

The wooded grasslands of South America’s largest savanna region – the Cerrado – are suffering ongoing deforestation as soy agriculture expands to meet the increasing demand for animal feed.  

WWF warned that the rising global appetite for meat is contributing to deforestation in the Cerrado – the second largest biome in Brazil after the Amazon, comprising around 21% of the country’s land area.

Photo of woolly butia palms in habitat

With some 4,400 endemic plant species, the Cerrado supports a mosaic of different vegetation types, including tree and scrub savanna, grassland with scattered trees, and occasional patches of dry, closed canopy forest.

Recent expansion in agriculture 

Up until the 1970s, agriculture in Brazil had been largely restricted to the fertile soils of forested areas. However, the advent of technologies that allowed the Cerrado soils to be developed greatly increased human development in the region. 

Agriculture and cattle rearing have now devastated around 50% of the Cerrado, and only 20% of it remains completely intact. While deforestation in the Amazon is decreasing as a result of satellite data and stronger law enforcement, in the Cerrado it is actually increasing, with the annual rate of deforestation running at around 4% between 2002 and 2008. 

Michael Becker of WWF said, “I think that in the last decades, a lot of the attention has been driven to the Amazon region. Now I think we need to look at other biomes in Brazil, such as the Cerrado, the Pantanal and the Atlantic forest, where you have similar patterns that will affect the biodiversity of Brazil in the long-term.”

Photo of maned wolf

Large mammals such as the maned wolf, giant anteater, giant armadillo and jaguar also still survive in the Cerrado.

Ecosystem damaged 

As well as in animal feed, the protein-rich soyabean is also used in products such as margarine, cosmetics and meat replacement dishes. After the U.S., Brazil is the second largest soy exporter in the world, with soy cultivation soaring over the last 10 years in particular. Most of the soyabean export goes to China, but nearly a third goes to Europe.

There is now significant concern that this industry is damaging the delicate Cerrado ecosystem. 

Agrochemicals used in the Cerrado are affecting people’s health,” said José Correia Quintal, who runs a co-operative near the second largest national park in the Cerrado, the Grande Sertão Veredas. “It is also contaminating the rivers. There is a concern that if this keeps the way it is there will be a problem with the water resources, and we will live as the people in the north-east region of Brazil live now, where water is now scarce.” 

Most of the important rivers in Brazil begin in the Cerrado, making it a vital water source for Brazil’s cities. The Cerrado rivers generate electricity for 9 out of 10 Brazilians.

Photo of Kaempfer's woodpecker male

Kaempfer’s woodpecker is only found in Cerrado, where this specialist bird forages for ants in stands of bamboo.

UN targets 14% protection 

One proposed solution to this problem is the Round Table for Responsible Soy (RTRS), which focuses on environmental, labour and health issues involving soy farmers and industries. Sainsbury’s, Asda, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer have agreed to become RTRS members when the scheme comes into place. 

There is now a race to put RTRS guidelines into place before any further development continues. “Three percent of the Cerrado is protected effectively,” Becker added. “The environmental ministry of Brazil has agreed to the UN target of 14% [protection] for the Cerrado. If we reach a 14% protective area, that’s an achievement.” 

Read the full story at the Guardian – ‘Crops for animal feed destroying Brazilian savannah, WWF warns’.

View more species from Brazil on ARKive. 

Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author

  • Moisés (April 12th, 2011 at 10:43 pm):

    I live here in Brazil and see to all destruction on cerrado close, this fact makes so sad, but 3% for 14% that’s an achievement.