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

Outcry as Brazil Congress overrides president to revive anti-Indigenous law
- Brazil’s Congress has pushed through a new law that includes several anti-Indigenous measures that strip back land rights and open traditional territories to mining and agribusiness.
- It includes the controversial time frame thesis, requiring Indigenous populations to prove they physically occupied their land on Oct. 5 1988, the day of the promulgation of the Federal Constitution; failure to provide such evidence will nullify demarcated land.
- The decision provoked outrage among activists, who say the new law is the biggest setback for Indigenous rights in Brazil in decades.
- Both President Lula and the Supreme Court have previously called the measures in the bill unconstitutional and against public interests, and Indigenous organizations announced they will challenge the law.

Deforestation falls for 8th straight month in the Amazon rainforest, but rises in the cerrado
- Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has decreased for the eighth consecutive month, but damage is rising in the cerrado, a tropical woody grassland that’s adjacent to Earth’s largest rainforest.
- According to data released today by Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE), forest clearing in November totaled 201 square kilometers, bringing the cumulative loss for the past 12 months to 5,206 square kilometers – 51% less than last year.
- The decline in deforestation has persisted despite one of the most severe droughts ever recorded in the Amazon.
- However, while deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has decreased, it has reached the highest level in at least five years in the cerrado.

Cargill widens its deforestation-free goals, but critics say it’s not enough
- Cargill has announced its Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina supply chains will be free of deforestation and land conversion by 2025.
- The commitments also expand to all row crops in those countries, including soy, corn, wheat and cotton.
- While conservation groups have welcomed the expanded commitment, they say it still leaves out countries like Bolivia, Paraguay and Colombia, where deforestation from the expanding agricultural frontier continues to increase.

Glyphosate leaves its mark even in protected areas of Brazil’s Cerrado
- A study found lichens dying as a result of exposure to glyphosate in an ostensibly protected area in Brazil’s Goiás state.
- Formed by interaction between fungi and algae, lichens are bioindicators of air quality.
- Glyphosate is the top-selling herbicide in Brazil and the world, used intensively in soybean, corn and sugarcane plantations; around 70% of pesticides sold in the country are applied in the Cerrado grassland biome.
- The study confirms the dispersion of the product into conservation areas from farmland, with aerial spraying a major factor for this so-called drift.

A tale of two biomes as deforestation surges in Cerrado but wanes in Amazon
- Brazil has managed to bring down spiraling rates of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest in the first half of this year, but the neighboring Cerrado savanna has seen a wave of environmental destruction during the same period.
- The country’s second largest biome, the Cerrado is seeing its highest deforestation figure since 2018; satellite data show 3,281 hectares (8,107 acres) per day have been cleared since the start of the year through Aug. 4.
- The leading causes of the rising deforestation rates in the Cerrado are a disparity in conservation efforts across Brazil’s biomes, an unsustainable economic model that prioritizes monocultures, and escalating levels of illegal native vegetation clearing.
- Given the importance of the Cerrado to replenish watersheds across the continent, its destruction would affect not just Brazil but South America too, experts warn, adding that the region’s water, food and energy security are at stake.

Sweet solution: Armadillo-friendly honey helps Brazil beekeepers, giant armadillos
- Giant armadillos in Brazil have been spotted destroying bee hives in search of larvae, causing economic losses to beekeepers and consequent retaliatory killings.
- The species has a low population growth rate, meaning human-wildlife conflicts like these significantly threaten their survival.
- One NGO promotes coexistence between beekeepers and giant armadillos by certifying beekeepers who use mitigation measures to prevent attacks on beehives, allowing them to sell armadillo-friendly honey at a higher price.
- The armadillo-friendly honey project has been applied within the Cerrado savanna and is now being implemented within the Amazon Rainforest region, zeroing armadillo killings in the apiaries involved in the scheme.

Lula wants to mirror Amazon’s lessons in all biomes, but challenges await
- A new decree intends to protect all of Brazil’s biomes and promote sustainable development in arguably one of the country’s most ambitious environmental policies to date.
- The mandate establishes action plans for the Amazon Rainforest, Cerrado savanna, Atlantic Forest, semi-arid Caatinga, Pampas grasslands and Pantanal wetlands, based on past strategies in the Amazon that have already proven successful against deforestation.
- Environmentalists have welcomed the decree amid the country’s surging deforestation levels and rising greenhouse emissions during the past four years under Jair Bolsonaro’s rule.
- The decree’s implementation won’t be easy, experts warn, and its success depends on coordinated action across all levels of the government, increased personnel in struggling environmental enforcement agencies and highly tailored plans for each biome.

Protecting canids from planet-wide threats offers ecological opportunities
- Five species within the Canidae family are considered endangered. These species, while found far apart in North and South America, Asia and Africa, often share similar threats, including habitat loss, persecution, disease and climate change.
- For some at-risk canid species, loss of prey, particularly due to snaring, is a significant concern that can also exacerbate human-wildlife conflict. Ecosystem-level conservation that protects prey species populations is required to protect canids and other carnivore species, experts say.
- Conservationists and researchers emphasize that canids play important roles in maintaining the habitats in which they live. That makes protecting these predators key to restoring and maintaining functional ecosystems.
- In the face of widespread global biodiversity loss, some canid reintroductions are taking place and proving successful. These rewilding efforts are offering evidence of the importance of canids to healthy ecosystems and to reducing various ecosystem-wide threats, even potentially helping curb climate change.

To be effective, zero-deforestation pledges need a critical mass, study shows
- The importance of rapidly halting tropical deforestation to achieve net-zero emissions was a key message at this year’s climate summit, but corporate efforts to this end have stalled for decades.
- Cattle, soy and palm oil are the main commodities driving deforestation and destruction of other important ecosystems. Zero-deforestation commitments from the companies that trade in those commodities are seen as an important way to reduce deforestation globally.
- A new study compares the effectiveness of corporate commitments to reduce soy-related deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado, showing that zero-deforestation commitments can reduce deforestation locally, but only if there is widespread adoption and implementation among both small and big soy traders.
- Overall, the study points to the limitations of relying just on supply chain agreements to reduce regional deforestation and protect biodiverse ecosystems, and highlights the need for strong public-private partnerships.

Growing soy on cattle pasture can eliminate Amazon deforestation in Brazil
- Expanding soy cultivation into underutilized cattle pastureland would help prevent massive deforestation and carbon emissions compared to the current practice of clearing new forest for farmland, a new study says.
- Experts say that Brazil, the world’s No. 1 soy producer and beef exporter, has enough pastureland lying unused that would allow soy production to increase by more than a third without any further deforestation.
- Researchers warn that if Brazil continues with its current method of soy cultivation, it would end up clearing 5.7 million hectares (14 million acres) of Amazon rainforest and Cerrado savanna into cropland over the next 15 years.
- Environmentalists have welcomed intensifying agriculture as a solution to deforestation, but have raised concerns about the potential for increased pesticide use, biodiversity loss, and the expansion of cattle ranching into forested areas.

Habitat loss, climate change send hyacinth macaw reeling back into endangered status
- The hyacinth macaw, the world’s largest flying parrot, is closer to return to Brazil’s endangered species list, less than a decade after intensive conservation efforts succeeded in getting it off the list.
- The latest assessment still needs to be made official by the Ministry of the Environment, which is likely to publish the updated endangered species list next year.
- Conservation experts attribute the bird’s decline to the loss of its habitat due to fires in the Pantanal wetlands and ongoing deforestation in the Amazon and Cerrado biomes.
- Climate change also poses a serious threat, subjecting the birds to temperature swings that can kill eggs and hatchlings, and driving heavy rainfall that floods their preferred nesting sites.

World Bank approves $200 million IFC loan for industrial agriculture in Brazil’s Cerrado
- A $200 million loan was granted to Louis Dreyfus Company (LDC), an industrial soy and corn producer, for monoculture work in Brazil’s Cerrado, a grassland biome that has lost nearly 80% of its habitat cover.
- The loan was granted by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a sister organization of the World Bank that’s tasked with private sector finance in developing countries.
- Corn, soy and cattle ranching have been connected to a long list of human rights violations, as well as the acceleration of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.

EU’s anti-deforestation bill leaves out critical ecosystems, study shows
- New regulation proposed by the European Commission aims to reduce the import of commodities that cause deforestation and forest degradation abroad.
- But according to a report commissioned by the EU Greens parliament members, the narrow definition of forest and deforestation in the revised legislation would not protect ecosystems in South America where EU demand for commodities such as soy and beef create high deforestation risk.
- Soy production is not only destroying native vegetation, but also threatens the livelihoods of hundreds of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities in the Cerrado and Chaco biomes, made of grasslands, savannas and dry forests stretching down the center of South America.
- Broadening the definition of forest to include other types of wooded land, or adopting a definition based on native vegetation rather than forest, would protect much more of the Cerrado and the Chaco, and be much more effective at tackling deforestation, the report says.

Indigenous village harvests seeds to slow deforestation in Brazil’s Cerrado
- Mato Grosso’s Cerrado forest in Brazil is supposed to be protected with set asides when logged for new croplands and pastures. However, farms often get away with protecting less than they’re supposed to.
- In the village of Ripá, Indigenous Xavante people make expeditions for harvesting fruit with seeds for replanting forests, helping to repair some of the damage and supplement their income.
- Ripá and another two dozen Indigenous communities in Mato Grosso sell their harvest to Rede de Sementes do Xingu (RSX), a wholesaler that, since 2007, has sold or given away enough seeds to replant 74 square kilometers (about 29 square miles) of degraded land.
- This story was produced with support from the Pulitzer Center.

Training on pasture recovery is a win-win for Brazil’s cattle ranchers and forests
- A recent study found that providing Brazilian cattle ranchers with customized training in sustainable pasture restoration could bring long-term economic and environmental benefits.
- Trained ranchers saw an increase in cattle productivity and revenue, and a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions over a period of two years.
- Researchers say that recovering degraded pastures could help stop deforestation for agriculture by allowing farmers to increase cattle numbers without needing more land.
- Despite government-led programs that promote sustainable agriculture, experts say pasture recovery is not yet being fully prioritized.

Tropical mammals under rising chemical pollution pressure, study warns
- Pesticides, pharmaceuticals, plastics, nanoparticles, and other potentially toxic synthetic materials are being released into the environment in ever greater amounts. A recent study warns that action is needed to better monitor and understand their impacts on terrestrial mammals in the tropics.
- Mortality and mass die offs could result, but sublethal effects — such as reduced fitness or fertility — are perhaps of greater concern in the long-term, warn experts.
- In the research, scientists raise concerns over an increasing load of chemicals released into the tropical environment, with little monitoring conducted to understand the impacts on wildlife.
- Another study released this year reported that the novel entities planetary boundary has been transgressed. Novel entities include pesticides and other synthetic substances. The boundary was declared breached because scientific assessments can’t keep up with new chemicals entering the environment.

Brazil bill seeks to redraw Amazon borders in favor of agribusiness
- A new bill before Brazil’s Congress proposes cutting out the state of Mato Grosso from the country’s legally defined Amazon region to allow greater deforestation there for agribusiness.
- Under the bill, known as PL 337, requirements to maintain Amazonian vegetation in the state at 80% of a rural property’s area, and 35% for Cerrado vegetation, would be slashed to just 20% for both.
- The approval of the bill would allow for an increase in deforestation of at least 10 million hectares (25 million acres) — an area the size of South Korea — and exempt farmers from having to restore degraded areas on their properties.
- Environmental law specialists warn that the departure of Mato Grosso from under the administrative umbrella of the Legal Amazon would set off a domino effect encouraging the eight other states in the region to push for similar bills.

In Brazil’s northeast, family farmers are guardians of creole seeds
- Families in northeastern Brazil’s Alto Jequitinhonha region have held out against industrial farming by preserving dozens of traditional seed varieties through generations of family farming.
- The tradition led to publication in 2019 of the Alto Jequitinhonha Creole Seed Catalog, which lists 132 varieties preserved and grown by 28 families in the region.
- Guaranteeing food security means dealing with several challenges in this region, including increasingly longer dry seasons as a result of climate change, and competition with eucalyptus monocultures for water.

In destroying the Amazon, big agribusiness is torching its own viability
- A new study has found that the transition zone between the Amazon and Cerrado in the northeast of Brazil has heated up significantly and become drier in the past two decades.
- The research points to deforestation in the Amazon and global climate changes as factors prolonging the dry season and warming up the region, leaving it susceptible to severe droughts and forest fires.
- Ironically, the changes being driven by the intensified agricultural activity are rendering the region less suitable for crop cultivation.
- The authors of the new study say there needs to be a balance of sustainable agricultural solutions and an environmentally focused political agenda to protect the region’s ecosystems, its economy, and its people.

Pay or punish? Study looks at how to engage with farmers deforesting the Cerrado
- Businesses and countries are renewing their commitments to reducing deforestation in supply chains, but disagreements still exist over what the most effective, efficient and equitable tools are to make that happen.
- In the Brazilian Cerrado, the world’s most biodiverse savanna, soybean production is one of the key industries driving rampant deforestation and conversion of native vegetation.
- While some observers favor the “carrot” approach of paying farmers not to deforest, others advocate for a “stick” approach that would cut market access for farmers who deforest.
- A new study says that in the case of the Cerrado, just using a stand-alone policy that pays farmers not to deforest would be expensive, inefficient and inequitable, and that some measure of market exclusion is also needed.