What's Next for Brazil's Cerrado, Deforested Focus of Booming Agriculture?

Roughly half of Brazil's wooded savannah—about 250 million acres—has already been cleared for agricultural purposes.

Aerial view of the Brazilian Cerrado. Roughly 50 percent of the savannah has been cut down for raising cattle and cropland as Brazil rises as an agricultural powerhouse. Credit: Jeff Tollefson/InsideClimate News

Jeff Tollefson is reporting from the Brazilian Amazon for eight weeks and exploring Brazil's efforts to protect the world's largest rainforestand the earth's climate.

As I write this I'm flying 6,000 feet above the Brazilian Cerrado, a broad term that encompasses a range of drier vegetation types throughout the center of the country extending into the Amazon River basin. Gazing out the window of this single-engine propeller plane, I see a mosaic of cropland and pastures extending to the horizon in all directions. The dry season arrived barely two weeks ago, and the lush greens have yet to give way to browns in the state of Goias.

I see sharp lines and rounded edges, green pastures and red soils, with forests snaking along gullies, streams and the occasional river. I can only assume that the little white specs below are cows. After 20 minutes in the air, I get my first view of a large patch of wild Cerrado, covering a series of hills that extends into the distance. Then it's gone. We pass a reservoir filled with olive green water.

Up front, next to the pilot, is Marcos Reis, general director of the Aliança da Terra, which works with farmers and ranchers to boost livelihoods while protecting the landscape. We are flying more than 250 miles from the city of Goiania to Uberaba in the state of Minas Gerais, where Brazil's largest cattle trade show is being held. His group is bringing a group of small landholders to talk about their experience in a program to improve livestock. I'll visit those landowners in the field later, but Reis says this trade show will give me a unique snapshot of the Brazilian beef industry.

Right now, though, I can't get over the scale of what I see out the window. Brazil is a rising agricultural powerhouse that has already surpassed the United States to become the world's largest soybean producer. With its bountiful land, sun and water, Brazil is better poised to expand food production for a growing world than any other country. I see the results below: the final phase of an agricultural progression that is rolling like a tractor across the Cerrado and into the Amazon rainforest, leaving countless and colorful polygons in its wake.

Yesterday I met with Laerte Ferreira at the Federal University of Goias in Goiania, whose institute has been mapping and tracking deforestation in the Cerrado since 2002. Ferreira says around 50 percent of the Cerrado—about 250 million acres—has already been converted to agriculture, mostly cattle pasture but also cropland. The area I'm flying over at the moment appears to be 80 percent converted for food production.

The Cerrado is a curious beast that bridges the gap between rainforest and savannah. Much of it is located at higher altitude. It receives a lot of rain during the wet season, which runs from the southern hemisphere spring through fall, and almost none during the dry season. It's home to a dizzying array of plants, many of which occur only here. Few people outside of Brazil even know it exists, and half of it is already gone.

The Cerrado has been a mystery to me for years. I knew it from maps and photos, but was always confused. It tends to be translated as "savannah," but when I think of savannahs I think about areas with open grasslands. When talking about deforestation of the savannah, I adopted the term "wooded savannah." But what is a wooded savannah?

My first opportunity to see the Cerrado up close came last week, while I was in Brasilia. I called João Amorim, superintendent of conservation at the Brasilia Botanical Garden, whom I'd met in 2012 at a United Nations conference on sustainability. His latest project is an initiative to grow and plant 200,000 native Cerrado trees around the capital city, and he offered me a quick tour of the garden's preserve, essentially a giant swath of Cerrado preserved when the land was cleared to build the surrounding city.

The tour began in a forest densely packed with small trees, anywhere from a few to several inches in diameter. We poked our heads into a dark and moist patch of trees, where I took in the pleasant odor decaying plant material—biology, in action—until the bugs forced a retreat. Then we dipped down into a gully and crossed a bridge. Below was a small stream. Above was a full and open canopy of leaves. In between was a pocket of cool moist air.

Hopping back into Amorim's truck, we began a long ascent onto a plateau. As we went, the vegetation shrank and shifted shape. Trees became thick shrubs, then the shrubs gave way to fields of grasses—at last, the savannah. In the distance, we saw palm trees (a sure sign of water, perhaps a spring). The air was hot and dry in the afternoon sun.

We were headed back into an area of dense vegetation when a giant anteater barreled into the road in front of us carrying a baby on its back, then turned and ploughed back into the brush. We stopped and climbed into the bed of the truck so I could see the grasses and bushes shake in the distance as the anteater continued her escape.

Before turning around, Amorim stopped the truck to show me a "Lobeira," which translates to "wolf tree." This is one of the trees he is raising in the nursery, and I had already seen the saplings. Here was the real thing, complete with a fruit that looked like an overly fuzzy green peach. The maned wolves that roam the region eat the fruit, thus the name, but apparently it makes people sick.

Some scientists have raised concerns that deforestation has picked up in the Cerrado precisely because enforcement increased in the Amazon. Based on the numbers that Ferreira showed me, it's not entirely clear. Land conversion in the Cerrado peaked in 2004 and then declined for several years, a pattern that exactly matches deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. It picked up again in 2011 and 2012 as rates continued to decline further north, but it dropped in 2013 as rainforest deforestation spiked.

I don't know what to make of those numbers just yet, but I think of my own home country. We in the United States cut down all of our eastern forests as we were developing, and plowed up our prairie ecosystem to plant the grains that now grow across the farm belt. Today most of us would have a hard time imagining what those landscapes looked like before the arrival of modern civilization.

Indeed, seen from above, the transformation of the Cerrado has a certain order and grace. Brazil is following a well-trodden path toward development and putting photosynthesis, that magical process that fuels virtually all life on earth, to work for a time-tested cause, the development of its economy.

However, Brazil's development is coming at a time when scientists inside and outside of Brazil are aware that the loss of the Amazon's forests and Cerrado will affect the way the planet functions. It is a challenge our own forefathers didn't have to face.

Correction, corrected: The perceptive reader mentioned below pointed out that the creature carrying a baby on its back was likely not an aardvark either. More likely it was a giant anteater, which is native to Brazil and has hair enough for its young to cling to "even at a gallop." Your correspondent is now doubly embarrassed, and hereby acknowledges that said reader was correct. In researching the first correction, I was given the Portuguese name (tamanduá-bandeira) along with an English translation (aardvark). Had I checked again, as I should have, I would have discovered the translation was wrong and the reader was right all along. 

Correction: A perceptive reader pointed out that the animal carrying a baby on its back in the Brasilia Botanical Garden's reserve was likely not an armadillo, as I originally said in this blog. Given that armadillos have shells, that would indeed be a bit precarious. In fact, the creature was an aardvark. Your embarrassed correspondent is accustomed to seeing coyotes, deer and antelope crossing the roads in Wyoming, and this is the first time I've ever written about either armadillos or aardvarks. But just for the record, I subsequently witnessed multiple armadillos on the road (one dead) as well as a tapir. 

Coming soon: Into the "Arc of Deforestation" with an American cowboy. A grassroots movement strives for better beef, great grains and fewer fires.

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