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Deforestation in Brazil: It’s not just the Amazon

Brazil's capital Brasília is located in the heart of the Cerrado

A recent report based on analysis of high-resolution satellite imagery argues that deforestation in Brazil reached record highs during 2019. Most attention on the climate and socioeconomic impact of deforestation has focused on the Amazon region, where 770,148 hectares were cleared last year, and even more is expected to be cleared in 2020. Yet this is not the only place in Brazil where deforestation has been taking place at an accelerated rate. It is also occurring in the Cerrado, a biome mostly located in the Center-West region of Brazil, but also touching parts of the Northeast and Southeast parts of the country, and extending marginally into Bolivia and Paraguay. During the same period, 408,646 hectares of forest were cleared there too—more than twice the size of the mega city of São Paulo. However, far less attention is paid to this region.

The Cerrado's total area is approximately half of that of the Amazon rainforest; it represents the second largest biome in South America. It is the most biodiverse savannah in the world, concentrating 5% of the planet's species; it is also home to 40% of Brazil's water production. The region is home to hundreds of indigenous, quilombola (Afro-descending), and other traditional communities of the Cerrado. As lands are invaded and converted into pasture, fields and carbon, disputes over natural resources intensify, and attacks on environmental defenders spike.

A history of deforestation

This trend is not recent. The area began to be converted at a fast clip during the second half of the 20th century, as new irrigation technologies made it possible to cultivate its acidic soil. The Cerrado eventually became one of the main frontiers of Brazilian agribusiness, helping to fuel its rising exports of soybeans, beef, and other commodities to Europe and Asia. In recent years, the delimitation of the area called Matopiba—which encompasses the state of Tocantins, as well as parts of Maranhã, Piauí and Bahia—has been the site of rapid agricultural expansion, with a multitude of research and technology projects led by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, Embrapa. These activities, which include the rapid expansion of export-oriented monoculture, have helped to drive extensive deforestation in this area, as well as soil depletion in some areas.

Another culprit is the production of vegetable carbon, primarily to meet the demands of the steel industry, and much of it produced illegally. As a result of these activities, less than 48% of the Cerrado's original vegetation remains, and deforestation rates have at times exceeded that of the Amazon. The World Wildlife Fund alerts that, if this rhythm of destruction is maintained, the Cerrado is bound for "an unprecedented mass extinction." Moreover, deforestation in the Cerrado  is facilitated by the region’s particular legal status: notably, the Cerrado was left out of the natural preservation areas specified by the 1989 Constitution. As a result, compared to the Amazon, little of this environmentally rich and climate-sensitive ecoregion is protected by law. Only 8.1% of the Cerrado is composed of Conservation Units (compared to 20% of the Amazon), and Indigenous Lands make up 4.35% of the total area--far below the national average of 12.2%. 

Turning the Tide

A number of proposals have been put forth to help protect the remaining forest in the Cerrado. the Brazilian government launched the National Programme for the Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Cerrado Biome (the Sustainable Cerrado Program), with support from the World Bank and the Global Environmental Facility in 2005, and followed that up in 2009 with the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation and Fires in the Cerrado (PPCerrado). The Cerrado has also featured prominently in Brazil's voluntary national commitments to reduce projected greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

However, despite a temporary dip in deforestation rates, the Cerrado, like the Amazon, has seen a rapid surge in vegetation-clearing since 2019.  Most importantly, there has been a Constitutional Amendment bill (PEC 504/2010) to elevate the Cerrado (along with another biome, the Caatinga), to the condition of national heritage, and a 2018 petition with the same goal, signed by more than a half million people.  However, the far-right government of Jair Bolsonaro has not demonstrated great interest in expanding forest protection in the Cerrado—or anywhere in the country.

We now know more than ever before about deforestation trends in the Cerrado, in part thanks to the expansion of the DETER (Real-Time Deforestation Detection System) system, a tool developed by the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) that provides monthly data on deforestation and was recently extended to the region. 

Deforestation in the Cerrado will continue to be an issue unless more pressure is exerted on Brazilian authorities, as well as those of Paraguay and Bolivia. Given the ecological and climate importance of this ecoregion, as well as the fact that much of the demand for the production driving deforestation comes from abroad, such pressure must come not only from within Brazil, but also from abroad. We must include the Cerrado, along with the Amazon and other South American biomes, in the ongoing debates about how to curb deforestation in the region.