Know Your Brazilian Biome: the Cerrado, the New Agricultural Frontier

Opinion, by Alfonso Stefanini

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – When traveling two months ago in the protected areas of the Cerrado, we were met with signs of exotic wildlife at every turn. It was easy to run into fresh South American Lobo Guará (wolf) tracks. We even saw a jaguar while coming back from a pristine waterfall near the Chapada dos Viadeiros.

Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro

Alfonso Stefanini, environmental consultant in Rio de Janeiro.

There are indigenous people living in the Cerrado and there are also Quilombos or run-away slave communities established hundreds of years ago when families were fleeing their captors.

Abundant trees with twisted shapes and cork-like trunks, make up much of this breathtaking landscape.

The Cerrado is the fountainhead for fresh water in Brazil, being the home of the three biggest hydrographic basins in South America, namely, the Amazonian/Tocantins, São Francisco and Prata.

One of Brazil’s seven biomes, the Cerrado biome is located in the central part of the country. It covers an area of more than 2 million km² and represents approximately 22 percent of the Brazilian territory. About one third of the Brazilian biota is in the Cerrado, rivaling the Amazon Biome in biodiversity numbers, something that many people tend to over look. In fact, the Cerrado is considered a global hotspot for biodiversity and has the highest biodiversity count of any savanna in the world. Unfortunately, it also has one of the highest rates of habitat destruction of any other terrestrial world biome.

The majority of the changes due to human action have been made only in the past three decades rising from technological advances in agricultural. Land has been modified to make room for new crops, such as soybean, cotton, corn and eucalyptus. The Cerrado is the last agricultural frontier in the world, according to many specialists, and the landscape is changing fast.

According to estimates, approximately twenty percent of the area is remains relatively intact. However, only eight percent of the total land area in the Cerrado is under some kind of protection, including indigenous lands and parks.

The use of “correntões” or heavy chains, sometimes with heavy steel balls in the middle, pulled by two tractors is the most common way for large-scale plantation owners to clear the land, destroying everything in their path. Trees yanked out from their roots are used to produce vegetable carbon for the metallurgical industry.

While the agricultural technologies used in this area like GPS-guided harvesting machines are indeed advanced, the working conditions of plantation workers are miserable. Slavery and servile labor is still a reality in the Cerrado.

There is very little government oversight in this South American “Old West” territory. It can be very dangerous for people to stand up against the “coronéis”, or colonels (land owners) that have dictated laws of the land for centuries.

Also added to the cast of powerful players are the “novos bandeirantes” or wealthy agricultural pioneers coming from the south of the country, who migrate to the Cerrado to get rich fast exploiting the political influences of the “coronéis” who are also frequently the local politicians.

These oligopolistic business deals only benefit a few and of the 20 million residents of the Cerrado biome, less than twenty percent are landowners.

Much of the deteriorated land can actually be used to reestablish native flora and could also be used to expand sustainable agriculture. Efforts such as these have shown effective results in the Cerrado, according to WWF (World Wildlife Found).

The biodiversity of the Cerrado can provide an abundant source of medicines, foods and other products that can potentially enhance the lives of many people in Brazil and the world. The fruit trees alone are a gold mine considering the very limited food varieties consumed in the world today.

The Cerrado is truly an amazing and biologically diverse place. Its preservation is fundamental to the goal of sustainable development in Brazil. It is probably one of the last natural frontiers in the world. Communities living there, like indigenous people and Quilombos, have a deep understanding of the land and they need to be protected as well, to insure the present and future survival of this biome.

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Alfonso Stefanini has an MA in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California and a BA from Hampshire College. Alfonso lives in Rio de Janeiro, and he can be reached at: Ecobrasilis@gmail.com.

One Response to "Know Your Brazilian Biome: the Cerrado, the New Agricultural Frontier"

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