If you look at the map of Brazilian biomes you will notice, right in the center, a huge spot that covers the entire Central Plateau, including the states of Goiás, Tocantins, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Minas Gerais, Bahia, Distrito Federal, Maranhão , Piauí, Rondônia, São Paulo and Paraná.
It is the second largest biome in South America, with about 204 million hectares, or 24% of the Brazilian territory. It is equivalent to the size of Spain, France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom combined.
It is possible to get an idea of the size and strategic position of the Cerrado when we notice that it connects with the Amazon, Caatinga, Pantanal and Atlantic Forest – other biomes with which the Cerrado shares water and biodiversity.
The richest savannah in the world in terms of biodiversity registers several types of vegetation with a very rich flora, with more than 10 thousand species of plants. So far, 837 species of birds, 67 genera of mammals with 161 species have been identified, 19 of which are endemic, 150 species of amphibians and 120 species of reptiles.
Cerrado: the world’s most biodiverse savanna under threat
Due to these characteristics, the Cerrado is considered one of the global biodiversity hotspots – places on the planet where there is a significant diversity of life, although threatened by human action, and which should have priority in environmental conservation policies.
If until the 1950s, the Cerrado remained practically unchanged, from the following decade the scenario began to change. With the relocation of the federal capital – from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília –, the opening of a new road network towards the center of the country and government incentives, the natural vegetation cover began to give way to livestock and intensive agriculture.
Between 1985 and 2021, the Cerrado lost an area larger than the state of Piauí in terms of native vegetation: 26.6 million hectares were deforested, according to MapBiomas (Annual Mapping of Land Use and Coverage in Brazil). A net loss of 20.9% which indicates the difference between the loss of original vegetation and the gain of recovered vegetation. IPAM (Environmental Research Institute of the Amazon) acts in the scientific coordination of MapBiomas Brasil.
The area of agriculture in the biome increased 6.2 times in the same period, indicates the study. In general, the areas occupied by agriculture and livestock add up to 45.4% of the Cerrado, and, within that, the main use is pastures (52%), followed by agriculture (28%). In total, the Cerrado has 53.1% of native vegetation.
In the wake of the economic development that prevails in the Cerrado, large-scale grazing and agriculture have expanded rapidly over the past four decades in the biome, making it an agricultural frontier for commodity exports. The Cerrado concentrates around 36% of the entire cattle herd and more than 63% of all Brazilian grain, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply.
The environmental cost of converting native vegetation to agricultural fields is that more than half of the original Cerrado cover was deforested and 23.7% became pasture in recent decades, according to MapBiomas. This has consequences for the climate, water balance, biodiversity and traditional peoples and communities and family farmers who have historically coexisted with the biome interdependently.
In 2022, deforestation in the Cerrado was almost 20% higher than in 2021, according to SAD Cerrado. There were 815,532 hectares deforested, against 691,296 in the previous year. SAD Cerrado (Cerrado Deforestation Alert System) is developed by IPAM (Amazon Environmental Research Institute) in partnership with the MapBiomas network and LAPIG (Image Processing and Geoprocessing Laboratory) of UFG (Federal University of Goiás ).
What is worrying is that deforestation in the Cerrado today is concentrated in the north of Goiás, Mato Grosso and in the Matopiba region – officially delimited in 2015 and covering 337 municipalities in the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia. It is the Cerrado territory where the agricultural frontier advances faster, driven by soybeans, Brazil’s main export product.
A little more than 10% of the national grain production goes abroad from there. The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply estimates that both grain production and planted area will double in this region over a period of ten years.
It is also in Matopiba that the largest remnants of native Cerrado vegetation and important water sources are found, indicating tensions between the interests of exporting agribusiness and the rest of society, especially peoples, traditional communities and family farmers who have historically inhabited the region.
In addition to conflicts over land, these populations fight for visibility in the face of the blackout of official data about their existence and specificities. An initial survey carried out by the Tô no Mapa project in parts of the Cerrado in the Matopiba region identified 3.5 times more peoples and traditional communities and family farmers than is reported in the competent bodies.
From this initial study, carried out by IPAM and ISPN (Society, Population and Nature Institute) with technical support from the Cerrado Network, the organizations developed the Tô no Mapa application for self-mapping of traditional territories, adding the Cerrados Institute as a partner in the initiative.
Source of emissions
Due to its large area, the growing trend of agricultural expansion and the low number of protected areas – 12% of the biome is in Conservation Units, according to MapBiomas –, the Cerrado appears as the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the land use change sector in Brazil, second only to the Amazon. This means that the more Cerrado vegetation is cut down to produce soy and meat, the more the global climate situation worsens.
In addition to the visible part of the plants, the Cerrado harbors an enormous amount of biomass in the form of roots, coming to be considered an upside-down forest, such is the volume of organic material in the subsoil. Once the vegetation is suppressed, the plants no longer sequester carbon from the atmosphere and part of the carbon stored in the roots also returns to the atmosphere.
Deforestation and its associated fires in the biome between 1990 and 2021, caused the total emission of 39 billion tons of CO2 equivalent, which cause the greenhouse effect – in 2021 alone there were 1.14 billion tons related to deforestation, which is equivalent to 97% of total emissions from land use change in Brazil. The data are based on the SEEG (Greenhouse Gas Emissions Estimation System).
Add to this, the increase in the frequency of fires set in the Cerrado with the aim of “cleaning” the area for agricultural activities, and the biome’s contribution to aggravating the climate crisis is extremely high. Researchers at SEEG warn that large volumes of native Cerrado vegetation are burning more easily.
The increase indicates not only a change in the region’s natural fire regime, but also “the need to include fires in the account of Brazilian emissions of gases that cause global warming”, says Ane Alencar, Director of Science at IPAM and co-author. Such a measure will make even more evident the role of changes in land use in the Cerrado for a problem that afflicts all of humanity.
One of the main characteristics of the Cerrado is the fact that the biome concentrates a significant amount of river sources and underground reserves, to the point of being called by specialists the water tank or cradle of waters in Brazil.
It is that, in addition to harboring springs from 8 of the 12 main Brazilian hydrographic basins, the Cerrado occupies land at high altitudes, distributing water towards other biomes, such as the Caatinga and the Pantanal – whose floodplain depends on the water that is born in the plateaus of the Cerrado, in a relationship of intrinsic dependence. The Amazon Basin, although on a smaller scale, also benefits from the waters coming from the Cerrado.
Three large underground aquifers: Bambuí, Urucuia and Guarani also depend on the recharge of water that originates in the Cerrado. For millions of years, aquifers have been replenished by rain that infiltrates the soil, forming lakes known as amended waters, which flow through groundwater in different directions.
The aquifers supplied with water from the Cerrado are responsible for feeding large rivers and dams in the states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia, in addition to the Federal District. Even the Amazon River receives a contribution from rivers that originate in central Brazil, such as the Teles Pires, Xingu, Tapajós, Madeira, Araguaia and Tocantins.
With the trend of changes in the water regime – more heat and less rain –, groundwater and rivers may suffer, and water scarcity may settle in the cradle of waters in Brazil.