Agriculture Threatening Biodiversity, Watersheds
Deforestation is a major contributor to global warming. Brazil is one of the nations with the highest rates of deforestation in the world. Agriculture expansion is the primary force behind the destruction.
Industrial agriculture has turned Brazil into an agricultural leader at the expense of the environment and the people. Amazon deforestation has dominated the headlines for decades, but an agricultural explosion in the Cerrado savanna is adding to the existential threat facing biodiversity and humanity.
While the Amazon basin is still facing deforestation, many of Brazil’s agricultural producers have been lured away by opportunities for exploitation in the Cerrado ecosystem. As such Brazil’s agricultural footprint is still fueling global warming, damaging watersheds and threatening biodiversity. While Brazil is supposedly trying to slow destruction of the Amazon basin, it has put another ecosystem on the chopping block.
The Cerrado ecosystem hosts five percent of species on the planet. It’s also an important carbon sink.
More than half of Brazil’s soybean farmland is now in the Cerrado. This delicate ecosystem is disappearing four times faster than the Amazon rainforest. By focusing on one problem, Brazil created another, said Ane Alencar, science director of the non-profit Amazon Environmental Research Institute, known as IPAM.
The Cerrado is the largest savanna in South America and one of the largest in the world. Roughly the size of Mexico, the Cerrado savanna spreads across several Brazilian states. This magnificent region has seen about half of its native forests and grasslands converted to farms, pastures and urban areas over the past 50 years.
The Cerrado is a vital storehouse for carbon dioxide and a critical watershed. Brazil’s leaders have cited protection of native vegetation as a critical success factor regarding its obligations under the Paris Agreement on climate change. But scientists warn that this critical ecosystem has reached a tipping point. It has lost more than 105,000 square kilometers (40,541 square miles) of native cover since 2008—50 percent more than deforestation in the Amazon during that time.
“There’s a high risk for the climate associated with this expansion,” said Alencar. “Limiting and calling attention to deforestation in the Amazon forced the agribusiness industry to expand in the Cerrado.”
The toll can already be seen in the region’s water resources. Streams and springs are filling with silt and drying up as local vegetation vanishes. As a result, the entire watershed is under assault. Rivers that feed the entire nation are dropping. The imperiled waterways include the Sao Francisco, Brazil’s longest river outside of the Amazon basin, where water levels are at record lows.
“The removal of vegetation can lead a body of water to extinction,” said Liliana Pena Naval, an environmental engineering professor at the Federal University of Tocantins.
Wildlife is also threatened, including rare hyacinth macaws, maned wolves and jaguars that call the shrinking savanna home. So are thousands of plants, fish, insects and other creatures found nowhere else on earth.
Deforestation in the region has slowed from the early 2000s, when Brazil’s soy boom was gaining steam. Still, farmers continue to plow under vast stretches of the biome, propelled largely by Chinese demand for Brazilian meat and grain. The Asian nation is Brazil’s top buyer of soybeans, which are used to feed hogs and chickens. China is also a major purchaser of Brazilian pork, beef and poultry.
Brazil’s agriculture sector grew 13 percent in 2017, while the overall economy was flat. Brazil’s soybean exports to China are up 18 percent through the first seven months of the year as Chinese buyers have canceled tens of millions of dollars’ worth of contracts with U.S. suppliers. The nation’s status as a low-cost agricultural producer will continue to fuel deforestation and agricultural expansion in the Amazon basin and in the Cerrado.
Virgin plots near Pansera in the state of Tocantins can be purchased for just $248 an acre on average. That compares to an average of $3,080 per acre for already cleared farmland in the United States. As a result of this disparity in production costs, soy planting in Matopiba has more than doubled over the past decade.
Farmers have emerged as a powerful political force bent on keeping Brazil’s countryside open for business. Lawmakers in the country’s largely rural, pro-agriculture voting bloc, who comprise more than 40 percent of the nation’s congress, have led a rollback of environmental laws in recent years.
Those efforts include a 2012 loosening of Brazil’s landmark Forest Code that sets requirements for preserving native vegetation. The change reduced potential penalties for farmers, ranchers and loggers charged with past illegal deforestation, and made it easier for landowners to clear more of their holdings. Annual deforestation in the Amazon last year was up 52 percent from a record low in 2012.
Reckless land-use policies and cheap land prices have transformed Brazil into the world’s largest exporter of soy, beef and chicken. It’s also a major producer of pork and corn. To accommodate this growth, deforestation in Brazil’s Cerrado is gaining speed. Government policies have intentionally driven industrial-scale farming to this region.
Short on farmland to feed its growing population. State agriculture scientists developed fertilizers and additives to fix the acidic, nutrient-poor earth and created soybean strains that could thrive in the tropics. Arable land exploded. Within a decade, Brazil transformed itself from a food importer to a net exporter. By the 1990s it was moving global commodities markets.
In theory, Brazil does have some environmental protections, but the ones applied to the Cerrado are much weaker than those that apply to the Amazon basin. For example, rainforest farmers are required to preserve 80 percent of native vegetation on their plots. Cerrado farmers are required to preserve as little as 20 percent of the natural cover, and up to 35 percent in areas neighboring the Amazon. Those who don’t maximize use of their tracts risk having their land declared idle and subject to redistribution.
Unfortunately, the Cerrado has failed to capture the public’s attention the way the Amazon’s basin has. People view the Cerrado as bushes and shrubs, said Alencar. Many people don’t see the connection between the soybean-fed meat on their plates and the steady decline of one of the world’s great carbon sinks.
Plants here send roots deep into the earth to survive seasonal drought and fires, creating a vast underground network that some have likened to an upside-down forest. Destruction of surface vegetation, and the resulting die-off of the life below, released 248 million tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere in 2016, according to estimates by the Climate Observatory, a Brazilian conservation group. That’s roughly two-and-a-half times the annual tailpipe emissions from all cars in Brazil.
Stripped of its vegetation, sandy topsoil is now filling a nearby creek and an adjoining freshwater pool where he and other rural families draw drinking water.
Environmentalists say vanishing creeks like those in Palmeirante are threatening the nation’s water supply. Of a dozen major water systems in Brazil, eight are born in the Cerrado. They include the Sao Francisco, the country’s fourth-largest river, which was once famed for its paddle-wheeled riverboats known as gaiolas. Man-made diversions, including agriculture and hydroelectric dams, are reshaping the entire ecosystem.
Loss of native ground cover is also causing problems in the region. Reduced vegetation leads to higher ground temperatures and lower humidity—a recipe for less rainfall.
A study conducted at the University of Brasilia links deforestation to an 8.4 percent drop in precipitation from 1977 to 2010 in the Cerrado.
Compounding the problem, Cerrado wildlife is under pressure as habitat shrinks. More than 300 species that dwell here are considered threatened with extinction, according to the government. Among them are 44 rare types of fish unique to the Cerrado whose short lives begin with spring rains and end with the summer heat. Scientists suspect that increasing dry spells could be interrupting their delicate reproduction cycles.
Other creatures will soon join the endangered species list if nothing is done to reverse the slide, says Ricardo Machado, a zoology professor at the University of Brasilia. He said the birds’ numbers have plummeted due to loss of native ground cover critical to breeding and nesting. He is concerned that unique biodiversity may vanish before scientists have an opportunity to identify and study them.
“There is a universe to be discovered,” Machado said. “All attention is focused on the Amazon, no one speaks for the Cerrado.”
Dozens of groups, including Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Foundation and the Brazilian research group IPAM, are pressuring multinational corporations to protect the biome. The Cerrado Manifesto calls for immediate action to stop deforestation in the region.
More than 60 companies, including McDonalds, Unilever and Walmart, have signed the manifesto. The firms have agreed to support measures that would eliminate native vegetation loss in the Cerrado from their supply chains. Unlike the 2006 Amazon soy moratorium, the Cerrado Manifesto does not commit signatories to halt purchases of farm products from newly deforested areas.
Walmart and Unilever said they are committed to achieving zero net deforestation in their supply chains by 2020, meaning any destruction in one region would be offset by recuperation of similar forest elsewhere. Walmart said all its beef suppliers in the Cerrado are monitored to ensure they don’t contribute to deforestation. McDonalds didn’t comment.
Elsewhere, Netherlands-based Louis Dreyfus Company recently became the first major commodity trader to pledge to stop buying soy from newly deforested land specifically in the Cerrado. Unfortunately, the company gave no timetable.
Brazil’s former Minister of Environment Jose Sarney Filho, who recently left office to run for Senate, has proposed an international effort to compensate landowners who preserve natural habitat. He raised the issue at last November’s global climate summit in Germany, but the effort has yet to attract major backers.
Unfortunately, Brazil announced that it will stop monitoring deforestation in the Cerrado, citing a lack of funds, days after data showed destruction hitting a 6-year high in 2021.
Destruction of these trees, grasses and other plants in the Cerrado is a major source of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions, although it is far less densely forested than the more famous Amazon rainforest that it borders.
Deforestation rose 8 percent to 8,531 square kilometers (2.11 million acres) in the Cerrado for the 12-months through July, data from national space research agency Inpe showed on Friday. Approximately half of the Cerrado has been destroyed for farming and ranching.
“You’re transforming thousands of square kilometers annually,” said Manuel Ferreira, a geographer at the Federal University of Goias. “Few other places on earth have seen that rapid of a transformation.”
After falling from highs in the early 2000s, deforestation in the Cerrado has been creeping up again since right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, calling for more farming and development in sensitive ecosystems.
The move to stop monitoring the Cerrado is another setback for environmental protection under President Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro has railed against environmental protections hindering economic growth and he has weakened enforcement of conservation laws. Bolsonaro has defended his policies as a means to lift the interior of the country out of poverty. He points out that Brazil has preserved far more of its territory than Europe or the United States.
Last month, a Brazilian soy lobby group said that data showed farmers were increasingly using previously cleared land in the Cerrado rather than deforesting wholly new areas to plant the cash crop. Scientists blame Bolsonaro for encouraging deforestation with his pro-development rhetoric and for rolling back environmental enforcement.
“Deforestation is the most naked and raw indicator of the terrible environmental policy of this government,” said Ane Alencar, the science director at the nonprofit Amazon Environmental Research Institute.