Sat, Sep 01, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Soy boom devours Brazil’s tropical savanna

Concerted efforts have been made to protect the Amazon rainforest, pushing the agriculture business and its environmental implications to the cerrado, its neighboring grassland

By Jake Spring  /  Reuters, CAMPOS LINDOS, Brazil

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

When farmer Julimar Pansera purchased land in Brazil’s interior seven years ago, it was blanketed in tiers of fruit trees, twisted shrubs and the occasional palm standing tall in a thicket of undergrowth.

He mowed down most of that vegetation, set it ablaze and started planting soybeans. Over the past decade, he and others in the region have deforested an area larger than South Korea.

Permissive land-use policies and cheap farm acreage here have helped catapult Brazil into an agricultural superpower, the world’s largest exporter of soy, beef and chicken, and a major producer of pork and corn.

The area has also lured farmers and ranchers away from the Amazon jungle, whose decline has spurred a global outcry to protect it.

The tradeoff is that while Brazil has slowed destruction of the renowned rainforest from its worst levels, it has put another vital ecological zone at risk: a vast tropical savanna that is home to 5 percent of species on the planet, environmentalists say.

Known as the cerrado, this habitat has lost more than 105,000km2 of native cover since 2008, according to government figures. That is 50 percent more than the deforestation seen during the same period in the Amazon, a biome more than three times larger.

Accounting for relative size, the cerrado is disappearing nearly four times faster than the rainforest.

The largest savanna in South America, the cerrado is a vital storehouse for carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas emitted from fossil fuels and deforestation that is warming the world’s atmosphere.

Brazilian officials have cited protection of native vegetation as critical to meeting its obligations under the Paris agreement on climate change, but scientists say the biome has reached a tipping point that could hamper Brazil’s efforts and worsen global warming.

By focusing on one problem, Brazil essentially created another, said Ane Alencar, science director of the non-profit Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM).

“There’s a high risk for the climate associated with this expansion,” Alencar said. “Limiting and calling attention to deforestation in the Amazon, in a way it 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 vegetation around them vanishes. That in turn is weakening the headwaters of vital rivers flowing to the rest of the nation, scientists say.

The imperiled waterways include the Sao Francisco, Brazil’s longest river outside the Amazon, where water levels are hitting never-before-seen lows in the dry season.

“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 under threat, 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, many of which are only beginning to be studied.

“I compare it to the burning of the ancient Library of Alexandria,” University of Brasilia ecologist Mercedes Bustamante said. “You lose the accumulated evolutionary record of thousands of years that never can be recovered.”

Farmers see the cerrado’s development as critical to global food security and their nation’s prosperity.

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