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

Dressed in faded shorts and flip flops, he showed a visitor the remains of what until recently had been a shady woodland: uprooted trees and freshly exposed earth pocked with heavy equipment tracks.

Stripped of its vegetation, sandy topsoil is filling a nearby creek and an adjoining freshwater pool where he and other rural families draw drinking water. He scooped up a murky handful in disgust.

“How many are being finished off in this manner in this state?” 43-year-old Andrade said.

Environmentalists say vanishing creeks like those in Palmeirante are threatening the nation’s water supply. Seemingly insignificant sources — tiny brooks, nameless rivulets — are vital building blocks supplying water to tributary streams that in turn feed some of Brazil’s largest rivers.

Of a dozen major water systems in Brazil, eight are born in the cerrado. They include the Sao Francisco, the nation’s fourth-largest river, which was once famed for its paddle-wheeled riverboats known as gaiolas.

Environmentalists say that artificial diversions, including agriculture and hydroelectric dams, have helped alter water levels to a degree that long stretches of the river are now unnavigable during the dry season.

Loss of native ground cover is also driving microclimate change in the region, they say. 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.

Cerrado wildlife is under pressure as habitat shrinks. More than 300 species that dwell there are considered threatened with extinction, according to the government.

Among them are 44 rare types of “annual 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, including rheas — giant, ostrich-like birds — are to soon join the endangered species list if nothing is done to reverse the slide, University of Brasilia zoology professor Ricardo Machado said.

The birds’ numbers have plummeted due to loss of native ground cover critical to breeding and nesting, he said.

Machado worries that unique cerrado plants, insects and other creatures might vanish before scientists have an opportunity to identify them, much less study them.

“There is a universe to be discovered,” Machado said. “All attention is focused on the Amazon, no one speaks for the cerrado.”

SOY BOOM

That is beginning to change.

Dozens of groups, including Greenpeace, the WWF and IPAM, last year began pushing for large multinationals to protect the biome. In a document known as the Cerrado Manifesto, they called for immediate action to stop deforestation in the region.

More than 60 companies, including McDonalds, Unilever and Walmart, have signed on so far. The firms have agreed to support measures that would eliminate native vegetation loss in the cerrado from their supply chains.

However, in contrast to the 2006 Amazon soy moratorium, the Cerrado Manifesto did not commit signatories to halt purchases of farm products from newly deforested areas.

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