Is Brazil's Cerrado the ''ugly duckling'' of conservation?

By Laura Brown - 13 Apr 2011 15:9:0 GMT
Is Brazil's Cerrado the ''ugly duckling'' of conservation?

30 years ago, Brazil's Cerrado, a savannah-like spread of land including vegetation, animal and insect life with many endemic species, covered over two million square kilometres.

Now, because of a generation of destroying the land to plant crops for European consumers, and eradication of wildlife and plant life at twice the rate of that in the Amazon Rainforest, conservationists fear it could disappear within two decades.

The plight of the Cerrado has long been seen as the poor relation of the Rainforest. While the latter receives international recognition leading to concerted campaigns, the Cerrado languishes with an uncertain future.

A renewed effort led by the Brazilian government and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is attempting to throw the media spotlight on what could be lost if continued farming and agriculture are allowed to continue to expand across the area unchecked. It includes a visit from the UK Government and an effort to make consumers see how their shopping habits could impact on the cerrado's ongoing destruction.

Covering land mass in Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, the Cerrado once stood at over two million square kilometres. It now stands at just under 450,000 measuring a loss of 20%. Its uniqueness comes from biodiversity. The Cerrado is home to over 10,000 species of plants, nearly half are endemic. Almost a thousand species of birds call it home, there are 780 species of freshwater fish, 113 of amphibians, 180 of reptiles and 300 mammal species. Over 14,000 species of insects have been catalogued.

Viewed by the Brazilian population as mere wasteland in the 60s, the Cerrado was used to build mechanized soy farms, cattle ranches and other crops to sell to the European markets. Much of the soy bean crop is used to feed pigs in Britain and France.

Between 2002 and 2008, almost 21,000 square kilometres of the land was lost annually. In the two decades between 1984 and 2004, the ecosystem in the Cerrado was declining at a rate of 1% a year.

In an attempt to halt the decline, the WWF launched a campaign to speak directly to supermarkets in the UK, encouraging them to buy soy beans from an approved scheme called the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS). RTRS is a global platform encouraging the responsible production of soy, limiting deforestation and the use of harsh chemicals which damage the environment. Only four UK supermarkets are signed up to the scheme.

A recent visit to the Cerrado by UK Environment Minister Caroline Spelman, shed light on the need for its plight to receive the same focus as that of the Amazon rainforest.

''The Cerrado is a huge area - as big as France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK put together - it's too important to the whole world to leave its protection to chance.''

''We want to support Brazil's efforts to protect the Cerrado, and our countries are already working closely together to safeguard it through deforestation monitoring. But the rest of the world needs to get involved too, recognising that this is an immensely varied and vitally important ecosystem.''

In September, Brazil launched a £125 million plan to combat deforestation and protect wildlife in the Cerrado. Their new Cerrado Plan will see US$200 million of federal money invested over the next two years to protect the mixed woodland-savannah.