Brazil's New National Park Protects Vanishing Savannah

BRASILIA, Brazil, December 15, 2005 (ENS) - The government of Brazil has created a new national park that protects 160,000 hectares (617 square miles) of open savannah grasslands, Environment Minister Marina Silva announced Tuesday on the closing of the Second National Conference on the Environment.

Valmir Ortega, ecosystem director of Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), an agency of the Environment Ministry, said creation of the park is part of the federal government's plan to increase the protected area in the savannah region, called the Cerrado.

The grasslands stretch for more than 1.2 million square miles across Brazil's central high plains, covering more than one-quarter of the country's land area. Although nearly half of Cerrado has been converted to agriculture, some 935 species of birds and nearly 300 mammals, some endangered species, inhabit the region.

Ortega said the government is in "a race against the time to save what remains of the biome." Only 2.5 percent of the savannah is covered by conservation areas.

Meanwhile, soybean production in parts of nine Brazilian states is destroying the savannah's native plants and animals as well as the plantations of family farmers, according to new research published Tuesday and presented at the national conference.

The survey by the Institute of Socioeconomic Studies (INESC) found that, "Not even local indigenous communities, with territories demarcated by the National State, are free of pressure to give up their lands for the implantation of soybean monoculture."

The nine states affected are Roraima, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Pará, Maranhão, Goiás, western Minas Gerais, Bahia, and Piauí, says the official state news agency Agência Brasil. The savannah occupies 315 million hectares, about 37 percent of Brazilian territory.

Every three months the Institute publishes reports analyzing how well government policies are fulfilling the socioenvironmental agenda.

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Unspoiled Brazilian savannah is being cleared for agriculture at the rate of roughly three million hectares a year. (Photo courtesy Brazilian Environment Ministry)
Legal recognition of the savannah as one of Brazil's biomes, which would help in its preservation, is one of the nearly 3,800 proposals drafted during the Municipal, Regional, State, and Sectorial Conferences on the Environment, said Eugênio Spengler, the executive coordinator of the Second National Conference on the Environment.

According to the INESC survey, Constitutional Amendment Bill No. 115/95, which provides for the inclusion of the savannah as part of the national patrimony, remains stalled in the National Congress.

"Two years after the Minister of Environment, Marina Silva, announced that a specific program would be created for this biome, very little or nearly nothing has gotten off the drawing board," the study says about the savannah.

According to the Institute, "Pressure from the rural bloc and the agribusiness 'grassroots' have, unfortunately, been more adroit and persuasive, imposing their interests on an administration that is, unfortunately, a hostage of the neoliberal financial formula and its commitment to generating a primary surplus."

A 2004 study by Conservation International (CI) indicates that the Brazilian Cerrado may disappear by 2030.

Some 57 percent of the 204 million hectares of original vegetation cover have already been completely destroyed and half of the remaining areas are very impacted and may not be appropriate for biodiversity conservation, the conservation group found after analyzing satellite data.

The study, based on satellite imaging, is the result of the partnership between CI-Brazil and Oreades, an NGO in the city of Mineiros.

The main pressures on the Cerrado are the expansion of the agricultural frontier, fire, and the unplanned development of urban areas. CI called the annual rate of deforestation of three million hectares a year "alarming."

The satellite images showed the worst degradation states of Mato Grosso do Sul, Goias and Mato Grosso, in the triangle of the state of Minas Gerais and the western part of the state of Bahia, conclusions that match the findings of the INESC study.

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Illegal deforestation for soy production, in the north of the state of Mato Grosso. September 1, 2004. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
"The Cerrado loses 2.6 soccer fields' worth of its original vegetation every minute. This rate of deforestation is 10 times greater than in the Atlantic Forest, which loses a soccer field's worth per minute," explains Ricardo Machado, CI-Brazil director for the Cerrado program and one of the authors of the study.

"Many leaders and decision-makers wrongly justify this deforestation because the Cerrado is not covered with dense tropical forests like the Amazon or the Atlantic Forest," said Machado.

"This reaction ignores the fact that the biome harbors the richest savanna in the world, with abundant biodiversity and watershed resources that are of great importance for Brazil," he said "In the "chapadas," or high plateau, we can find the head waters of the main rivers of the Amazon Basin, the Prata Basin and the San Francisco Basin."

Among the problems created by the clearing of the Cerrado is the degradation of important rivers like the San Francisco River and the Tocantins River and the destruction of the habitat on which thousands of species depend for their survival. Many of these species are found only in that region and nowhere else on the planet, such as the Yellow-faced parrot, or Papagaio-galego, Amazona xanthops; and the Hoary fox, Dusicyon vetulus, which are losing their habitat to agricultural encroachment.

Medicinal plants and fruit species that are abundant in the region are also disappearing. According to Embrapa Genetic Resources and Technologies, more than 330 species of plants used for folk medicine have been recorded in the Cerrado.

"To put a stop to the destruction of the Cerrado," advised Machado, "the rural investments of the federal government for the next harvest season should include conservation action, particularly the protection of watershed, the recovery of degraded areas and the maintenance of conservation units."