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Ipe Tree in the Cerrado

The Cerrado savanna, which lies mostly in Brazil, has never received the same attention as its more glamorous neighbor, the Amazon. Yet it is the world’s most biodiverse savanna, home to 5% of the planet’s animals and plants.

Since the 1950s, however, agriculture—most recently, the rapid expansion of soy and beef production—has driven the loss of about half of its native vegetation. By 2030, the Cerrado is projected to lose tens of millions of additional acres of native vegetation.

The Cerrado’s wildlife and rural communities stand to suffer the most. This savanna contains about 200 species of mammal, 860 species of birds, 180 species of reptiles, 150 species of amphibians, 1,200 species of fish, and 90 million species of insect. Giant anteaters and armadillos are among its 60 vulnerable animal species, 12 of which are critically endangered. Of its more than 11,000 plant species, nearly half are found nowhere else on Earth, and local communities rely on many of them for food, medicine, and handicrafts.

The Cerrado is also extremely important as a source of water. Of 12 major hydrological regions in Brazil, six begin in the Cerrado, including the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland. Nine out of 10 Brazilians use electricity generated by water originating in the Cerrado savanna.

The region also locks up a deceptively large amount of carbon, as its small trees have deep root systems. About 70% of the biomass of this “upside-down forest” is underground, and recent studies suggest it may hold about 118 tons of carbon per acre.

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Maned wolf in Brazil

Maned wolves, armadillos, and giant anteaters are among the many animals living in the Cerrado.

People & Communities

Dozens of indigenous and traditional communities rely on the Cerrado. The region today is populated by diverse groups including remnants of escaped slave communities (quilombolas), small-scale livestock farmers, communities specializing in the breaking of babaçu palm nuts, and many others. Government data has shown that the rate of Cerrado deforestation in indigenous territories is less than one-fifth the rate in protected areas, suggesting that maintaining cultural diversity is closely linked to wildlife and plant life conservation.


monoculture in the Cerrado

Climate Change

By releasing carbon stored in the soil and in trees, and diminishing the land’s ability to re-absorb it, deforestation drives climate change globally. Indeed, converting habitat in the Cerrado for cropland and pasture has generated about 275 million tons of greenhouse gasses a year for the last , about the same emissions as 53 million passenger cars.

Locally, the loss of forests and grasslands also has negative impacts on climate, leading to higher temperatures, reduced rainfall, prolonged droughts, and more frequent fires. Driven by global and local factors, climate change is forecast to decrease agricultural productivity in Brazil by up to 17% nationwide.

Extensive Agricultural Expansion

Historically, cattle ranching is one of the main causes of conversion of savanna to farmland, totaling about 150 million acres to date. While the Cerrado was once thought to be unsuitable for agriculture, new technologies and techniques have allowed farming to spread rapidly over the last 40 years. Since 2000, soy, along with other crops such as corn, cotton and sugarcane, has expanded into extensive areas.

The conversion of the Cerrado continues at a rapid rate as Brazil’s soy production expands. If vegetation change were to continue at 2004 rates, the natural ecosystem of the Cerrado could virtually disappear within the next three decades. The western part of Bahia state, for instance, expanded its area of soy from nearly 1 million acres to over 2.4 million acres between 1993 and 2002.

What WWF Is Doing

trees in the Cerrado

WWF works with a range of stakeholders—soy and beef producers; traders, consumer brands, and retailers; financial institutions; governments; and civil society—to eliminate the conversion of forests and grasslands for soy and beef production.

Leveraging Markets

Companies that buy soy and beef—from traders to consumer brands to supermarket chains—have the influence to drive better production. WWF is working with these companies to develop and implement sourcing policies that eliminate deforestation from their supply chains originating in the Cerrado.

Through beef and soy roundtables, WWF is working across commodity supply chains to develop third-party-verified principles and criteria that improve the sustainability of production and minimize impact on key habitats like the Cerrado.

Improving Production

WWF works with soy farmers and cattle ranchers to reduce the impacts of their production in the Cerrado and to eliminate the need for deforestation and conversion by increasing efficiency and productivity on land already in use. In fact, soy producers can rehabilitate and use up to 100 million acres of degraded, marginal land in the Cerrado that have already been cleared for soy production, allowing a 170% increase in soy production without expanding the loss of habitat. Increasing productivity on Brazil’s pasturelands by about 50% would liberate enough land to meet growing demand for beef and crops without cutting a single tree.

Pilot programs on cattle ranches also demonstrate opportunities for dramatic improvement. By adopting better herd and pasture management practices, Novo Campo reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 90% per kilogram of beef produced, increased its profitability by a factor of six, and protected forests and native vegetation.

Creating Financial Incentives

WWF is working with public financial institutions and private lenders and investors to use the power of capital to drive environmentally sustainable production and sourcing practices. By using financing tools or basing interest rates on sustainability criteria, financial institutions can shield themselves from risk while also protecting the Cerrado.