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. It's also critical for supplying clean water and sequestering carbon, the process of storing vast amounts of carbon in the soil to act as a buffer against climate change.
Since the 1950s, however, agricultural commodity production—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. With that, the world will lose an irreplaceable biome that is pivotal for preserving nature and tackling the climate crisis.
What’s more, the global food and agriculture industry contributes roughly one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Expansion of agriculture is responsible for more than 90% of global deforestation followed by conversion to farmland, driving significant biodiversity loss. The Cerrado faces the most aggressive and intense soy expansion in the world, where 98% of the deforestation and habitat destruction in the last year is due in part to illegal deforestation. Habitat conversion in the Cerrado has reached the highest level since 2015, with widespread fires caused by humans. If destruction of the Cerrado and other valuable carbon sinks does not stop by 2030, the world will not be able to meet its global climate change goals. On top of that, many food companies who use commodities from this region will not be able to meet their own goals through the Science-Based Targets initiative, a coalition that helps companies set emission reduction targets in line with climate science.
With the destruction of forest, savanna, and natural grasslands for the rapid expansion of unsustainable agriculture, the Cerrado’s rural communities and wildlife stand to suffer the most. This savanna is habitat for about 200 species of mammals, 860 species of birds, 180 species of reptiles, 150 species of amphibians, 1,200 species of fish, and 90 million species of insects. 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 region also locks up a massive 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. If destruction of the Cerrado is not stopped, the global commitment to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius will become unattainable.
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.