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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


November-December 2016

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Editorial - The Cerrado: One of Many Cinderellas of Global Hotspots

Ten years ago identifying and measuring the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity was all the rage. Economists sidled up to ecologists to show that the natural processes we all take so much for granted, as we appreciate breathing, are of real value. We breathe around 700 million times in an average lifetime, but are rarely conscious of doing so. Ecosystems nurture, scour, cleanse, dispose, and delight everywhere and always, but few of us realize they exist, let alone that they are indispensably precious.

Myanna Lahsen and her colleagues, in two companion articles in this issue (“Undervaluing and Overexploiting the Brazilian Cerrado at Our Peril” and “Civil Society and Environmental Change in Brazil's Cerrado”), show us why we are so apparently lackadaisical. The Cerrado is a magnificent global treasure. It is Brazil's other wonderland, on an ecological par with the more famous Amazon Basin. Like its rainforest neighbors, it bestows its ecological bounties across boundaries and cultures with grace and indifference.

The Cerrado is a savanna: a mosaic of wetlands, grasslands, scrublands, and seasonally dry forests. Savannas are prizes when they harbor game, as in precolonial America and Sub-Saharan Africa. They are less trophied when regarded as a basis for-smash and-grab agriculture. But the Cerrado is a mighty ecological treasure trove. The Brazilian authors show that this natural biome harbors precious and seasonally delineated rainfall with its natural structure. The biodiversity of the original Cerrado was a wonder to behold, almost as diverse as its rainforest counterpart. In its unmolested prime the Cerrado was a true treasure.

It still is—in a sense, its remaining native flora and fauna are more precious the more their numbers and areas shrink. The combination of having exceptional concentrations of endemic species and suffering exceptional loss of biodiversity makes it one of the world's top 25 “biodiversity hotspots” that should be prioritized for conservation.

The authors chart the steady deterioration of the Cerrado into isolated protected areas whose integrity cannot be guaranteed either by law or by custodianship. The land has been opened to increasingly high-technology agriculture producing soya and maize, mainly for animal feed in other countries, while opening former pristine forest tracts to cattle grazing. This is the pernicious face of the livestock industry covered in these pages in previous editions, including the last issue about South Africa (see “Food, Water, and Energy: Lessons From the South African Experience” by Tatjana von Bormann and Manisha Gulati; “Governance Arrangements for the Future Food System: Addressing Complexity in South Africa” by Laura Pereira and Scott Drimie; and “Participatory Scenario Planning: From Scenario ‘Stakeholders’ to Scenario ‘Owners’” by Rebecca Freeth and Scott Drimie; all in Volume 58, Number 4 of Environment). Creating meat is a very demanding exercise in terms of water, fertility, and greenhouse gases. But unregulated and supported by powerful politically connected lobbies, this industry is overwhelmingly dangerous. Individuals play a role through their consumption choices, but to exercise this role responsibly, they need the support of policies that help them be informed about environmental and social dimensions of the food system in which they participate and that promote palatable alternatives (for more, see “The Sustainability Challenges of Our Meat and Dairy Diets” by Susanne Stoll-Kleemann and Tim O'Riordan in Volume 57, Number 3 of Environment and “The Challenges of Changing Dietary Behavior Toward More Sustainable Consumption” by Tim O'Riordan and Susanne Stoll-Kleemann in Volume 57, Number 5 of Environment).

What we learn here is the rapidity of destruction of a massive biome. In less than the lifetime of many of the Brazilian people, the Cerrado has been altered well beyond its ecological intactness and integrity. This is partly a function of lack of adequate surveillance. There is no systematic, governmental monitoring via satellite as takes place in the Amazon. This proved fundamental to the public outcry and subsequent reduction of forest removal there over the past decade. Admittedly, the damage to land use is somewhat more difficult to identify and digitally to record in the Cerrado. But this is no excuse. The authors report that much of the hard-won scientific knowledge that already exists about the critical values of biodiversity and the hugely damaging impacts of land use in the region is ignored in most crucial decision making. They also suggest that much more critical information needs to be gathered, and indeed would have been gathered had there been more general outcry and political sensitivity. Well-resourced and well-situated sustainability science is required, with community organizations and observers on the ground, and reporters at the ready to convey photographs on global positioning system (GPS)-linked phones onto coordinated websites.

The other cause is the recent pernicious government policy to open up Brazil generally and the Cerrado in particular for purchase by foreigners. This is a disaster. It permits the widening, beyond Brazilians, of “Wild West” entrepreneurs with intent on rapid buck exploitation, which guarantees nonsustainability. As the authors note, Brazil is still in a form of a colonization mode in mindsets and political structures. A possible role for sustainability science is to help Brazil to decolonize.

Sadly, we are still nowhere near appreciating the Cerrado that is a “breathing biome.” This is the real tragedy of the Cerrado. It is unappreciated, the Cinderella of the landscape, en route to be predated silently and in obscurity. The authors offer some very helpful advice regarding better and more consistent surveillance, the political and economic strengthening of the civil society movements, incentive payments for landowners for enabling the bounties of the biome to be appreciated, matched by payments from beneficiaries for the ecological stewarding safeguards, and for more coordinated information gathering and scientific understanding. Such prescriptions are vital if this precious jewel in the heartland of Brazil is to be afforded its true global glory.

—Tim O'Riordan

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