The unknown biome

Birthplace to the Brazilian waters,  the Cerrado biome  often goes unnoticed when we talk about environmental conservation in Brazil. Located in Brazil’s central plateau, Cerrado is the largest tropical savannah outside of Africa , occupying 24% of the national territory, second only to the Amazon biome. Covering an area of approximately two million km², Cerrado borders nearly all Brazilian biomes, playing a pivotal role in maintaining biodiversity, and providing ecosystem services such as water supply, soil quality and food provision . The biome also delivers essential cultural and supporting  ecosystem services to over 80 indigenous ethnicities , such as the Karajá and the Xavante, as well as traditional peoples, such as the quilombolas (African-descendants people), ribeirinhos (river-dwelling people), and babassu coconut breakers.

“Home to the headwaters and the largest portion of South American watersheds and the upper catchments of large Amazon tributaries, the Cerrado biome plays a vital role in Brazil’s surface and groundwater availability.”

The Cerrado biome is strategic for water resources management in Brazil. It is home to the headwaters and the largest portion of South American watersheds  (the Paraná-Paraguay, Araguaia-Tocantins, and São Francisco river basins), as well as the upper catchments of large Amazon tributaries, such as the Xingu and Tapajós. It is a key contributor to the water provision of the São Francisco, Amazonas and Araguaia rivers, representing 14% of all Brazilian surface water . Cerrado also plays an essential role in the country’s groundwater reserves; three of the main aquifers in Brazil – Bambuí, Urucuia and Guarani – flow through the biome’s territory . Considering Cerrado’s nation-wide and water-rich credentials, it is clear that the lack of environmental conservation of the biome is putting the entire country’s water supply at risk.

“Agribusiness expands at the cost of Cerrado's biodiversity, leading to ever-increasing deforestation rates that favour a 'water scarcity' narrative despite the biome's 'water abundance' potential.”

Despite the biome’s ‘water abundance’ potential, the narrative of ‘water scarcity’ prevails with Cerrado’s fragmentation and land conversion for agriculture production . The Federal District region (where the capital city Brasília is located) experienced long periods of reduced rainfall between 2017-2019, affecting both urban and rural water supply. The Federal District’s population was forced to live with ‘rotating water rationing’ schemes , whilst witnessing the continuous reduction of the water table’s level due to excessive groundwater withdrawal . The water scarcity problem is far from over; as of June 2021, several rivers comprising the Paraná basin experienced the lowest flow levels ever recorded , generating fears of a blackout in the Brazilian electricity system. Researchers have already warned about the relationship between deforestation in the Cerrado and the water crisis in Centre-South Brazil . This reoccurring regional water crisis is a combination of multiple factors such as natural conditions, land use and water management decisions, yet the protection of Cerrado’s water springs would certainly minimise, and potentially reverse, Brazil’s water scarcity scenario.

This is only one side of the story and apparently the least well-known, or perhaps the most neglected by policymakers and commodity traders. Cerrado does not go unnoticed when we talk about Brazilian agribusiness. It often makes the national headlines and contributes significantly to the country’s GDP. But at what socio-environmental cost?

Figure 1 – The Cerrado biome and its multiple facets.

Figure 1 – The Cerrado biome and its multiple facets. A) Here, we depict Cerrado connecting biomes across Brazil. With an area of approximately two million km² (equivalent to the total combined area of Austria, France, Germany, Spain, and Sweden), Cerrado borders nearly all Brazilian biomes. B) Cerrado is also known as the birthplace of Brazilian waters, home to the headwaters and the largest portion of South American watersheds and the upper catchments of large Amazon tributaries. C) Here, we zoom in to Brazil’s intensive agriculture areas (dashed square indicated in Map B), depicting Cerrado as Brazil’s breadbasket with its soybean production and contrasting it to the vast water network. Source: own elaboration based on national publicly available datasets.

The duality of Cerrado: juggling between commodity trading and environmental conservation

Figure 2 - Land degradation contrasting with a preserved area in the Cerrado biome.

Figure 2 – Land degradation contrasting with a preserved area in the Cerrado biome.
Photo credits: Guia Turístico de Goiás (2020)

The Cerrado biome is well-known to Brazil’s agriculture commodity producers and to international trade companies. Given its large scale production of beef, corn, cotton, wood pulp, sugarcane, and soybean the region represents 60% of all agricultural production in Brazil . There is a popular saying among agronomists and policymakers that “Brazil is the world’s breadbasket”  and crop production numbers attest this. But when Brazil’s major agricultural product trade partners , the government of China and the European Union, import Brazilian soybean, what is it that they are actually buying?

In 2016, Brazilian soybean exported 275 cubic gigametre of gross virtual water and 17 m illion hectares of gross virtual land . According to the Trase initiative , in 2018 alone, Brazilian soybean was associated with 49,983 hectares of deforestation risk, representing 8.3 million tons of CO2 (for more details, please consult the Trase methodology ). The MATOPIBA region accounted for 88% of exported soy deforestation risk  in the Cerrado biome. Sitting at the intersection of four Brazilian states (Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia) MATOPIBA is the new frontier of soy production, which is rapidly expanding at the cost of Cerrado’s biodiversity .

Although 8.4% of Cerrado’s area is protected by Conservation Units  (equivalent to 167,536 hectares), there is a clear imbalance between investments (if any) in ecological conservation and agribusiness expansion. In 2018, the Brazilian government designated more than 34 billion USD to finance the agribusiness sector . In sharp contrast, the Ministry of Environment’s budget in 2018   was around 664 million USD , of which around 47 million USD was designated to National Water Resources Policies. Why not promote an agribusiness sector committed to environmental conservation? How much longer will ‘development’ be at odds with ‘sustainability’?

Now we have both sides of the story: the prioritisation of intensifying agricultural production and the systemic negligence of ecological conservation of the Cerrado biome. But not everything is said and done; many ongoing initiatives aim to minimise this gap.

Figure 3 – Soybean trading flows for the Cerrado biome (2018).

Figure 3 – Soybean trading flows for the Cerrado biome (2018). Out of the total volume produced (47,068,072 tons), 23,807,969 tons (50.6%) were destined to China (Mainland) and 4,835,184 tons (10.3%) to the European Union, Brazil’s major agricultural product trade partners. Source: Adapted from Trase initiative.

From water scarcity to water abundance

Recently published data from the MapBiomas initiative  show that the Cerrado biome lost 1.8 Mi hectares of water surface between 1985 – 2020. However, water-related conservation efforts are underway to fulfil the yet untapped water abundance potential of the Cerrado biome. The Water Producer Programme (WPP), created by the National Water and Sanitation Agency (ANA) in the early 2000’s, is an example that could progressively reverse the current water scarcity scenario if adequately implemented. WPP is a payment for ecosystem services (PES) scheme, based on the ‘steward earns principle’. The underlying rationale is that beneficiaries of water-related ecosystem services should compensate the stewards that maintain or protect the ecosystem services from which they benefit.

“Water-related conservation efforts, such as the Water Producer Programme, are underway to align ecosystem services maintenance with sustainable agricultural practices in the Cerrado biome.”

Multi-sectoral collaborative platforms involving business, the government, and civil society are demonstrating that it is possible to join WPP to align best agricultural practices aiming to improve water conservation. The Cerrado Waters Consortium  in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state is one of them, bringing together landscape restoration, water resources management, and climate-smart agriculture practices aiming to build sustainable and climate-resilient coffee productive landscapes. This region, known as Cerrado Mineiro , is responsible for producing 360 Mi tons of coffee, almost 13% of Brazil’s production, and encompasses 55 municipalities, and over 4,500 farmers.

Figure 4 – The waters of the Pipiripau river.

Figure 4 – The waters of the Pipiripau river. Located within the Cerrado biome, the Pipiripau is also home to one of ANA’s flagship Water Producer Programme projects.  Source Currently, the Pipiripau river supplies water to 180 thousand inhabitants of the Federal District. Photo credits: Raylton Alves/Banco de Imagens ANA .

Fulfilling Cerrado’s potential: the way forward

The Cerrado biome often goes unnoticed when we talk about water and environmental conservation in Brazil and abroad. Although water-related conservation strategies are underway, they certainly do not expand at the same rate as business-as-usual activities from the agribusiness sector, particularly in the agriculture frontier of the MATOPIBA region. Ever-increasing deforestation rates and virtual water exports weaken Cerrado’s crucial role in Brazil’s sustainable development.

To avoid a national electric-energy supply shortage, a continental water supply collapse, and even a rupture on global agricultural supply chains, the duality of Cerrado requires an urgent systemic change. We believe that there is a hidden opportunity to turn the Cerrado biome into a sustainable productive landscape that can leverage its potential in supplying ecosystem services as well as providing a source of income to traditional and Indigenous Peoples. Shifting from ‘water scarcity’ to ‘water abundance’ requires a new narrative for the Cerrado biome, one that sees the long-term value of environmental conservation.

This article was first published by Water Science Policy and is also available in Italian , Portuguese and Spanish .

Coleoni, C., & Carvalho, T. (2021) ‘Navigating the (yet) unseen waters of Cerrado, the Brazilian savanna’ Water Science Policy2(51). doi: