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The Cerrado tropical savannah supports Asia with beef and soybeen at the cost of environmental disaster - ASE Prof Edgardo Latrubesse's research directs conservation efforts

04 Mar 2020

Agricultural expansion is a major threat to tropical ecosystems globally, in many cases bringing economic development at the cost of functional ecosystems and the services they provide. The driving forces are nested in a global web of trade, where the places of consumption and production may be on different continents. Examples of such teleconnections are production of palm oil in Southeast Asia to support markets in Europe and North America, as well all production of soy and beef in South America to support the Asian market. The Cerrado biome of Brazil may not be as well known as the nearby Amazon rainforest, but over the last decades much of these 2 million km2 of tropical savannah have been successfully transformed into the centre for Brazil’s production of soy and beef, commodities that  Brazil is the world’s leading producer of. But this economic success has a back side that could boomerang right back on not only Brazil but also neighbouring countries. Deforestation and construction of dams affects not only biodiversity (Cerrado is recognized as a global biodiversity hotspot), but also the fresh water supply of large parts of the South American continent. In a recent article, ASE Prof. Edgardo Latrubesse and collaborators from Brazil, USA, and Germany, assess the critical environmental situation of the Cerrado, and propose combined actions to stakeholders and decision-makers to preserve the last remnants of the Cerrado biome and its rivers.

The Cerrado is strategically important for fresh water since it contains the headwaters and the largest portion of several South American watersheds as well as the upper catchments of large Amazon tributaries. It is easy to forget that vegetation is a vital component of the water cycle, but in fact conversion of natural forest to cropland can trigger changes in the hydrology, geomorphology and biochemistry of rivers, not to mention land surface temperature. Heavy use of agricultural fertilizers and pesticides and erosion adds to it. Hydropower is often considered environmentally friendly since it does not emit carbon dioxide. However, the construction of dams impacts water chemistry and sediment and nutrient fluxes, which in turn impacts unique and highly biodiverse floodplains, deltas, and coastal ecosystems. Currently 291 hydropower plants are operating in the Cerrado and over 800 more are planned, which makes Cerrado’s rivers the most threatened by dams in the global tropics. The time to save Cerrado’s ecosystems is running out but if the current trend is not turned the Cerrado freshwater systems may never rebound.

Read the original publication: Fostering water resource governance and conservation in the Brazilian Cerrado Biome