The Cerrado is Brazil´s second largest biome, only surpassed by the Amazon forest. It covers an area of 204 million hectares spread over 13 states, 24% of the national territory.
Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, is also the capital of the Cerrado. Built in the 50s in the heart of the Cerrado as a utopian project by President Kubitschek, it has become the world’s biggest agricultural frontier. Today, despite the large area occupied by this unique system, and its importance for biodiversity, less than 5 percent of the Cerrado (which corresponds to one third of Brazilian biodiversity) is expected to survive.
The Cerrado is a tropical savanna that houses an estimated 10,000 plant species, of which 4,400 (44 percent) are endemic. Herbaceous species, which include herbs as such rather than woody plants, are almost entirely endemic. The region is home for more than 420 species of dispersed trees and shrubs. There are 759 species of birds that reproduce in the area, 180 species of reptiles and 161 species of mammals, among them 30 types of bats.
In the area of the capital, alone there are 90 species of termites, 1000 species of butterflies and 500 different types of bees and wasps: a gene bank of thousands of species which, according to IPEA, the Institute of Applied Economical Research, is worth at least 2 trillion dollars. (According to IBAMA, Instituto Brasileiro de Meio Ambiente, less than1% of Brazilian biodiversity has been identified to date.)
This biome, which inspired the Brazilian literary masterpiece Grande Sertão: Veredas by Guimarães Rosa contains the five major hydrographic basins of South America, among them the San Francisco, Tocantins, and the Plata. The area also shelters the major underground aquifers and riverheads of the continent, hence the importance of conserving this ecosystem.
During the 70s, government policies viewed the Cerrado as the new agricultural frontier, an alternative to the occupation of the Amazon, implying that one ecosystem was better than the other. Now the Cerrado is beginning to be considered one of the priority areas for biological research in Latin America.
American researchers are studying chemical components present in a plant known as canela-de-ema to obtain a possible substitute for AZT, used in the control of AIDS. According to IBAMA, the revenues from medicines made with national flora are expected to reach 250 billion dollars in 2005. A great part of the Brazilian population uses medicinal plants for everyday medication.
This vegetation accounts for 30% of national energy needs through production from biomass: ie, alcohol from sugar cane, firewood and charcoal extracted from native forests and plants. It also meets half the industrial and domestic energy requirement in the northeast region of the country. The gallery forests in the region have been among the most heavily exploited.
Recently private reserves, established under the Private Natural Heritage Reserve system, have become an important component of biodiversity protection in the Cerrado. 96 private reserves have been created to date. The two most important protected areas in the Cerrado are the 1,310 sq km_ Emas National Park and the 8,400 sq km_ Grande Sertão Veredas National Park. In the Grande Sertão Veredas National Park, which was established in 1989, FUNATURA is working to better manage the protected area and shelter it from growing agricultural threats using funds obtained through the first and only debt-for-nature swap ever approved for Brazil.
A partnership between Conservation International and the non-governmental organizations Fundação Emas (FEMAS), Pró-Carnívoros and PEQUI, IBAMA and EMBRAPA, along with a group of universities including those of São Paulo, Brasília, São Carlos and Goiás, also involved in efforts to conserve this unique landscape (the riverheads of the three major Brazilian river systems converge near the parks).
Homero Vianna is the leader of the Slow Food Belo Horizonte Convivium, a member of the Slow Food Award jury, and events organizer for the Ópera Comunicação agency in Belo Horizonte