Sunday, February 25, 2024
HomesustainabilityRace to save the Amazon leaves out Brazil's crucial savanna

Race to save the Amazon leaves out Brazil's crucial savanna

SÃO DESIDÉRIO: People thought she was crazy when Carminha Maria Missio and her family bought what was considered “sterile” land in the Brazilian savanna to farm soybeans, she says.

Missio, a beaming grandmother named one of the most powerful women in agriculture by Forbes Brasil, remembers the surprised reactions when her poor southern family sold their land in 1979 and moved across the country to the “Cerrado”, a huge savanna below the Amazon rainforest.

Little-known outside Brazil, the Cerrado is Earth’s most biodiverse savanna, nicknamed the “cradle of waters” for its vital rivers and aquifers.

But it is disappearing at a record rate, its twisted trees and grasslands replaced by endless fields of grains and cotton.

Even as Brazil races to stop Amazon deforestation, experts warn environmental destruction is surging in the Cerrado, fueling violent land grabs and exacerbating the climate crisis.

“UPSIDE-DOWN AMAZON”

Yet “the Cerrado is just as important as the Amazon in confronting the climate crisis”, Rodrigo Agostinho, head of Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, told AFP.

Scientists say the two are intricately linked.

The savanna depends on the precipitation generated by the rainforest. The rainforest meanwhile depends on the savanna to feed the rivers crisscrossing its southern half.

Both remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere – the rainforest through its billions of trees, and the savanna via its deep, carbon-absorbing root systems, dubbed an “upside-down Amazon”.

The Cerrado is a mirror image of the Amazon in other ways, too.

In the Amazon, an estimated 95 per cent of deforestation is illegal. In the Cerrado, around 95 per cent is officially authorised, according to IBAMA – a result, environmentalists say, of outsize agribusiness influence on regional authorities.

Brazilian law allows landowners in the Amazon to deforest just 20 per cent of their property. The opposite applies in most of the Cerrado: Farmers must preserve just 20 per cent of their land.

“GREEN LAND-GRABBING”

In some cases, that law is being brutally twisted.

Joao da Silva lives in a shack in a rural community with no indoor plumbing or electricity. But the 50-year-old smallholder has five security cameras mounted outside, powered by solar panels.

He had them installed after gunmen surrounded his home in 2018 while he was out, threatening his mother at gunpoint.

Gunmen in a pickup later tried to ram his car and threatened to kill him, he says.

“They told me to get off my land, that the ‘owners’ were evicting us,” says the father of five.

He also survived a stabbing attack at a local market in 2016.

Activists say Da Silva – whose name has been changed for his safety – and his neighbours are victims of “green land-grabbing”, in which landholders seize un-deforested territory to claim it as their 20 per cent protected reserves.

Leaders of several traditional cattle-herding communities told AFP of being targeted by gunmen who killed their cows, torched their farm buildings and opened fire on them.

Such violence is common in Brazil, where 377 land and environmental defenders have been killed since 2012, according to rights group Global Witness.

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