Permissive land-use policies and cheap farm acreage here have helped catapult Brazil into an agricultural superpower, the world's largest exporter of soy, beef and chicken and a major producer of pork and corn. Brazil's agriculture sector grew a sizzling 13 percent in 2017, while the overall economy barely budged. The nation's ability to keep producing new farmland cheaply has given it an edge over rivals and cemented its status as a vital supplier to the world's tables.
Known as the Cerrado, roughly the size of Mexico, straddling Brazil's mid-section from its far western borders with Paraguay and stretching northeast towards the Atlantic coast, the Cerrado has seen about half of its native forests and grasslands converted to farms, pastures and urban areas over the past 50 years. The home to 5 percent of species on the planet, this habitat lost more than 105,000 square kilometers (40,541 square miles) of native cover since 2008, according to government figures. That's 50 percent more than the deforestation seen during the same period in the Amazon, a biome more than three times larger. Accounting for relative size, the Cerrado is disappearing nearly four times faster than the rainforest. Cerrado's frontier region known as Matopiba, shorthand for the northeastern Brazilian states of Maranhao, Tocantins, Piaui and Bahia. Land here is cheap. Virgin plots near Pansera in the state of Tocantins can be had for $248 an acre on average, according to agribusiness consultancy Informa Economics IEG FNP. That compares to an average of $3,080 per acre for already cleared farmland in the United States.
The largest savanna in South America, the Cerrado is a vital storehouse for carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas whose rising emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation are warming the world's atmosphere. Brazilian officials have cited protection of native vegetation as critical to meeting its obligations under the Paris Agreement on climate change. But scientists warn the biome has reached a tipping point that could hamper Brazil's efforts and worsen global warming.
"There's a high risk for the climate associated with this expansion," Alencar said. "Limiting and calling attention to deforestation in the Amazon, in a way it forced the agribusiness industry to expand in the Cerrado."
The toll can already be seen in the region's water resources. Streams and springs are filling with silt and drying up as vegetation around them vanishes. That in turn is weakening the headwaters of vital rivers flowing to the rest of the country, scientists say. The imperiled waterways include the Sao Francisco, Brazil's longest river outside the Amazon, where water levels are hitting never-before-seen lows in the dry season.
"The removal of vegetation can lead a body of water to extinction," said Liliana Pena Naval, an environmental engineering professor at the Federal University of Tocantins.
Wildlife, too, is under threat, including rare hyacinth macaws, maned wolves and jaguars that call the shrinking savanna home. So are thousands of plants, fish, insects and other creatures found nowhere else on earth, many of which are only beginning to be studied.
Mercedes Bustamante, an ecologist at the University of Brasilia, said "You lose the accumulated evolutionary record of thousands of years that never can be recovered."
Farmers continue to plow under vast stretches of the biome, propelled largely by Chinese demand for Brazilian meat and grain. The Asian nation is Brazil's No. 1 buyer of soybeans to fatten its own hogs and chickens. China is also a major purchaser of Brazilian pork, beef and poultry to satisfy the tastes of its increasingly affluent consumers. Government policies have intentionally driven industrial-scale farming here. Short on farmland to feed its growing population, Brazil in the 1970s looked to its vast savanna, a region early explorers had dubbed "cerrado," or "closed," because of its tangled woodlands.
Farmers have emerged as a powerful political force bent on keeping Brazil's countryside open for business. Lawmakers in the country's largely rural, pro-agriculture voting bloc, who comprise more than 40 percent of the nation's congress, have led a rollback of environmental laws in recent years. Those efforts include a 2012 loosening of Brazil's landmark Forest Code that sets requirements for preserving native vegetation. The change reduced potential penalties for farmers, ranchers and loggers charged with past illegal deforestation, and made it easier for landowners to clear more of their holdings. Annual deforestation in the Amazon last year was up 52 percent from a record low in 2012.
Cerrado farmers are required to preserve as little as 20 percent of the natural cover, and up to 35 percent in areas neighboring the Amazon. Those who don't maximize use of their tracts risk having their land declared idle and subject to redistribution under a 1980 federal land-reform initiative aimed at assisting rural, low-income people, said Elvison Nunes Ramos, sustainability coordinator with the Ministry of Agriculture. Environmentalists say the Cerrado's wooded grasslands have failed to capture the public's attention the way the Amazon's lush jungles have. People view the Cerrado "just as bushes, twisted vegetation and shrubs," lamented Alencar, the science director at IPAM.
Dozens of groups, including Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Foundation and the Brazilian research group IPAM, last year began pushing for large multinationals to protect the biome. In a document known as the Cerrado Manifesto, they called for immediate action to stop deforestation in the region.