POLICY BRIEF November | 2017
and opportunities in the
What is the Cerrado and why is it
T. Reis, G. Russo, V. Ribeiro, P. Moutinho, A. Guimarães, M. Stabile, A. Alencar, A.C.Crisostomo, D. Silva, J. Shimbo.
The Cerrado is a Brazilian savannah that covers about
24% (2 million km2) of the country’s territory (Figure 1).
This biome bears essential ecological functions in terms of
hydrological balance, biodiversity and carbon stocks, whi-
ch are mutually dependent. The Cerrado hosts 8 of the 12
hydrological regions in Brazil, including the Guarani Aqui-
fer, the second largest underground reservoir in the world1.
It is also a global biodiversity hotspot with around 4,800
plants and vertebrate species only found in this biome2,3.
The Cerrado is an important carbon reservoir, still stocking
around 32 GtCO24 (Figure 1). Cerrado accounts to about
60% of Brazil’s annual crops output (e.g. soybeans, maize
and cotton). This area has expanded by 87% between 2000
and 20155 and large scale agriculture in the Cerrado has
become fundamental for Brazil’s economic development,
trade and commercial balance.
The Cerrado is a key biome for Brazil’s economic deve-
lopment, food production, maintenance of water cycles,
preservation of biodiversity, and for global climate change
mitigation and adaptation. Notwithstanding its importan-
ce, the biome is often overlooked within the national and
international climate change debates6,7. The current rate
of conversion in the Cerrado is not sustainable, releasing a
previously unaccounted volume of carbon dioxide6.
1. WHY IS THE CERRADO THREATENED?
The high conversion rate of the Cerrado for pasture
and croplands over the last decade jeopardizes its resilien-
ce8,9,10, especially in the Matopiba frontier region11. The
biome lost 236 thousand km2 between 2000 and 20158
and the associated emissions amounted to 8.16GtCO28,4.
This is equivalent to 3,6 years of Brazil’s 2016 gross emis-
sions12. The urgency for addressing Cerrado’s loss can be
seen by the comparison with Amazon’s deforestation in
the same period: 208 thousand km2 from 2000 to 2015
in an area that is more than twice the size of the Cerrado’s.
Cerrado’s loss threatens Brazil’s NDC targets13, as reduc-
tions in the Amazon are being compensated by emissions
increase in the neighboring biome6.
2. WHAT ARE THE MAIN CONSERVATION GAPS
AND THREATS FOR CERRADO?
Lack of protected areas: the small percentage of pu-
blic protected areas (7.7%14) is insucient for controlling
disordered agricultural expansion and to dismantle land-
-grabbing and speculation. This conservation gap should
be ﬁlled by the establishment of new public conservation
areas, increasing the total percentage of Cerrado under
protection to at least 17%, as prescribed by the UNCDB
Insucient land use enforcement: the Forest Code,
the primary national legislation for land use regulation of
rural establishments, defines that only 20% to 35% of a
farm must be kept as protected native vegetation – a lower
percentage when compared to the 80% required in the
Amazon biome15. It still implies an environmental cost for
farmers. The remaining 65% to 80% of a farm can be legally
converted. Considering no new conversion is needed in
Brazil for increasing agricultural production, two measures
must be taken to prevent further clearing on farms, both
legal and illegal: (i) economic incentives provisioned by
the Forest Code, which are still missing regulation and
implementation by federal and state governments, should
be put in place immediately, and (ii) enforcement against
illegal conversion should be strengthened.
Knowledge and information gaps: the Cerrado’s full
potential as a carbon sink and storage is still uncertain.
The role of Cerrado’s vegetation in water balance, both in
terms of supporting the recharge of aquifers and the rela-
tionships with rainfall formation, is not fully understood16.
It is critical for the agricultural sector as well as the popu-
lation to understand the relationships between Cerrado’s
vegetation and rainfall patterns. Recent changes in precipi-
tation patterns are already aecting agricultural productivi-
ty in many parts of the Cerrado16. The biodiversity potential
for cosmetic, pharmaceutic, food and other industries has
not been widely assessed. A public and regular monitoring
instrument of Cerrado’s deforestation and land use is es-
sential for providing full and transparent information to all
relevant stakeholders. It is fundamental to increase public
and private investment for science, innovation and moni-
toring to ﬁll these gaps.
Disordered agriculture expansion: agriculture has ex-
panded disorderly in Cerrado. While expansion in southern
Cerrado has occurred predominantly over pasture or other
croplands9 with inecient use, in the northern frontier re-
gion of Matopiba the increase has taken place mostly over
native vegetation10, despite the availability of suitable lands
already cleared and ineciently used. Also, 13% (around
4.74 thousand km2) of the croplands in 2014/2015 were
located in areas with low climate suitability17, i.e., irregular
precipitation patterns which mean higher risks for growing
crops. This disordered expansion menaces the health and
lives of urban and rural populations, water supply, global
climate, and food production itself, once the removal of
native vegetation disturbs the water cycle and regularity16.
Demand from agricultural commodities markets:
63% of total soy production in Cerrado was exported in
201518. 50% of all exports went to China and 8% to Euro-
pean countries18. In terms of gross CO2 emissions coming
from the loss of native vegetation for soy production in
these areas, exports emitted 1.24 billion and 580 million
tons for China and Europe respectively19. They total 1.83
billion tons of CO2, which is almost as much (80%) as Bra-
zil’s gross GHG emissions in 201612. This means a strong
deforestation and emissions pressure on the Cerrado
coming from international demand for soy, led mainly by
China and Europe.
3. THE OPPORTUNITIES IN THE CERRADO AND
HOW TO BENEFIT FROM THEM?
The knowledge about Cerrado’s capacity as a carbon
sink and stock is still incomplete. The role of Cerrado for
local and regional hydrological cycles, precipitation pat-
terns and how changes in the land use and cover aects
agricultural production are still incipient. The potential
of Cerrado’s biodiversity for various industries is also far
from fully explored. Investing in science and innovation in
various ﬁelds about the Cerrado is fundamental. This must
be done as quickly as possible, as more than 50% of native
vegetation in the Cerrado has already been converted to
The biome also needs public policies for planning and
territorial intelligence. The creation of new public pro-
tected areas, increasing the current 7.7% to at least 17% in
Climate challenges and opportunities in the Brazilian Cerrado
Quantitative of carbon stored in litter, dead wood, soil, above and below the ground, Source: Brazil’s Third National Communication4
compliance with the UNCDB Aichi targets, is an opportu-
nity to mitigate the perverse dynamic of land-grabbing and
speculation on undesignated public lands, associated with
expansion of agriculture over native vegetation. If this poli-
cy is coupled with territorial planning and incentives for ef-
ﬁcient land use, there is the potential to reorient expansion
towards underutilized areas, generating a beneﬁt for Brazil
and the global environment, society and economy.
At the same time, there is a signiﬁcant opportunity to
use market forces to drive expansion for a more sustaina-
ble and ecient land use. There are about 30 million hec-
tares of Cerrado lands open, with high or medium soil and
climate suitability for croplands5 which are currently under
inecient uses. A multi-stakeholder pact, setting criteria
and deforestation barriers in supply chains has enormous
potential to contribute with public eorts for this purpose.
Similar initiatives in the Amazon such as the Soy Morato-
rium and Soja Plus Program have shown that it is possible
to decouple soy production increase from deforestation
and drive expansion towards already converted areas20.
Climate challenges and opportunities in the Brazilian Cerrado
Thanks to Donald Sawyer and Isabel Figueiredo
(Instituto Sociedade, População, Natureza) for
review and contributions.
1. Lima, J. Silva, E. (2005). Estimativa da produção hídrica superﬁcial do Cerrado brasileiro. In: Scariot, A. Silva, J. Felﬁli, J. (Orgs). Cerrado: ecologia, biodiversida-
de e conservação. Brasília: Ministério do Meio Ambiente. p. 60-72. Available at http://www.mma.gov.br/estruturas/chm/_arquivos/17_Sumario.pdf.
2. Strassburg, B. Brooks, T. Feltran-Barbieri, R. Iribarrem, A. Crouzeilles, R. Loyola, R. Latawiec, E. Filho, F. Scaramuzza, C. Scarano, F. Soares-Filho, B. Balmford, A.
(2017). Moment of truth for the Cerrado. Science. Macmillan Publishers Limited, pp. 1–3. Available at
3. Myers, N. Mittermeier, R. Mittermeier, C. Fonseca, G. Kent, J. (2000). Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature, v. 403, pp. 853-858.
4. MCTI (2016). Terceiro Inventário Brasileiro de Emissões Antrópicas. Available at http://sirene.mcti.gov.br/documents/1686653/1706739/MCTI_TCN_SU-
5. Carneiro Filho, A. and Costa, K. (2016) ‘The expansion of soybean production in the Cerrado: paths to sustainable territorial occupation, land use and
production’, p. 28. Available at: http://www.inputbrasil.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/The-expansion-of-soybean-production-in-the-Cerrado_Agroico-
6. Noojipady, P. Morton, D. Macedo, M. Victoria, D. Huang, C. Gibbs, H. Bolfe, E. (2017). Forest carbon emissions from cropland expansion in the Brazilian Cerra-
do biome. Environmental Research Letters, v. 12. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/aa5986.
7. Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (2017). Ecosystem Proﬁle: Cerrado Biodiversity Hotspot. Available at: http://www.cepf.net/SiteCollectionDocuments/
8. INPE & Funcate (2017). Prevenção e controle do desmatamento. Brasília: Ministério do Meio Ambiente. Available at: http://combateaodesmatamento.mma.
9. 88% of agriculture expansion between 2000 and 2015 in southern Cerrado was on pasture or other crop lands5.
10. 65% of agriculture expansion between 2000 and 2015 in northern Cerrado (Matopiba) was on native vegetation5.
11. The Cerrado portion in the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia (Figure 1).
12. Based on SEEG data. Available at: http://plataforma.seeg.eco.br/total_emission.
13. The Brazilian NDC does not include any mandatory goal for the reduction of the Cerrado conversion rates. In case Brazil maintains the annual 0,51 billion
tons of CO2 emissions6,7 from Cerrado conversion until 2025, that compromises almost 40% of Brazil’s NDC target.
14. Instituto Socioambiental (ISA). Conservation Areas in Brazil. Available at https://uc.socioambiental.org/en/mapa.
15. Azevedo, A. Reis, T. (2016). Brazil’s Forest Code: Assessment 2012-2016. Brasília: Amazon Environmental Research Institute. Available at: http://ipam.org.br/
16. Spera, S. A. et al. (2016) ‘Land-use change aects water recycling in Brazil’s last agricultural frontier’, Global Change Biology, p. n/a-n/a. doi: 10.1111/
17. IPAM, in preparation.
18. Trase Platform. Available at: https://trase.earth/
19. These ﬁgures were calculated using the total land use area occupied by soybean in the 2015/2016 crop season that was exported to these destinations18
multiplied by the average CO2 density per hectare per municipality using a carbon map provided by Brazil’s Third Communication to the UNFCCC4.
20. Gibbs, H. K. et al. (2015) ‘Brazil’s Soy Moratorium’, Science, 347(6220), pp. 377–378. doi: 10.1126/science.aaa0181.