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Brazil’s Cerrado to lose over 26 mln ha by 2050 unless protection law targets big landowners, researchers say

Originally published on the english portal Carbon Pulse on February 27, 2024 by Giada Ferraglioni.

Protecting 30% of areas owned by large landowners in the Brazilian Cerrado could prevent 13% of the biodiversity loss expected by 2070. This is what concluded a study led by researchers from the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul and published in the journal Scientific Reports this month .

The analysis revealed that the Cerrado could lose 26.5 million hectares of native vegetation by 2050 and 30.6 million hectares by 2070 due to inefficient environmental protection laws on private lands.

“Our results show evidence that only the application of the Brazilian Native Vegetation Protection Law, or New Forest Code, is not sufficient for the conservation of the Cerrado, as large areas, especially within large properties, can be deforested under the protection of law,” the researchers said.

The New Forest Code was approved in 2012 to update the 1965 law. It regulates the exploration, conservation and recovery of the country's native vegetation. However, it has been accused of condoning illegal deforestation before 2008 and expanding the amount of private land that can be deforested.

“[In the law] there are significant setbacks that must be considered, such as the legalization of former illegal deforestation in Permanent Protection Areas and the possibility of compensating for deficits in Legal Reserves in other areas covered by native vegetation,” said the analysis.

The study estimates that 40% of the Cerrado's native vegetation can be legally converted to agriculture and livestock farming under the New Code. “This massive land use conversion could result in the extinction of around 1,140 endemic species by 2050, and perhaps several tipping points, something not yet assessed for this extraordinary biome and fundamental for global food security and climate regulation” , states the study.

“In order to reconcile conservation and agricultural production, we recommend that public policies focus primarily on large properties, such as protecting 30% of the area of properties larger than 2,500 hectares, which would avoid the loss of more than 4.1 million hectares of vegetation native, corresponding to 13% of the predicted loss by 2070.”

The study also suggests the use of economic and market-oriented mechanisms, such as carbon credits, and extending the reach of the Soy Moratorium beyond the Amazon, an agreement that aims to prevent the acquisition of soy from areas deforested after 2008.

The Cerrado, also known as the Brazilian Savanna, covers an area of 2 million square kilometers of Brazilian territory – around 24% of the total area – and has been classified as one of the 36 global biodiversity hotspots. Despite its importance, the study highlighted that around 90% of the Cerrado is private property.

Formally protected areas are approximately 8.3%, compared to 28% in the Amazon. “The Cerrado is the Brazilian biome with the largest deficit of Legal Reserve (minimum percentage of native vegetation required on private properties) and has around 4.2 million hectares of native vegetation that needs to be recovered”, showed the study.

Biodiversity loss is expected to occur mainly on large properties, with more significant losses expected in Minas Gerais (22%), Tocantins (18%), Goiás (14.6%), Mato Grosso (10.6%) and Maranhão (10 .4%) in the next 46 years.

“Over the last 50 years, Brazil has gone from being a food importer to emerging as one of the main global players in food production and renewable energy. Now the country faces a great challenge to continue expanding the Cerrado's agricultural areas for food production and at the same time conserving areas of native vegetation,” said Paulo Tarso S. Oliveira, one of the study's authors.

The expansion of Brazilian agricultural land occurred mainly in the Cerrado, where deforestation reached record levels in 2023, a 43% increase compared to 2022.

According to an investigation by Global Witness, beef production has fueled illegal land deforestation, with an area larger than Chicago deforested between 2008 and 2019 by farms supplying Brazil's three largest meatpacking plants.

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