In Brazil, the tropical savanna known as the Cerrado has long been under threat from agriculture. But new land management approaches within its vast mosaic of landscapes are changing the way local people are farming it.
Covering more than 20 percent of the country’s land area – approximately half the size of Europe – the Cerrado is Brazil’s second-largest habitat after the Amazon rainforest, with areas ranging from grasslands to gallery forests to semi-arid caatinga characterized by desert-type vegetation. Not surprisingly, it is home to an enormous amount of plants and animals, with the World Wildlife Fund naming it the most biologically rich savanna in the world.
But at the same time, the region is heavily farmed, grounds for 70 percent of Brazil’s beef supply and half of its soy.
If one-third of Brazil’s GDP comes from agriculture, “the Cerrado contributes about 80 percent of that,” said Janaina Rocha, executive manager of the Brazilian Forestry Service. “This area is very important for Brazilian agriculture and for our economy in general.”
Rocha was speaking at the Global Landscapes Forum conference in Bonn in December and described how Brazil’s Forest Law stipulates that, since 2012, landowners in the Cerrado have been required to leave 20 percent of their land in its natural state, or else reforest the same amount. Farmers are also obliged to register their property with the national Rural Environmental Registry (CAR) to show how much is cultivated and how much is under conservation.
Currently, more than 5.5 million landholders are registered in CAR’s electronic database, said Rocha, together managing an area of 466 million hectares. Meanwhile, a project jointly managed by the World Bank and the German Agency for International Cooperation (GiZ) has been assisting landholders in the Cerrado in complying with the law and promoting low-carbon agriculture technologies. So far, 1,900 farmers, including indigenous peoples, have been included in the project.
According to Francisco Chagas, a leader of the National Coordination of Quilombola Rural Black Communities (CONAQ), traditional communities were initially reluctant to register with CAR. “They didn’t understand what the registry was all about,” he said, “or how they would benefit from it.” But now, he added, they see it as “a platform that helps identify and show to the world that [they] are preserving the land where they live.”
“Local communities realized that the registry was important to them because it allowed them to be part of the discussion,” he said. “When you’re part of the debate, then you can make sure that the land as a whole will benefit, that all Brazilians will benefit from it, because preserving our natural beauty and environment is good for everyone.”
Farmers involved in the project were given useful advice once they registered with CAR, said Janei Resende, project manger at Brazil’s National Rural Training Service. For up to two years, they received assistance and new technologies to use in their farms, with positive results coming to light in as few as 18 months. Productivity shot up, with farms bringing in two yields per year instead of one.
“Farmers who are not yet part of the network can also learn about the techniques that are used,” she added, “and can follow up with their own initiatives to implement these on their farms.”
Klaus Viera, a third-generation farmer from the state of Minas Gerais, said he found the advice from the Rural Training Service extremely useful. The area where he lives is semi-arid, he explained, and lack of sufficient water has been an ongoing problem. Often farmers need to buy extra food for their livestock.
“Over the last few years, this region has been negatively affected by the degradation of pastures,” he said. “But the low-carbon agriculture program and the technologies they introduced helped us recover and restore degraded pastures. We were able to increase productivity and improve our yields without having to use new land or exploit new areas. No deforestation was required. We were able to stay within the area we had previously cultivated.”
Viera began integrating sorghum crops on his farm, greatly improving his pastures, he said. Other techniques included contour ploughing, which helps prevent erosion; making water retention basins; and planting pasture adapted to the region.
“Sometimes you think, ‘Well, this new technology would be great but I can’t afford it,’ ” Viera said. “This program helped us solve these issues because the technologies that were introduced didn’t even require financial investments. You don’t have to invest a lot of money.”
For Rocha, the Rural Environmental Registry is as much a social instrument as a way of monitoring land use. “I would say it is a very powerful tool,” she said, “in order to plan public policies for rural communities and forests.”
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