The Guardians of El Cerrado, the Forgotten Biome

In this article environmental journalist Jordi Albacete explores how rural communities in the Brazilian North East manage the desertification of El Cerrado’s biome, one of the most threatened biomes on earth.

Jordi Albacete                                                                                                                       [printfriendly]

María Da Gloria lives on one of the oldest trades in the Brazilian countryside: the harvesting of the babassu coconut. Like her, 350,000 female compatriots subsist thanks to this activity. For generations, women and children have entered the babassu forests where they collect the mature coconuts from the ground, then the women gather outside their homes to break the coconut shells while they talk. Hence, the original name of these professional collectors who depend closely on their natural environment: the breakers of the babassu coconut.

Along with her fellow ‘breakers’, Maria demands access to these lands to be able to continue with her trade and safeguard one of the most threatened biomes on the planet: the Cerrado.

Babassu breakers in the state of Maranhão. CC BY-SA 3.0


This tropical savanna was once the size of half Europe. At present, it occupies 20% of the Brazilian territory and constitutes, as the experts call it, a hotspot, that is, an area where biodiversity is in danger. About 5% of the animal and plant species on the planet are native to this biome. Currently, only 7.5% of its surface is conserved due to the expansion of monocultures, as published by the environmental magazine Mongabay.

About 5% of the animal and plant species on the planet are native to this biome.

Last March, on International Women’s Day, 1,000 women decided to occupy the cellulose factory of the company Suzano in the south of the state of Bahia. Their motive: the impacts of eucalyptus monocultures on the public health of their communities. The women from the city of Imperatriz, in Maranhão, took part in this demonstration. In this city  another Suzano pulp mill was opened in 2013. Suzano is the second largest world producer of cellulose and the company cultivates its own eucalyptus.

Green Deserts

600 kilometers from São Luiz, the capital of Maranhão, is the region of Açailândia known as the land of the açaí berries. These fruits are known worldwide for their nutritious juice. For thirty years, açaís have been displaced by eucalyptus trees.

The steelmaker VALE SA (formerly Vale do Rio Doce) planted thousands of hectares of eucalyptus to produce charcoal. It serves as fuel in the blast furnaces of Açailândia, where iron is extracted from the Carajás mine, in the state of Pará.

Monoculture of eucalyptus in the area of Açailândia (Maranhão). Photograph by Jordi Albacete.

One such blast furnace is located 300 meters from the rural settlement of California, 15 kilometers from the city of Açailândia. In 1996, several landless peasant families settled on the California farm and established this settlement.

Barbara, one of the residents of California, remembers the numerous claims made to the company VALE to move one of the blast furnaces that was 300 metres from the settlement. “The smoke from the ovens caused many neighbours to come to the clinic with serious respiratory problems,” says Barbara. This oven worked at full capacity from 2005 to 2012 when VALE decided to limit the production capacity of this oven to 30%.

The documentary Green deserts: eucalyptus, agrotoxic and water plantations analyzes examples similar to the California settlement in southern Bahia and Espirito Santo. The industrial cultivation of eucalyptus and its rapid rotations cause lasting effects in natural habitats. As the geographer Carlos Walter Porto- Gonçalves explains, the eucalyptus grows fast and consumes a lot of water. When the soil is dry, the roots descend to the underground aquifers where they absorb the water quickly. In addition, the abrasive eucalyptus leaves do not produce humus. As a consequence, small plants and insects disappear and the soil becomes sand in a short time, which causes the earth to erode quickly.

The eucalyptus grows fast and consumes a lot of water. When the soil is dry, the roots descend to the underground aquifers where they absorb the water in a short time. In addition, the eucalyptus abrasive leaves do not produce humus. As a consequence, small plants and insects disappear…

In Açailândia it is common to travel between sand clouds caused by the desertification of eucalyptus monocultures. Occasionally, buses have to stop for lack of visibility. For hours, the only landscape visible from the bus windows are perfectly aligned eucalyptus rows.

In addition, the use of herbicides and pesticides further threatens the biodiversity that coexists with these monocultures, contaminating rivers and springs, according to the report Impacts of the Expansion of Agribusiness in the Matobipa Region of Action Aid 2017.

Native Trees Endangered

In 2013, when the Suzano pulp mill in Imperatriz was inaugurated, the journalist Mayron Regis warned of the drastic consequences of the eucalyptus monocultures in the transition areas between the Cerrado and the Amazon Rainforest. Regis. He argued the importance of these areas in the recharge of the water table and the presence of native trees such as the Hancornia (Hancornia speciosa), the Cagaita (Eugenia dysenterica) and the Hemp (Hymenaea courbaril).

For its part, the disappearance of burití or moriche palm (Mauritia flexuosa) accelerates desertification, according to one documentary from the Brazilian TV channel Globo. The burití palm acts like a sponge on dry land, retaining rainwater. This allows the native flora to grow and creates opportunities for sustainable development such as the use of small natural ponds to raise fish.

Buriti palm tree in the rural area of Governador Edison Lobão in Maranhão. CC BY-SA 3.0


Recent history[full_width][/full_width]


Defenders of El Cerrado

In Maranhão, rural communities are very important for the conservation of the territory due to the sustainable use of ecosystem resources. Indigenous people, Quilombola communities (descendants of African slaves), rural landless workers and babassu collectors have been organizing for decades to defend the territory’s biodiversity. Action Aid leads the campaign Guardians of the Cerrado which denounces, amongst other things, the abuse of pesticides. The indigenous and quilombola communities, and the babassu gatherers are the chief proponents of this campaign.

The movement of the babassu breakers is one of the most diverse groups since it is made up of indigenous people, quilombola communities and poor farmers. The ‘breakers’ denounce the fragmentation of the territory of the landowners and demand the regulation of their usufructuary land rights to access the babassu trees.

The Quilombola communities also base their subsistence on the babassu and bacuri harvest. In Urbano Santos, west of Maranhão, a family can produce up to 200 kilos of bacuri pulp and sell a kilo for 3 dollars. Raimundo dos Santos bought two buffaloes with the annual income of the bacuri. In 2017, before Suzano’s plans to cut Bacurís and Babasús adjoining Urbano Santos, fourteen families joined to protect 1,665 hectares confined by eucalyptus exploitation.

A similar situation occurred in northeastern Maranhão, in Vilarejo de Pitanco, where 11 families have been surrounded by eucalyptus monocultures. Djalma Da Silva, one of the rural workers, blames the presence of the koala tree as responsible for the drought in his community.

A quilombola family in a landless settlement in Maranhão. Photograph by Jordi Albacete.

In 2016, the indigenous Ka’apor, the Guajajara of the Caru indigenous reserve and the Awá decided to come together to protect the Pindaré River. These communities did not feel represented by the negotiations on Suzano’s strategic plan between 2010 and 2017, and the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI).

The Pindare River crosses the Gurupí biological reserve which, with 270 thousand hectares in the eastern part of the Amazon, hosts endemic and threatened species of birds such as the chachalaca cejuda (Ortalis superciliaris), the trumpeters (Psophia obscura), the boobies (Nystalus torridus), and some mammals such as the capuchin monkey (Cebus kaapori), the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), and the leopard tiger (Leopardus tigrinus), among many others.


Image of the Pindaré river. Photograph by Jordi Albacete.


The Path of Eucalyptus and Some Affected Communities


A Young Law

Brazil has an environmental policy renewed 6 years ago with the Forest Code (law 12.651 / 2012) as the main legislature. In the spirit of this law is the historical recognition of excessive logging. This law sets as a priority the protection of the Cerrado, which is the second largest biome in Brazil. Thus, for each agricultural and / or forest exploitation area, according to this environmental law, 35% of the land with native vegetation must be respected. In other biomes such as the Amazon (the majority), the protection area is 30% and in other biomes 20%. One of the ambitions of this law is to create ecosystem services so that rural communities can generate income in their natural habitats, as the babassu breakers or bacuri collectors do. The law is already being applied to regulate the protection of forests, according to Rodrigo Medeiro, vice president of Conservation International Brazil. In some cases, eucalyptus producers have already been affected by the new regulations by ensuring that they respect wilderness in their exploitations.

A truck dumps three tons of eucalyptus charcoal in the Baixo Parnaiba in May 2018. Video of Mayron Regis

Environmental Justice

The families in the various towns of the municipality of Chapadinha, in the Baixo Parnaíba region of northern Maranhão, pressured the federal justice system to respect their housing rights in the face of Suzano’s expansion plans. The Court took into account a study carried out by the University of Maranhão that documented the decrease of water resources and contamination by the use of pesticides and herbicides in addition to the disruption caused to traditional communities, as explained by Alexandre Soares Attorney of the Republic in Maranhão for the chain Globo.The Federal Supreme Court decided to maintain the suspension of the logging license in 2017 for Suzano Papel y Celulosa SA.

In March 2018 a proposal of law was presented against the expansion of monocultures in the region

The verdict in favor of the families of the Baixo Parnaíba facilitated a new proposal of law, which was presented in March 2018, to control the expansion of monocultures in the region.

However, the investments and expansion plans of these companies can generate a chain of interests difficult to control. Will Brazil be able to reverse its production system and ensure the sustainable use of the Cerrado’s ecosystem resources?




Autor: Jordi Albacete

I am an environmental journalist. My passion for the protection of human and environmental rights has been inspired by research led journalism. My ambition is to communicate and inspire people to make positive changes in the environment. Twitter @albacetejordi or Linkedin.

Periodista medioambiental. Mi pasión por la protección de los derechos humanos y medioambientales se ha forjado a través de la investigación periodística. Mi objetivo es comunicar e inspirar a la gente para hacer cambios positivos y proteger el medioambiente. Twitter @albacetejordi o Linkedin.

6 opiniones en “The Guardians of El Cerrado, the Forgotten Biome”

  1. What an eye opening and comprehensive article. There’s so much to be done to protect indigenous practices and communities, and the ecosystems they are dependent on.

  2. This is really a comprehensive article and I have actually learnt a lot from this article.

    In The Gambia, efforts are being made to restore the lost forest cover due to illegal lumbering. People have been cutting down trees and sending them to China. This action of cutting down trees is seriously affecting the poor rural farmers as the amount of rainfall has drastically reduced and our Vice-president has recently declared that there is food insecurity in The Gambia due to the poor havest. How will those poor farmers live until the next rainy season?

    Now that it has been banned, civil society organizations are putting up efforts to plant more trees and mitigate the effects of climate change.

  3. Yes it’s like a leaning point, we have been under depression for over 20 year’s now, our environment has been tampered badly, rampant locking of trees unorganised settlements destruction of the nature and Alike, the ministry of forestry and environmental were not functioning as usual, Gambia was nice naturally with the nature Green all over defiren spices of the wild animals indigenous plans and trees that we lost now, it was nice for tourists then which contributes to to our economic and employments, the Chinese came in early 2000, and they finish our remaining trees cause a problem of rain falling etc, as we depend on farming during the rainy season, it’s late but never too late, we are trying to restructure the little left by planting trees again etc and lot needs to be done for that matter,

  4. It’s a leaning point we have been in an environmental problems for a long time now, no solutions yet, the policies not on functions trees are being cutting all the time, and now it’s little or nothing left, the Gambia was nice naturally, lots of wildlife and indigenous pants and trees that we lost most of them by unnecessary settlements every where, cutting of the trees

  5. So interesting thanks for this. It’s also alarming that environmental activists are being targeted for endeavouring to preserve the planet for future generations. Keep up the great work!

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