Brazil Scrambles to Save Its Disappearing Savanna
BRASILIA, Brazil Brazil launched an emergency plan recently to save what remains of its vast tropical savanna, much of which has been cleared for farming in recent decades.
Up to 70 percent of the savanna has already disappeared, but Brazil hopes to preserve remaining grasslands, forests, and dense scrublands that are home to ancient communities and many species of wildlife.
"For decades and decades the savanna was a resource to clear at any cost, at any price, and stopping this process is an emergency for all of us," Environment Minister Marina Silva told a theater packed with Indian families, descendants of runaway slaves, and other activists.
Brazil will set up a national plan to create sustainable use and preservation of the savanna or cerrado, home to maned wolves, giant anteaters, and rare jaguars.
The government hopes to get $30 million over eight years from the World Bank's environment fund, according to its cerrado specialist Augusto Santiago.
The program is similar to one the Brazilian government has introduced for the Amazon. It will establish reserves, ecological corridors, and ecotourism projects and hopes to promote sustainable use of savanna fruits, animals, and medicinal plants. As with the Amazon, Brazil aims to prevent disintegration of rural communities and the loss of species that could become valuable medical cures or commodities.
Activists say the savanna is disappearing faster than Brazil's Amazon and Atlantic rain forests because of uncontrolled development of roads, rivers, and railroads.
The savanna is the only continuous agricultural area in the world that can be expanded to meet growing global food demands. Much of it has been cleared in recent decades into a vast grain-growing area.
It produces crops like soy, corn, and cotton that are helping drive Brazil's fastest economic growth since 1996.
Remaining wilderness areas will disappear by 2030 if the clearing continues at the present rate, according to environmental group Conservation International. An area the size of New Jersey has been cleared in each of the past few years.
"Our savanna is turning into a desert, and all this is being done for agribusiness profits," activist Manuel Conceicao Santos told the environment minister.
Agriculture ministry officials said they had no conclusive evidence that Brazil's farm exports were behind the savanna's destruction. They said they would ensure water resources were not lost and land was used sustainably.
"Any productive activity is going to have to take into account sustainability under this government," said Valdemiro Rocha, secretary of rural support at the ministry.
Environmentalists said the savanna now had a chance of survival. "We're optimistic, although we still haven't seen the resources to do this and any specific targets," said Denise Hamu, the Brazil director for the environmental group WWF.