Britain's taste for cheap food that's killing Brazil's 'other wilderness'

While rainforest destruction grips our attention, one of the world's great habitats is under threat. Martin Hickman reports from the Cerrado

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An "upside-down forest" of small trees with deep roots, Brazil's wildlife-rich outback is home to a 20th of the world's species, including the spectacular blue and yellow macaw and giant armadillos.

Yet this vast wilderness – as big the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain put together – is being rapidly lost to feed the heavily carnivorous appetites of Britons and others.

What was, only a generation ago, an almost unbroken two million square kilometre mass of trees and bushes in central Brazil is now covered with fields of soy beans, waiting to be fed to pigs and chickens in Europe and China. Such has been the pace of conversion to agriculture that more than 50 per cent of the Cerrado has already been lost, threatening the future of some of the region's most charismatic animals.

WWF, the wildlife group, now hopes that shoppers in Britain and elsewhere will urge retailers to preserve the Cerrado as robustly as the Amazon rainforest, Brazil's most famous region, where deforestation has dramatically slowed as a result of international pressure.

So far only half of Britain's supermarkets have joined a responsible trading scheme which has been launched to halt the loss of land, wildlife and the region's role as a carbon sink. Britain's Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, who visited Brazil last week, now wants them to help by sourcing soy responsibly. Unless farmers and retailers around the world start putting tougher limits on the growth of soy farming, there appears to be little hope for Brazil's semi-humid interior.

Little known outside Latin America, the Cerrado stretches from central Brazil westwards and northwards to the edge of the Amazon, covering 23 per cent of the country. Agronomists discovered 30 years ago that its poor orange soil could be transformed into cash crops.

After decades of conversion to cattle farming and agriculture, overwhelmingly soy, but also corn and coffee, only 20 per cent of pristine Cerrado remains, much fragmented between farmland.

While acknowledging the case for economic development in a country with a GDP per capita of $10,900 (£6,630) last year, WWF Brazil wants development to take place in an orderly way, with much more land set aside for nature than the 3 per cent effectively protected at present.

Inside the country, WWF is stressing the region's role as the supplier of drinking water for the capital Brasilia. Michael Becker, leader of WWF Brazil's Cerrado programme, said: "The Cerrado is very important for Brazil because it is the water basket; many Brazilian rivers begin in the Cerrado. The Cerrado also has lots of carbon... there is a lot of carbon in the deep roots of the trees."

Environmentalists describe the region as an "upside-down forest"because of the roots, which are twice the length of the above-ground growth of the trees.

Among the trees are 5 per cent of the world's animal species and more than 30 per cent of Brazil's, including the giant anteater and armadillo, the maned wolf, pampas-deer and the endangered tapir. Wildlife groups fear that soy production to meet rising global demand for meat has shifted from the Amazon rainforest to Brazil's lesser known interior.

Overall, annual deforestation of the Amazon has slowed to 0.18 per cent. The vast majority of the rainforest is still standing, 83 per per cent, and 25 per cent is officially protected. The position in the Cerrado is almost the opposite – only 20 per cent of pristine land is intact and only 8 per cent is officially protected (less than 3 per cent on government or state government land).

"Demand for soy is rising globally due to the fact that the soy is used as feed to the meat production industry, mainly in China but also in Europe," Mr Becker said. "There has been a shift in the production. The Amazon is much more protected but the demand for soy is still rising, so the demand has been going to other parts of Brazil. The Cerrado is very suitable for production and therefore the expansion has occurred there."

After her visit last week, Ms Spelman said: "The Cerrado is globally important in terms of biodiversity and storing the world's carbon dioxide, but it doesn't receive the same attention from the international community. Because of that, people are not aware of the uncertain future it faces."

WWF wants consumers to demand that British supermarkets and farmers buy soy only from a scheme, the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS), which limits deforestation and the use of agrichemicals.

Although nearly two thirds of the 858,000 tons of soy beans imported into the UK come from Brazil, only four UK supermarkets have joined the RTRS so far: M&S, Waitrose, Asda and Sainsbury's. Some of the biggest players are absent such as Tesco, responsible for more than 30 per cent of Britain's £100bn-a-year grocery market.

WWF is hoping that consumers in Europe – which imports around 30 per cent of Brazil's soy – will eat less meat to reduce environmental damage and pressure the all-powerful supermarket giants to back the RTRS. In the long run they hope to enlist backing for the scheme from China, which imports 60 per cent of Brazil's soy and where meat consumption per capita has trebled in 30 years to move within striking distance of higher European levels.

Global pressure has already helped save the Amazon from encroachment. Faced with global outrage five years ago, the world's top soybean producers, including US commodities giants Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge, and France's Dreyfus and Brazil's Amaggi, agreed to stop cutting down the Amazon to plant soy.

Partly as a result of the soy moratorium and stricter management by Brazil, the rate of deforestation in the Amazon slowed to 6,451 sq km in the year to July 2010, 14 per cent down on the previous year and well below rates of 27,772 sq km recorded in 2004. By contrast, in the Cerrado in 2009, 7,637 sq km a year was lost, more than in the Amazon, in an area half the size.

The loss is not only putting at risk animals, plants and the fight against climate change, but also affecting people who have lived off the land in isolated settlements for hundreds of years. Some of them make a living from harvesting and making jams and sweets from the fruits and from gathering plants used by Western medical companies to treat ailments such as high blood pressure.

Jose Correia Quintal, head of the Coop Sertao Veredas, who was born in the Cerrado 52 years ago, said: "Development is important – we are not against development – but we understand that the development must be balanced.

"[Development] is bringing money and profits. But at the same time agrichemicals are affecting people's health and contaminating the rivers. The Cerrado biodiversity is very important, because each plant, each fruit, has a use for medicine or for food. Our concern is that many species are disappearing – animals and vegetable species – and we rely on those species to survive."

The Cerrado by numbers

2,036,448 sq km in size – about half as large as the Amazon rainforest



23 per cent is the proportion of Brazil it covers



5 per cent of the world's plant and animal species are found there



80 per cent is the amount of pristine natural habitat lost so far



14,200 sq km a year was the rate of deforestation between 2000 and 2008

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