Michael McCarthy: The world cannot allow these species to die out

It's a vast region whose forests are being cut down at a rate faster than those of Amazonia

The world is about to wake up to the Cerrado and the precarious future it faces, not least because next year the environmental eyes of the world will be on Brazil.

In June 2012, the South American country will be hosting Rio Plus 20 – a major global conference to mark the 20th anniversary of the "Earth Summit" on environment and development held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. It was the meeting of world leaders which launched the UN conventions on climate change and biodiversity.

The deforestation of the Amazon was a key background theme of that meeting; the destruction of the Cerrado may well provide the backdrop for the coming one.

For the aim of Rio Plus 20, which heads of government are expected to attend, will be to secure a renewed international commitment to the idea of sustainable development – that is, how to develop your economy without trashing your natural-resource base. This will be ever more vital as the world population swells from 6.8 billion to an expected 9 billion over the next 40 years, with the consequent need for a vast expansion in agricultural production.

Yet the headlong, agriculture-driven destruction of the Cerrado, the most wildlife-rich savanna in the world, could be seen as a textbook example of how not to grow sustainably, and the Brazilians are aware that with all the pre-conference publicity, a fierce new global spotlight will be shone on a vast region whose forests are now being cut down at a rate much faster than those of Amazonia.

Last week, Britain's Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, visited the Cerrado as part of a preliminary visit to Brazil on behalf of the British Government to "see what success would look like" in terms of the outcome of Rio Plus 20 from Britain's perspective.

She held talks with her counterpart, the Brazilian Environment Minister, Izabella Teixeira, who is only too aware of the Cerrado's problems. Under Ms Teixeira's guiding hand, a series of wildlife and habitat-conservation programmes have been put in place in the Cerrado, with aid from the Global Environmental Facility of the World Bank.

But it is clear that official conservation programmes, however well-intentioned, can do only so much against the rampant world-wide economic demand for soya and other agricultural products.