Deforestation in Brazil’s cerrado threatens water security countrywide
The biome is home to the headwaters of eight major river basins
Published on 16/09/2023 - 09:00 By Lucas Pordeus León - Brasília
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“A few years ago, the waters of our river would only really lower in late August and early September. But not now. The rain stopped, and eight days later the level’s already down because there’s nothing left to sustain the water. The marshes have reduced their flow because the cerrado has been deforested right at the headwaters. There’s no cerrado left.” The complaint is reminiscent of a lament and comes from 61-year-old farmer Adão Batista Gomes, who has lived all his life in rural Formosa do Rio Preto, Bahia.
Farmer Jamilton Santos de Magalhães, 40, also known as Carreirinha, is a community leader in the nearby Correntina, and says that the demise of local springs became frequent in the 1990s.
“Deforestation began, and two or three years later the springs started drying up. Some families have lived here for over 200 years. Springs didn’t die so often before.”
The place where Carreirinha and Adão live is one of the regions with the highest levels of deforestation in the cerrado, a plight mainly brought about by the expansion of the agricultural frontier in Matopiba, an area that encompasses portions of the Brazilian states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí, and Bahia. The term is made up of the first syllable in the name of these four states.
Dubbed the cradle of Brazil’s waters, the cerrado is home to the springs for eight of the country’s 12 most crucial river basins. It is also the second largest underground water reservoir in the world, formed by the Guarani and Urucuia aquifers. The first is in the Amazon.
It also supplies around 70 percent of the water for the São Francisco river and 47 percent of the water for the Paraná river, which in turn feeds the Itaipu hydroelectric plant, built by Brazil and Paraguay on the former’s southern border. The waters of the cerrado are also important for Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay, according to a study published by the scientific journal Sustainability, which pointed out the risks that deforestation in this biome could pose to the country’s water and energy security.
One of the researchers in the study, Yuri Salmona, PhD in forestry sciences, told Agência Brasil that the long roots of typical cerrado trees can reach a depth of 15 meters, which lends the biome the name “inverted forest.” These roots are responsible for carrying rainwater deep into the ground, which then releases the water again during the dry season.
“This water accumulates underground or flows between the rivers to feed the Paraná, the Jequitinhonha, the Araguaia, and the Tocantins rivers, among others. The breakdown of this dynamic caused by deforestation, which interferes with the water’s infiltration capacity, causes the water to run off the surface, leading to erosion, with excess flow in the rains and scarcity in the drought,” said Salmona, who is also executive director of the Cerrados Institute.
The plight is made worse by the consumption of water for irrigation in agribusiness during the dry season, he warned. “Farmers are making the future of their own business unfeasible, because we need the cerrado to continue producing water,” he argued.
The study examined the behavior of 81 river basins in the biome and calculated that these basins lost 15.4 percent of their river flow between 1985 and 2022 on average. By 2050, the research forecasts that the reduction in water flow in these basins should reach 34 percent of what it once was, “even if deforestation is reduced.”
“Water continues to be exported to China, the EU, and the US in the form of ‘virtual water,’ i.e. water consumed in the production of grains and meat,” the study says, referring to the commodity exported by Brazil.
According to national water authority ANA, 49.8 percent of the water consumed in the country in 2019 was used in agricultural irrigation.
MapBiomas Cerrado coordinator Ane Alencar pointed out that grants for water use in the cerrado are not transparent. “We don’t know what the criteria are, if there’s a limit to providing these permits. There’s little transparency in this regard,” she noted.
“In fact, what ends up happening is that water—an asset to be used by everyone—is being used for agricultural production and is exported. We’re exporting a vital natural resource and using it in any way we can.”
Wherever the use of water is intense in large-scale irrigation, locals have been reporting the reduction in river flows, as in the case of Correntina, Bahia, where thousands took to the streets in 2017 to denounce the excessive use of water by agribusiness.
In 2018, residents even tried to prevent farmers from installing dredgers in rivers.
According to Isabel Azevedo, coordinator of the Cerrado and Caatinga Program at the Institute for Society, Population, and Nature (ISPN), active in the support of traditional communities in Matopiba, water use permits and authorizations to suppress vegetation in the region are provided with no adequate control.
“The system is utterly irregular. The federal government isn’t monitoring anything. It’s all up to the states. It’s every man for himself, and the environmental secretariats are co-opted by agribusiness,” she declared.
At a public hearing in the Senate at the end of August, Environment Minister Marina Silva said the ministry is devising a new plan against deforestation in the cerrado, which should be put out for public consultation in September. At the same time, Minister Silva stressed that the plan will not succeed without the participation of the states.
“Considering that over 70 percent of the deforestation taking place in the cerrado has a license, what we’re going to need is to revisit these licenses to find out just how legal they are,” she stated.
Our reporters contacted the Parliamentary Agricultural Front and the National Confederation of Agriculture to comment as representatives of agribusiness, but had not received a response as of the closing of this article.
Translation: Fabrício Ferreira - Edition: Denise Griesinger