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Rich and tragic

Only 2.4% of the natural vegetation of the Minas Gerais Triangle remain, ten times less than the minimum recommended

One of the most productive agricultural regions of the country, the Minas Gerais Triangle is beginning to pay dearly for its robust economic development over the last few decades. The excessive felling of the natural vegetation, intensified during the 60s by the federal programs to expand agricultural frontiers, is bringing about an effect already felt by the population: a shortage of water is beginning to be felt in the growing areas and in the urban areas of Uberaba, Araguari and Ituiutaba, some of the main cities of this region of sixty four municipalities and 1.7 million inhabitants.

This is understandable. Anyone who passes through the Triangle, in the extreme west of the state of Minas Gerais, will only find traces of the predominant vegetation some forty years ago. Of this natural vegetation, named Cerrado (wooded savanna), which covered half of Minas Gerais, there remains only 2.4%, ten times less than that required by law, according to a survey coordinated by the geographer Samuel do Carmo Lima, from the Federal University of Uberlândia (UFU). In the 54,000 km2 of one of the most rich regions of Minas Gerais, pasture and monotonous plantations of soya, corn and sugarcane predominate, in the space of the now rare sousari nut trees, sucupiras, paus-terra and other trees of up to ten meters in height, of torturous trunks, thick bark and thorny leaves, notable for their resistance to fire mixed in with the creeping vegetation and grasses.

“There is natural vegetation only in the areas of most inclined relief and in the canyons (deep depressions between the mountains)”, Lima explains. Financed by the Research Support Foundation of Minas Gerais (Fapemig), his survey shows that it is not only in the Triangle that the area of Cerrado is below the limit imposed by law: current Brazilian legislation calls for the conservation of 20% of natural vegetation in rural properties and prohibits the cutting down of the vegetal cover that accompanies rivers and streams, theso-called thorny undergrowths.

In some of the other ten regions analyzed, the Cerrado has practically disappeared – in the Valley of the Jequitinhonha river, the poorest region of Minas Gerais, there remains 0.09% of this type of vegetation, and in the metropolitan region of Belo Horizonte 0.77%. In all of the state, the remnants of Cerrado don’t go beyond one tenth of what had existed. “As a consequence of inadequate management and not taking care of the land, we are losing, per year, around one centimeter of the superficial layer, the most fertile of the soil”, he says. “Erosion, besides diminishing productivity, increases the cost of agricultural production.”

It is not only in the water taps that the population is suffering. By not complying with the legal demands for the preservation of the vegetation cover of soil, the owners of rural properties have been receiving fines that vary from R$ 1,000 to R$ 200,000 in the most serious cases such as the devastation on large properties or illegal allotments on the banks of the rivers. Cristina Garvil, the director of the Water and Sewage Authority of the town of Ituiutaba, points to another problem: “The rural producers don’t have money to fence and reforest the lost area.”

The plans
In order to confront these problems, the Association of Municipalities of the Valley of the Parnaíba River (Anvap) has created a civil society organization of public interest, the Caiapônia Institute of Environmental Sanitation. By luck, even with such a small amount of natural vegetation, the Minas Triangle is one of the regions in the state of Minas Gerais with the largest area of preserved Cerrado – something that should help considerably in the recovery of the devastated areas. Lima calculates that 15,000 km2 – almost one third of the complete Triangle – needs to be replanted so that the rural properties will exhibit the minimum natural coverage determined by law. “We’re going to spend ten years until more consistent results begin to appear, but I’m confident”, he says.

At an estimated cost of R$ 400,000, the reforestation should begin during this year, giving priority to the micro basins that serve as the areas of springs for the provision of water for Uberlândia, Uberaba, Araguari, Ituiutaba and Tupaciguara, the main towns in the region. Wire fencing should be installed in these areas to impede the invasion of cattle and to allow the natural vegetation to regenerate itself, no matter how slowly. The areas of advanced devastation will demand prolonged work, with the creation of nurseries for the native species before reforestation.

Water table
Begun during the Colonial period, the deforestation of the Minas Triangle has always been linked to the conquest of space for cattle and agriculture. The felling of the trees intensified, however, at the end of the 50s with the building of Brasilia, and expanded during the following decades with the federal projects for the expansion of the agricultural frontiers towards the north and northwest regions. “The federal programs for the installation of an infrastructure and the state programs of support to the agricultural business in this region transformed the areas of Cerrado, before seen as sterile, into productive lands”, says Eduardo Nunes Guimarães, from the Economics Department of the Federal University of Uberlândia.

Agriculture really advanced – perhaps too much. Today there is a lack of water because even the undergrowths that protected the margins of the rivers have disappeared. Without them, the rivers receive the earth from soil erosion and are becoming shallower. The problem gets worse because the naked soil retains the water less intensively. Thus, there is no way of maintaining the subterranean water reserves – the water table, which maintains the forests, the agricultural lands and the towns. “The Triangle is still a water tank for the country”, emphasizes Lima. Within it is one of the supplies of the Guarani Aquifer, the underground reservoir that spreads below the Southeast and South of Brazil and through part of Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay. “But this reserve is leaking away without a vegetal cover that would secure the reposition of the water.”