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The paths towards saving the Cerrado – the wooded savanna of the State of São Paulo

A survey up-dates the inventory, indicating the state of conservation of the excerpts that remain and registers a loss of 34% in less than a decade

Those who drive around the roads close to Araçatuba and Presidente Prudente, in the north west of the State of São Paulo, through Botucatu, Marília and Bauru, in the central region, or even near Campinas, towards the capital, are accustomed to seeing a view of trees with twisting trunks and with very thick leaves, that resemble baroque sculptures. Unfairly called jungle, this is the Cerrado, a kind of wooded savanna, the type of vegetation associated with the Western Central area of Brazil, but which runs through the São Paulo territory and goes on to the north of the State of Paraná.

Considered to be a critical point for the preservation of biodiversity, the Brazilian Cerrado has been well fragmented and degraded by the advance of towns, of agriculture and of ranching. In the State of São Paulo, it covers only 1% of the area of the State (248,800 km2), of which it had previously covered 14%. Now only 18% of what remains is protected through 32 conservation units and legal reserves. The problem is serious. It is threatening not only the biodiversity but as well the stocks of the Guarani Aquifer, one of the largest reserves of subterranean water in the world (see Pesquisa FAPESP No 62). With the substitution of native vegetation for agriculture, the toxic chemicals and the fertilizers used can sink deeply into the soil and contaminate the aquifer.

In an attempt to revert the present scenario of destruction, the thematic project The Viability for the Conservation of the Remaining Cerrado of the State of São Paulo began in 1999 and will continue until 2003. It is coordinated by Dr. Marisa Dantas Bitencourt, of the Biosciences Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP), and has been developed within of the Biota-FAPESP Program. The researchers, working with satellite images, have detected a loss of 34% in the areas studied up to this point, in relation to the inventory published in 1993 by the Forestry Institute of São Paulo, which listed 8,353 fragments of the Cerrado in the State.

The birthplace of rivers
The second most extensive Brazilian ecosystem, after the Amazon, the Cerrado presently covers 2 million km2, of which 700,000 are subject to anthropoid action (intensive human intervention), according to the Brazilian Company of Research and Cattle Raising (Embrapa). Totally or partially, it extends over 11 States and three capitals – Brasília, Belo Horizonte and Goiânia. It was the original vegetation of the city of São Paulo, but today the closest fragments are in Juqueri, 50 km from the capital.

It is in the Cerrado, (which can be translated into English as thick or dense) so called for being an entanglement of bushes, herbs and short trees, very difficult to walk through, that we find the springs of the rivers of the main Brazilian river basins, the Amazon, the Paraná-Paraguai and of the São Francisco. It is also the native environment of the buriti palm (Mauritia vinifera flexuosa), a palm tree that grows on the banks of the rivers, and of threatened species such as the maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus) and the great anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla). 4,400 endemic species of plants live there, plus 800 types of bird, 120 different reptiles as well as 150 amphibians, according to a recent survey carried out by Conservation International, a non-governmental institution that last year contributed to the inclusion of the Brazilian Cerrado in the hotspots (critical areas) of the world.

One of the main goals of the project, that is part of the Biota-FAPESP Program of surveying the flora and the fauna and of human occupation within the State, is the interaction with the community that lives on the boundaries of the Cerrado ranges or in their neighborhood. The majority of these regions are found on private property and are protected by Brazilian legislation in the form of a legal reserve. “The owner is obliged to leave 20% intact, but he/she can do whatever he/she likes with the remainder.” says Dr. Marisa.

For her, it is necessary to propose to the population a strategy of conservation, because the only law does not hinder destruction. “We covered all the points of the question, from the identification of what remains of the Cerrado, their state of conservation, who the owners are, how they use the area, and finally, how they could use it in a sustainable manner, thus transforming them into coworkers for conservation.” One of the strategies to be adopted, with this outlook in mind, is to give incentive towards the planting of native species as a way to joining together the pieces of forests with are small but close to one another. “With the sustained use of species of economic value, it is possible to recover the flora without holding up social development.” she comments.

In this field, the wealth is immense. Up until now, the number of species of typical Cerrado with economic potential has reached close to 80, while another 100 could be used for medicines. An ongoing survey by the São Paulo State University (Unesp) of Araraquara indicates that the plants of the Cerrado could be a source of medicines to fight fungi, tumors and Chagas’s sickness (see Pesquisa FAPESP No 51).

To run the project, Dr. Marisa signed a cooperation agreement with the Japanese Space Agency (Nasda), purposed to support research through high technology and vanguard studies in the area of the environment. “We opened up a line of research with a series of projects for the calibration of orbital sensors with the physiognomies of the Cerrado, on which two researchers are taking their doctorates. The Japanese agency provides the radar images and we calibrate this information with field data, one of the most difficult tasks of remote sensoring.” she tells us.

The work has had a collective character since the beginning. According to Dr. Marisa, the project was born from the interest of a group of researchers who participated in a workshop in 1995, in which Dr. Carlos Alfredo Joly, a professor at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and the coordinator of Biota, decided to gather all the accumulated knowledge on the São Paulo Cerrado. This meeting, which was based on the maps of the inventory of 1993 by the Forestry Institute, gave birth to the document Bases for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of the Areas of the Cerrado in the State of São Paulo, published in 1997, that indicated 23 areas of maximum priority for conservation.

Up until now, two of the four working groups, the geoprocessing one and the one involved in botany, have studied 17 priority conservation zones indicated within that document, on various aspects. It is in these areas that there has already been detected a decrease of 34% in the area of the wooded savanna in comparison with data from the inventory of 1993. The evaluation of the strips of the savanna is advanced and should be completed by the middle of 2001. For this reason, in October of 2000 the phase of socioeconomic studies got started, which should be intensified and expanded at least until the end of this year.

Satellite image
The group involved in geoprocessing, also coordinated by Dr. Marisa, updated the map of the Forestry Institute using recent satellite images. The researchers verified that some fragments had disappeared and that others had even grown. They also established the state of conservation of each piece studied. This way that they cleared up some past mistakes, reclassifying as semi deciduous seasonal forest (a type of Mata Atlântica [Atlantic Rain Forest] of the São Paulo interior) previously catalogued as Cerrado. Another repaired point was that some stands previously classified as Cerrado now appear as dense Cerrado or Cerradão. The oldest surveys showed more Cerrado than dense Cerrado, but over the last few years, with the protection against fires, the physiognomy of the wooded savanna has often transformed itself into a dense woodland. The methodology used, a vegetation index, indicates the quantity of greenery per area. It is a form of distinguishing the physiognomies of the Cerrado, which a is not asingle unit. It varies from plain and sparse vegetation to a dense forest formation where trees can reach 8 to 15 meters in height.

Over the next three years, the project should have covered close to 200 ranges. The botany group, under the coordination of the forestry engineer Giselda Durigan, a researcher at the Forestry Institute of São Paulo and head of the Experimental Station in the town of Assis, has already visited 121 stands and studied 70 of them in detail. 459 species of plants have been identified, some of them exclusive to the Cerrado, and she has registered 70 descriptions with Sinbiota, the biodiversity data bank of the State of São Paulo.

As all of the information must be geo-referenced, the botany team is going out into the field guided by a GPS (Global Positioning System), a device that works via satellite and provides the exact geographical position of each studied location. The researchers evaluate on the spot the state of conservation of the stands and work out a list of species, highlighting those of economic value, looking forward to the idea of the potentialuse that these species might have in the future.

With this information, the economic and biodynamics group come into action, coordinated by the biologist Dr. Eduardo Mendoza, of the Brazilian Association of Biodynamic Agriculture, and by the economist Dr. Maristela Simões do Carmo, of the School of Agrarian Sciences of the São Paulo State University (Unesp). The economy group brings up aspects of agricultural policy, the profile of the owners, the usage of the land and the social organization, in order to draw up a socioeconomic profile of the communities and establish a connection with them.

The next step is taken by the fourth group, that of propagating the idea and has as its head the biologist Dr. Renata Ramos Mendonça, of the State Program for Biodiversity Conservation (Probio). Her work is to carry out an interaction between the community and the State authorities, in case there is the necessity of some interference from the legal point of view, as well as suggesting public policies for the region, if that is the case. In total, 34 researchers are working within the project, including collaborators, biologists, forestry engineers, agronomists, economists and a geographer.

Reinforcements on the horizon
Dr. Marisa is looking for partners in all areas. An understanding with the Agricultural School of Penapolis (SP) should make viable the signing of an agreement in which women from ten families of settlers on the outskirts of the town of Promissão promise to set up a nursery garden for native species and to make natural fertilizer.

She has been articulating further collaboration from the University of the Paraiba Valley (Univap), which will help include in the survey the greatest possible number of Cerrado areas in the region. According to Dr. Marisa, there is not any previous mapping of the Paraiba Valley, an area which was not thought about in the forestry inventory of 1993, though the original vegetation of the region had been Cerrado according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

“The Cerrado formed a strip between the Coastal Highlands (Serra do Mar) and the Mantiqueira Highlands, along the river Paraíba do Sul, which today is badly fragmented because of human presence.” comments the USP researcher. Five woodland stands have already entered into the study, and the search for others to be mapped is going ahead. Through all of this work, says Dr. Marisa, the intention is not just to pass on knowledge. The greater objective, she emphasizes, is the interaction between the researchers and the present inhabitants of what remains of the São Paulo wooded savanna.

A Threatened treasure
The Cerrado has various physiognomies that vary from field to forest and depend mainly on the availability of water and nutrients. Cerrado properly defined (Cerrado stricto sensu) has herbaceous vegetation and sparse trees. The so called dense Cerrado (cerradão) is aforest form, while in the grassland there is the predominance of herbaceous vegetation (low grasses), with shrubs and other small plants.

The situation of this ecosystem is peculiar. “Different from the Amazon, where the rain forest covers all but for a some clearings, the Cerrado is very weak, it is emptiness with some spots of vegetation and with intense use and occupation around them.” explains Dr. Marisa Bitencourt. The problem is that, according to the researcher, a clearing with vegetation all around it can regenerate rapidly, but small islands of isolated vegetation are much more fragile.

In the Cerrado, the vegetation has adapted to dry periods because, although there is reasonable rainfall, the rains are concentrated at certain times of the year. It is something seasonal, of the type summer/winter and even the areas in which there is a greater availability of water are subject to long periods of drought. The plants grow on poor soils; porous, sandy, acidic, old and deep. For the USP researcher, this is one more reason to avoid agriculture on the Cerrado, on which the intensive use of fertilizers is common.

The cost of correcting the soil is high and also the native vegetation is destroyed, and furthermore it contaminates the water of the subterranean reservoir. These threats, plus the evidence of the scientific work, reinforce the confidence of Dr. Marisa and her team in the sustainable use of some areas of Cerrado, and also the preservation of others, as the most intelligent and viable solution for the conservation of this ecosystem, as least in São Paulo.

Face to face with nature

Among the work items of the Cerrado project, the job that would seem to be the most troublesome one is under the responsibility of the biology group. They have check on the ground what the satellite images suggest. That is, they have to check if species with great biological value or with sustainable management potential actually exist and what state they actually are. They sweat a lot, eat little, live with mosquitoes, spiders and leeches, and they’ve got to be smart enough to find the back-roads as well as the spirit to make the expeditions work.

However, it is a waste of time offering any other way of life to the members of this team, the coordinator Dr. Giselda Durigan a forestry engineer; Marinez Ferreira de Siqueira a biologist from the Tropical Data Base (BDT) in Campinas; Geraldo Correa Franco a biologist with the Forestry Institute of São Paulo; and the field assistant Edivaldo Furlan. Since October of 1999, the group has visited 70 areas and trampled over 120 km of Cerrado thick and thin. The following is a report from Giselda and Marinez:

“In the field we discovered the hidden treasure in each one of the areas that had appeared as points on the map of the State of São Paulo. We began in the west, with the municipalities of Campos Novos Paulista and São Pedro do Turvo, in the basin of the river Paranapanema. There the Cerrado have almost always the physiognomy of dense woodland. It appears like a forest, low and dry, but there we find a large “pau-terra” (Qualea grandiflora), the “muricis” (Byrsonima spp), the “cinzeiro” (Vochysia tucanorum), the “pequi” or the Souari nut (Caryocar brasiliense), the “copaiba” or oily tree (Copaifera langsdorffii), the cinnamon (Ocotea spp) and large cinnamon (Nectandra spp), the mimosas (Anadenanthera spp) and the wild lemon (Siparuna guianensis).

In the dense Cerrado, the trees are thin and close to each other. Above them, creeping flowers grow such as the Fridericia speciosa (red), Odontadenia lutea (white), Temnadenia violacea (magenta) and Pirostegia venusta (orange), which break up the dark green of the scenery. Without direct sunlight, the ground is covered with dry leaves, plants and bushes that can tolerate the shadows.

Apparently monotonous, the scenery of the dense woodland reserves surprises, with brooks of crystal clear water and flavorful fruit such as the quince (Alibertia edulis), that we tasted for the first time at Agudos, or the pineapple (Ananas ananassoides), that is found throughout almost all of the State. Another surprise was finding in the dense Cerrado of São Pedro do Turvo, a vast area with mate tea bushes (Ilex paraguariensis). Probably it must be one of the last natural populations of the species in the State of São Paulo.

We found in Campos Novos one of the only areas with the physiognomy of Cerrado in the west of the State. It was November, high noon, with all of the riches on display for us. Flavorful “gabiroba” (Campomanesia adamantium), shrubs such as the jacarandás (Jacaranda decurrens) with their blue flowers close to the ground, the “jalapa” (Mandevilla velutina), seeds of the “parreinha” (Eriotheca gracilipes) and of the “algodão-do-campo” (Cochlospermum regium), lifted by the wind like feathers to be germinated by the first rains. On the same day, we crossed paths with an anaconda (Eunectes murinus) and a coral snake (Micrurus spp), reminding us that life in the woodlands goes beyond that of the plants.

In the Cerrado, the trees are smaller and more tortuous, with the bark generally suberous (thick). The predominant trees are the yellowed “ipês” (Tabebuia spp), peroba tree (Acosmium subelegans), storax (Styrax spp), “brasa viva” (Myrcia lingua), violet jacarandá (Dalbergia miscolobium) and the large leaved “pau-terra” trees, as well as bushes of various sizes.

Further to the west, in Taciba and Martinópolis, the dense Cerrado again predominates, with some small patches of thick woodland and smaller trees more spaced out and more twisted. To the north we found rare patches of dense Cerrado and many stands with the vegetation in a transition state between Cerrado and semi deciduous forest. In Bauru, in the heart of the State, there are still large stands of dense Cerrado under a lot of pressure from urban expansion and frequent fires.

Though it wasn’t on our original route, we visited the isolated islands of woodland in the Paraiba Valley, in São José dos Campos, Caçapava and Taubaté. There we were surprised to find, embedded in plain dominance of the Atlantic Rain Forest (Mata Atlântica), areas of reasonable extension of Cerrado with all of the possible grassland physiognomies, grasslands, spoiled grasslands, Cerrado fields and Cerrado stricto sensu that we had not seen in the other regions. We were also disappointed probably because of fires, in the poverty of the flora of Cerrado of the Paraiba Valley.

Going back into the interior, we again found dense Cerrado and ecotone areas in Boa Esperança do Sul, Bocaina and Ribeirão Bonito in the basin of the river Jacaré-Pepira. The grassland physiognomies appear in the region of Itirapina and São Carlos, with stands which are not very extensive of Cerrado and meadow land. In these areas, the abundance of fruit plants is impressive. There are “gabirigobas” (Campomanesia spp) , guava (Psidium spp) and uvalha (Eugenia spp) fruit in November, and souari nuts, cherries and the khaki (Diospyrus hispida) in January.We verified that there isn’t Cerrado cultivation in the State of São Paulo. Not even the people who live at the side of the stands, with some rare exceptions, know the plants. We saw souari nut trees rotting as they stood because few people knew that they were dealing with an edible fruit.

Over these 18 months of treks, besides learning, we got something additional. A Japanese saying states that one’s life is prolonged by 75 days for each new flavor that we try and enjoy. If it is so, then perhaps at the end of this research we will have gotten the life expectancy of two centuries, after having tried so many different and tasteful fruit of the São Paulo Cerrado.

The Project
The Viability of Conservation of the Stands of Woodland in the State of São Paulo (nº 98/05251-0); Modality Thematic Project – Biota Program; Coordinator Dr. Marisa Dantas Bitencourt – The Biosciences Institute of USP; Investment R$ 318,834.00