One of the most important water resources in South America
The 45 million year old Cerrado is the oldest savannah area in north-eastern Brazil and one of the country's most important ecosystems.
It is also an important ‘water tower’. Three important aquifers are located under its surface.12 river basins in Brazil and South America (i.e. Amazonas and La Plata) are formed directly from the water sources of the Cerrado
Catchment Area Cerrado
Its hydrological cycle also influences the water balance in adjacent regions such as the Pantanal and the Amazon. However, due to climate change, it is also prone to desertification, irregular rainfall and a prolonged dry season, as well as high temperatures and intense solar radiation.
Typically, most of the annual rainfall of 1100 to 1800 mm falls between October and April. The dry season is from May to September. The soil lacks nutrients.
Almost 70% of forest fires in Brazil occur in the Cerrado, and more than half of the original savannahs have already been destroyed.
The agro industry’s commercial greed, climate change, and political indifference threaten the Cerrado.
Enormous agricultural monocultures and mining activities contribute to the destruction and intensify the effects of climate change. Loss of biodiversity, water resources and loss of traditional knowledge are the consequences for the Cerrado and its population.
Under the neo-fascist president, Jair Bolsonaro, it has become even more difficult for traditional people to assert their rights. Bolsonaro, who is financed and supported by the agricultural lobby, considers environmental protection to be an obstacle to Brazil's economic opening up and development.
Systematically he reduces environmental regulations, weakens the penalties for environmental crimes, encourages land grabbing and authorises the use of increasingly toxic pesticides.
More than 11,000 years has the Cerrado been settled
At that time, people predominantly settled in places where there was water and biodiversity. The Andean slopes and the Cerrado area with its water sources and mountains up to 2000m high were the centre of settlement. Over the centuries, many indigenous groups have adapted to the natural conditions and developed a sustainable economy based mainly on pastoral farming.
In addition to local cave paintings, about 80 archaeological excavations - mainly in Minas Gerais - testify to prehistoric settlements as early as the Stone Age.
"Luzia", the oldest human skeleton known in Brazil, was found here in the municipality of Pedro Leopoldo in Minas Gerais in 1975. Her skeleton is about 11,500 years old.
The Cerrado originally covered two million square kilometres in the heart of Brazil. It represented about 25% of the national territory.
It is home to 10,000 different species of plants, half of which only grow in the Cerrado. The fauna includes about 200 species of mammals, 840 species of birds, 180 species of reptiles and 110 species of amphibians.
São Francisco river, vital lifeline of the Cerrado
From its source to its estuary – for 2,800 km, the river crosses the territories of 32 indigenous folk groups, estimated to number 70,000 in total. :
Kaxagó, Kariri-Xocó, Tingui-Botó, Akonã, Karapotó, Xocó, Katokin, Koiupanká, Karuazu, Kalankó, Pankararu, Fulni-ô, Xucuru-Kariri, Pankaiuká, Tuxá, Pipipã, Kambiwá, Kapinawá, Xukuru, Pankará, Tupan, Truká, Pankararé, Kantaruré, Atikum, Tumbalalá, Pankaru, Kiriri, Xacriabá, Kaxixó und Pataxó(2).
...an estimated 70,000 people.
The Cerrado is also home to traditional communities from the highlands, self-sufficient ‘geraizeiros’ and ‘quilombolas’, descendants of former slaves who were shipped from Africa to Brazil in the 16th century to work on the sugar cane plantations. Escaped slaves built their own villages in the Cerrado; so-called ‘Quilombos’.
Until the 1970s, the Cerrado was considered a poorly developed and sparsely populated region. The state showed little interest in the land - much of it wasteland - which was hence appropriated by powerful and ruthless clans as an object of speculation with all kinds of tricks and corruption.
There were no roads and no speedboats. The only connection between the villages was by boat along the river.
Charlotte Eichhorn experienced a trip on the old paddle steamers back then.
( Slide show from 1972 )
Rio São Francisco Dams
In the 1970s, the Sao Francisco River was further dammed for energy production. The lower part of the river became practically un-navigable as a result. This isolated entire stretches of land and made the water scarce.
After the damming, indigenous people, such as the Xakriabá, were ‘resettled’ from the banks of the São Francisco to degraded and less fertile land.
Traditional people, such as the Quilombolas and the Geraizeiros, were also displaced and their freedom of movement restricted. Violent attacks led to emigration to the favelas, the poor districts of the big cities. The background to the violence was land speculation. The land thus freed up as a result was sold off to national and international investors.
The extraction of mineral resources began. Mining waste, especially toxic sludge, is until today improperly stored or disposed. This regularly leads to environmental disasters such as the dam burst in Brumadinho.
With the modernisation of agriculture from the 1970s onwards, large agricultural enterprises also invaded the Cerrado. Its land and water are of particular interest to producers of soya, eucalyptus and sugar cane.
Coffee and fruit plantations, fertiliser and artificial irrigation are the very basis of production.
Eucalyptus, which grows rapidly even on barren soil, is one of the most popular agricultural products in the Cerrado. It is processed into cheap cellulose and exported to Europe mainly as toilet paper and paper handkerchiefs. It also serves as a cheap source of energy and is used to make charcoal. Its deep roots tap into the groundwater.
As a result, the groundwater table is sinking. Entire areas of land bordering the plantations are drained of water.
The Brazilian government has been constructing two waterway systems for more than a decade. On the one hand, water from the Rio São Francisco is diverted to the northeast to reduce the drought there.
On the other hand, the Rio Pardo is threatened with a similar fate in order to secure the mining of minerals.
An ambitious megaproject;
the 'relocation' of the Rio São Francisco
Will the Rio Pardo have a chance to be saved?
An assessment of the river:
Length: 565 km
River catchment area: 32,334 km² (approx. the size of Nordrhein Westfalen or 2/3 of Switzerland)
Population: about 260,000
The geraizeiro communities on the upper reaches of the Rio Pardo are subject to strong pressure from the forest industry. In the central part, they are the coffee plantations, and in the estuary, more pasture land is being drained. Mangroves are cut down for shrimp (prawn) farms and the river water is diverted into them. All around, traditional neighbours are struggling to reclaim and protect their territories. Their resistance is also known as the environmental movement of the poor.
Some communities have founded ‘Assentamentos’ – small scale, collective communities - which fight against monocultures or work to defend resource protection areas.
At present, the river is a huge patchwork of different protection and user rights. In the area where the Rio Pardo has its springs, some mountain ranges are already under state protection. Forests and valley depressions enjoy a special status as traditional gathering and hunting grounds. Mangroves and the sea at the river mouth have been placed under protection. The declaration on this ‘RESEX’ is accompanied by the right to permanent residence and certain sustainable cultivation and utilisation methods. But interspersed monocultures and mines threaten the survival of these protected areas. Therefore, the local people want an integrated protection for the Rio Pardo.