Upside down: an inverted forest that helps balance the world

In South America, a little-known biome, with one of the richest biodiversity on Earth, contributes to balance the Planet, sustaining its oldest inhabitants: indigenous peoples and local communities.

In the heart of South America, there is an inverted forest with deep roots that connect a diversity of fruits, plants, animals, peoples, and cultures. Despite being closely related to the planet's climatic balance, few know the riches of this biome that is under constant threat. Half of its vegetation cover has already been lost. What remains of the inverted forest is protected by protected areas but also the traditional peoples and communities and family farmers who inhabit these lands with their ancestry and their sustainable ways of life.

Called the Cerrado, this Brazilian savanna is known as the “cradle of waters” even though it faces six months of intense drought every year. Of the 12 river basins in Brazil, eight originate in this region of the country. Embellished with rocks, plateaus, twisted trees, delicate and fragrant flowers, giant waterfalls, tasty fruits, and people who have much to teach the rest of the world, the Cerrado is a socio-ecological powerhouse.

Good Results: experiences and richness of the peoples

Maria Lucia Agostinho lives in the Água Boa Community, a prescient name (meaning “Good Water”, in Portuguese), located in the state of Minas Gerais, southeastern Brazil. Known as Dona Lúcia, she is a family farmer, a geraizeira, active protector of the Cerrado and also considers herself a “guardian of the springs”.

Dona Lúcia works to strengthen the supply chain of biodiversity fruits collected and traded in the community, such as araticum, mangaba, licuri and, especially, pequi. In the region, clay art craft is also strong and a talent that has been passed on from ancestors. Jugs, filters, pots and jars are an addition to the fruit supply chains and contribute to income generation and local sustainability. 

Fruits and plants also intertwine in the assembly of this handicraft. Women make hats out of licuri straw, hampers with vines, among others. In addition, there is a strong cultivation of family farming, especially manioc, with which they make starch and sell it. The seedling nursery and heirloom seeds also provide production and income for Dona Lúcia’s community.

Pequi

Dona Lúcia's territory is constantly threatened by large undertakings, mainly eucalyptus monocultures. “Many of these businessmen have started to develop monocultures in nearby regions, which has degraded the environment and caused imbalances. Regions that used to have enough water now no longer do”.

Threats to the territory of the Água Boa community impact both the environment and the livelihoods of farmers. Dona Lúcia tells us that her community organized mobilizations, demonstrations, and she herself, along with other companions, went on a 36-hour hunger and thirst strike to prevent the destruction of the springs by a large enterprise, which also prevented them from having access to waters.    

All this struggle has generated results. Dona Lúcia and her community had their territory recognized as a sustainable use protected area, the Nascentes Geraizeiras Sustainable Development Reserve, in the areas where they collect Cerrado fruits and raise animals, which gave them more security. The guardian of the springs continues working with her community to defend their territory, which they see as a struggle to defend their own life.  

Located in midwestern Brazil and considered the largest quilombola community in the country, the Kalunga territory is inhabited by people who have an ancestral relationship with nature, based on respect and sustainability. Women stand out in the handling of local biodiversity, transforming it into handcrafted products with unique characteristics.
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There are countless native plants that feed Kalunga families, but some also generate income for women, such as the famous pequi and buriti. Family farming products are used to increase sales at local farmer’s markets. They sell oils, soaps, flours, spices, handicrafts, among other products, made by these women who always have their doors and wisdom open to anyone who wishes to be captivated by the strength of the Kalunga.

When visiting the community of Vão de Almas, one of the many communities that compose the Kalunga territory, it is easy to understand why this work is done in a sustainable way. The quilombolas' way of life guarantees the conservation of large areas of native vegetation, where they collect these many fruits and coconuts, surrounding their fields of manioc, corn, beans, rice, sesame, and an infinite amount of food. 

Their way of cultivating the land, storing seeds and enjoying native fruits are part of this population’s centennial knowledge. If the territory is the extension of the Kalunga's body, it is also life for that community.

Corpo kalunga

Long roots, deep connections

These two stories take place in the most biodiverse savannah in the world, and one of the global biodiversity hotspots. Communities such as those of Dona Lúcia and the Kalunga women can be found throughout the Cerrado, a region in central Brazil that is larger than France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain combined.

Tamanho do Cerrado

Nele, encontramos uma variedade de paisagens, fauna, flora e povos. A biodiversidade do Cerrado têm enorme potencial alimentar, medicinal, para construção de casas, fibras para artesanato, dentre outros. São cerca de 199 espécies de mamíferos, 864 de aves, 180 répteis, 210 anfíbios e 1.200 peixes. Ele também abriga mais de 12 mil espécies de plantas vasculares, das quais mais de 4 mil só podem ser encontradas em suas paisagens, é o que chamamos de espécies endêmicas.

The Brazilian merganser (Mergus octosetaceus) is a critically endangered species. Currently, only an estimated 250 adult individuals can be found in the Brazilian Cerrado. 

Aves do cerrado

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Although a large part of its vegetation is composed of grasses, herbs, shrubs and medium-sized trees, underground is where everything happens: with deep roots that exceed 10 meters in depth, the Cerrado manages to store around 13.7 billion tons of carbon.

Floresta Invertida
Floresta Invertida

The Brazilian savannah acts as an important carbon accumulator and assimilator, contributing significantly to its cycle in the atmosphere, and being an important protagonist in hindering one of the consequences of climatic imbalance: global warming. It is an inverted forest that helps balance the planet's climate.

carbono
carbono

If the subject is drinking water, the Cerrado is even more prominent. Despite being a region with a well-defined dry season, it is abundant in crystalline springs, rivers, streams and swampy palm forests (veredas). It contains important tributaries of the three largest river basins in South America, which supply drinking water to almost half of the Brazilian population and also extend to Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay. This is because its vegetation contributes to the capture of rainwater that supplies the second largest underground water reservoir in the world, the Guarani Aquifer, which covers 1.2 million km².

Found only in the Cerrado, two aquifers of national importance, Bambuí and Urucuia, expand the importance of the Biome for access to drinking water. Both are essential for supplying the entire São Francisco basin, a river of national integration that supplies much of the semiarid region of northeastern Brazil with one of the highest rates of social inequality in the country and with historical problems related to access to water. The Bambuí and Urucuia aquifers also guarantee the supply of important rivers in the states of Minas Gerais (southeastern Brazil), Bahia (northeastern Brazil), and Tocantins (northern Brazil). In periods of long droughts, it represents life for local people.

With all this wealth of water, the Cerrado is directly related to energy security. In Brazil, 80% of electricity comes from hydroelectric plants, many of which are located in rivers such as Tocantins, São Francisco and Xingu, whose sources originate from the inverted forest.

Invisible biome, real threats

The beauty and ecological importance of the Cerrado are underestimated in Brazil and under the international environmental agenda. Apart from actions and policies that manage to protect it, the inverted forest is the second most threatened Brazilian biome. The biggest challenge is to reconcile economic development with the conservation of the Cerrado and respect for the history and tradition of its inhabitants.

Competed for food production, the Brazilian savannah has the largest area of agricultural land and livestock in Brazil. In 2019, the country broke a record in grain production, with more than 240 million tons, and the forecast for 2021 is to exceed the numbers once again. The Midwest, proportionally the region with the most Cerrado extension in Brazil, accounts for 47.5% of this production alone. In 2020, agriculture had a 21% share of total Brazilian exports, with soy representing 13.6% of this share.

The biggest consumers of this demand are the countries of the Asian trading bloc, together with the United States and the European Union, which stimulate this type of production in the Brazilian Cerrado. However, it is necessary to assess what impacts this development model has.

According to the Belgian organization Wervel, farming in a disorderly manner transformed 90% of the biome's agricultural production into soybeans and brought 40 million head of cattle to the biome, which meant serious socioenvironmental impacts.

Ameaças
Ameaças
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The accelerated deforestation carried out in recent decades for agricultural production has reduced the vegetation cover of the Cerrado to less than 50% of its original territory. In 2019, 99% of the deforestation carried out in Brazil was illegal, with the Brazilian savannah being among the most impacted biomes.

This production model also means the worsening of historical social problems in Brazil, such as the concentration of arable areas and wealth. These issues are often related to illegal land grabbing, one of the main causes of violence against traditional peoples and communities and family farmers, as we have witnessed in Dona Lúcia’s community.   

And it is not solely uncontrolled agribusiness that threatens the life of and in the Cerrado. The degradation of the Biome is also present in the encroachment of large mining companies, in the production of native charcoal, and in arson. This set of illegal activities carried out without planning represents a serious threat to the maintenance of ecosystem services in the Cerrado. 

Peoples: sustaining the Cerrado

With so many threats to the Cerrado, traditional peoples and communities and family farmers are largely responsible for keeping the Biome standing, such as Dona Lúcia’s community and the Kalunga women. It is these groups that teach us to live with respect and wisdom in the environment that surrounds us.

Where there is conserved Cerrado vegetation is where the traditional peoples and communities and family farmers are located. They are indigenous peoples, quilombolas, small-scale fishermen, geraizeiros, comunidades de fundo e fecho de pasto, vazanteiros and so many others that, for several generations, have developed sustainable ways of occupying their territories. With their exquisite agricultural systems and in strong connection with the landscapes of the biome, they also show us rich culture, dances, songs and rituals linked to their traditional ways of life.

“... They were amazed that there was so much science in those ordinary people” - João Ubaldo Ribeiro in Viva o Povo Brasileiro (A celebration of the Brazilian people).
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The livelihoods of these residents of the Cerrado provide a landscape where areas of cultivation, housing, pasture and large areas of native vegetation coexist. Often, these territories are responsible for the connection between protected or remnant natural areas. They thus contribute to the conservation of biodiversity, enabling the maintenance of ecosystem services in the biome, such as water production, pollination, carbon stock, genetic flows, among others.
Communities like Dona Lúcia’s and the Kalunga women guarantee diversity at the Brazilian table and the conservation of the Cerrado - in addition to other biomes. Family farming is responsible for 70% of the production that feeds the population of Brazil. It is what provides the basis for national food, such as beans, rice, manioc, fruits, and many others. It is the work done by traditional peoples and communities and family farmers that permeate agroecological and organic farmer’s markets, guarantee food security, and teach the country and the world that it is possible to generate income while conserving natural resources. 
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Harvests: ways to save the Cerrado

Proteção do Cerrado
Proteção do Cerrado

ESTRATÉGIAS POLÍTICAS PARA O CERRADO

Check out here the document of political strategies for the Cerrado. (8,0 Mb)

Promotion of Socio-Ecological Productive Landscapes 

Dona Lúcia and the Kalunga women received support for the development of socioenvironmental projects under the Independent Fund for the Promotion of Socio-Ecological Productive Landscapes (PPP-ECOS – the Brazilian version of the GEF/UNDP Small Grants Program), an ISPN strategy for environmental conservation through the sustainable use of nature. In a context that is unfavorable to the environment in Brazil, South America and the world, initiatives like these contribute to rescue, protect and enhance the livelihoods of traditional populations and to global environmental sustainability, of which the Cerrado is key.

These projects are also one of the ways used by communities to strengthen the fight to protect the territory where they live. “We embraced the project to rescue our territoriality, as we were losing culture, losing space for deforestation, losing our water sources. The crops were also weakened due to lack of water, the territory is being degraded”, says Dona Lúcia.   

In the case of Kalunga women, the project developed by the community contributed to the qualification and adequacy of their products for sale at local farmer’s markets. The production gained colors, images, and identity. In addition, instruments and materials were used to assist the processing of fruits and plants, which further strengthened the activity. “The work of these women became more valued, the plants started to have an economic value for the community, which has contributed to the quality of local life”, says Jaqueline Evangelista, one of the Project's advisers. Consumers were also satisfied with the products in more resistant and beautiful packaging, containing more information. There are more and more people interested in eating and beautifying themselves with the oils, seeds, and fruits of the Cerrado.   

The Cerrado, with all its dimensions and ecological and social diversity captivates, impresses and stands out when we talk about commitments to the environment at a global level. Its integrity is related to the stability of other ecosystems around it, such as the Amazon and other biomes in neighboring countries. Electricity generated in the country, the rain that arrives in the southeast, the carbon stock and the water that irrigates the northeastern fruit plantations demonstrate the connectivity of the Biome. Keeping the Cerrado alive ensures strength and elements for us to thrive on a healthy planet, in which productive and sustainable landscapes connect. In the heart of South America, there is an inverted forest that can help us create a world with social justice and environmental balance.  

Our life is the Cerrado Alive

The Cerrado is considered by us and people who came before us as our water reservoir, our sustainability, and our life is related to the Cerrado Alive, it’s where water comes from and without water there is no way for a community to survive.
Dona Lúcia
Dona Lúcia

Fotos: Acervo ISPN – André Dib, Bento Viana, Jaqueline Evangelista, Thomas Bauer, Peter Caton, Janine Moraes.