Resilient Plants Could Hold Key to Adapting Agriculture

Mario Osava*

HAVANA TIMES, Jan 4 (IPS) — A vision of “the Apocalypse, everything burnt, turned black from ashes and smoke,” was what photographer Mila Petrillo saw when she returned in October to what had been her Eden in the Brazilian municipality of Alto Paraiso, 230 km from Brasilia.

The fires had raged around her home, in a forested area of the Chapada dos Veadeiros, or Veadeiros tableland, a vast area of mountains, rivers and waterfalls, in “many lines of high flames,” as the fire roared through the treetops and the ground vegetation.

Less than a month later, when she returned from another trip, Petrillo was stunned by “the awesome power of the green” vegetation and how quickly it had recovered. “I had never seen the Chapada’s natural landscapes looking so beautiful, a beauty proportional to the previous devastation,” she said.

That swift passage “from hell to paradise” reflects the resilience of the vegetation of the Cerrado, a vast savannah covering two million square km in central Brazil. This capacity to adapt still surprises the photographer, even though she has lived in the semi-arid ecosystem, where the Chapada dos Veadeiros is located, for four decades.

Severe droughts, like the one that struck the area in 2010, periodically cause thousands of wildfires to break out in the Cerrado.

Scientific researchers hope the Cerrado’s capacity to resist drought, temperature extremes and even fire can contribute to adapting agriculture to climate change. They see the ecosystem’s species, which have evolved in extremely adverse conditions, as genetic resources that can help save the future of agriculture.

Two decades ago, the Cerrado was considered the “poor cousin” among Brazil’s ecosystems. But now it is taking on a new importance. “It went from problem to solution,” said biologist José Felipe Ribeiro of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA).

Studies carried out by 48 researchers since the 1990s were compiled in the book “Cerrado: Ecologia e Flora” (Cerrado: Ecology and Flora), published in 2008 in an effort to systematize the accumulated knowledge on the ecosystem and the need to protect it.

Today there are more than 12,000 species of flora identified in the Cerrado — around 30 percent of all known plant species in Brazil — including 38 woody species that can be found throughout the ecosystem, indicating an outstanding ability to adapt to varied climate and soil conditions, said Ribeiro, one of the book’s editors.

These 38 species have drawn attention because of their capacity to adapt to a climate marked by wide variations and extremes, “from north to south and east to west,” Ribeiro told IPS.

Five of these species were selected for research studies seeking to “identify the genes responsible for that adaptability, and how to introduce them in important crops,” said Eduardo Assad, a researcher at EMBRAPA’s agriculture information centre.

These are high density bushes that are resistant to “major variations in temperature and climate,” Assad told IPS, adding that their genetic material could help boost the climate adaptability of crops.

EMBRAPA, a government institution that played a key role in the process that turned Brazil into the world’s leading exporter of several agricultural products, is a network of 42 research centers, including one that specializes in the Cerrado ecosystem, and three that are focused on services, such as technology transfer.

The aim of the researchers whose studies were published in “Cerrado: Ecologia e Flora” is to bring together all available knowledge about the wealth of the Cerrado, assess what can be done with it, and transfer it to agricultural production or other activities linked to the biodiversity of the ecosystem, Ribeiro said.

In the last decade, shops selling ice cream produced with native fruits from the Cerrado have appeared, helping increase appreciation for formerly disdained plant species that are being destroyed as land is cleared for agriculture, livestock and other uses, and he pointed out. There are also medicinal plants that have long been used by the local population and even big pharmaceutical corporations.

As research on the Cerrado advances, the sheer number and variety of species has surprised scientists and public opinion alike. The ecosystem’s rich flora and fauna is “a gift of nature,” but one that is being lost as the native vegetation is cleared, Ribeiro warned.

Around three decades ago, the Cerrado stopped being seen as an infertile area of little use to agriculture, and crops like soy beans, coffee and sugar cane began to be planted there, driven by research and fertilizers.

The Cerrado is being cleared at a rate two times faster than the Amazon jungle, and “less than 20 percent of its area is still covered by native vegetation,” said Valmir Ortega, director of Conservation International’s Cerrado-Pantanal program.

According to official estimates, just over half of the ecosystem maintains its original vegetation cover.

But in its own estimate, Conservation International does not count “degraded areas where livestock has been brought in and the main species have been pushed out.” The international environmental organization concludes that only 17 percent of the original vegetation is untouched and “relatively protected,” and that only eight percent of that is in state conservation areas.

Brazilian law requires the preservation of the original vegetation on 20 percent of every rural property under the “legal reserve” system, and on 35 percent if the property is in one of the nine states that are partly or fully covered by Amazon rainforest.

Climate change is a good reason to preserve the Cerrado, but the protection falls “far short,” Ortega lamented.

As an expanding agricultural frontier, the Cerrado is suffering the effects of the growing demand for food from countries like China and India, as well as the growth of domestic consumption in Brazil, he said.

Ortega said the main factor driving deforestation is the price of land, which has soared as a result of demand for food and of real estate speculation. Cleared land is worth much more money: the price for a hectare of land in the Cerrado has risen fourfold and even six fold in some areas, in the space of just a few years, the activist said.

To curb deforestation, property owners must be compensated for preserving their natural resources, Ribeiro said. The cost of protecting biodiversity “should not only fall on the backs of farmers,” he argued.

The knowledge accumulated by EMBRAPA can contribute to making the “legal reserve” system and preservation of other protected areas, such as riverbanks and mountaintops, profitable, through the controlled harvest of medicinal plants and fruits for sale or processing, he said.

Growing awareness of the problem of climate change has helped bring about a new way of looking at the Cerrado, Ribeiro said. But this new appreciation of the vast ecosystem is not yet widespread.

Visiting Brasilia, the capital city that was built in the Cerrado in the late 1950s, during the dry season (mid-July to mid-September) can be unpleasant. The dry air, with humidity levels similar to those of deserts, irritates the throat and eyes and can cause respiratory problems and nosebleeds.

But everything magically turns green with the first rains, after November. Nevertheless, the population in general is unaware of this phenomenon, even though it could hold the key to ensuring food supplies in this country of 195 million in the future.

*This story is part of a series of features on biodiversity by Inter Press Service (IPS), CGIAR/Biodiversity International, International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), and the United Nations Environment Program/Convention on Biological Diversity (UNEP/CBD) — all members of the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (www.complusalliance.org).



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