LAWRENCE — Remote-sensing techniques first honed to track agricultural production and land-cover changes in America’s heartland now are enabling scientists and policymakers to grasp ecological degradation under way in the Cerrado, the second-largest geographical region in Brazil.
The Cerrado, an immense tropical zone originally made up of forest savanna, wooded savanna, park savanna, wetlands and forests, comprises about 21 percent of Brazil’s territory and borders the Amazon rainforest. It plays cradle to a richness of unique biodiversity that rivals, if not surpasses, that neighboring region.
However, starting in the 1960s, exploitation of natural resources in the Cerrado became a national priority.
“With Brazil’s military taking over in a coup, development of Brazil’s hinterlands became a geopolitical imperative for the government,” said Chris Brown, associate professor of geography and environmental studies at the University of Kansas. “So you have road building coming into the area. Brazil borrowed money from international banks and multilateral development banks like the World Bank to make dams and to move hundreds of thousand of families from the more populated south into this area.”
Brown said that cities quickly sprung up along the roadways in the Cerrado, and agricultural production grew at a fast clip. Today, with Brazil’s heavy reliance upon biofuels, more and more Cerrado land is being converted to grow sugarcane for ethanol.
“There are amazing efficiencies with what Brazil does with its sugarcane,” Brown said. “But along with that comes pollution and industrial waste, not to mention the working conditions in some of these refineries. It does employ people, but it’s very hard work in some of those areas of the refineries and sugarcane fields — and even accusations of slave labor. They’re rare, but nonetheless this is part of the social side of the story.”
Now, with funding from the National Science Foundation, Brown is collaborating with scientists in Kansas and Brazil to use satellite remote sensing to compile comprehensive data about land-use changes in the Cerrado. The Kansas Applied Remote Sensing Program has developed these satellite remote sensing techniques at KU. KARS is a research program of the Kansas Biological Survey that conducts research on environmental and agricultural applications of remote sensing technology.
Further, Brown and his colleagues will analyze the policies and economic drivers behind the expansion of the sugarcane industry in the area.
“We’ll be sharing information, knowledge, techniques and data so we can really map the expansion of the sugarcane,” Brown said. “And after mapping the sugarcane, we’ll be investigating the history of the area. Remote sensing allows us to go back in time several years, because we know the signatures of these various land uses. And we can see what the sugarcane is replacing. Is it replacing native habitats? Is it replacing small farms? We may have new questions such as, ‘Wait a minute, if we’re now producing sugarcane, who’s producing rice and beans?’”
Also, the researchers will interview farmers, indigenous people, members of nongovernmental organizations and other stakeholders to gain an across-the-board understanding of natural and manmade changes in the threatened ecosystem.
The KU researcher said that at the current pace of development, the Cerrado could “disappear” by 2030.
“There are environmental laws and regulations in Brazil that, if enforced, will prevent the entire destruction of this biome,” said Brown. “We’ll make this data available to the largest number of people possible who can use it to make informed decisions. We have a chance with this work here in Kansas and Brazil to have a positive impact. We’re not going to solve the debate, but hopefully provide better information about what’s happening.”
Brown’s primary collaborators on the project are Jude Kastens at KARS, Marcellus Caldas at Kansas State University and Alexandre Coutinho and the MAPAGRI project at Embrapa in Brazil.