Savannah Sanctuary

While Brazil is renowned for its beautiful tropical coastline, the lesser known interior contains a natural beauty all its own. The region is known as the “Sertão”, and the people that live there have developed a culture and way of life very different from the urbanized metropolitan people of the coast. The biome that dominates the Brazilian interior is called the “Cerrado”, which can be translated to English as Savannah, and is the second most biodiverse region of Brazil after the Amazon rainforest. The cerrado is home to thousands of natural springs that feed the major rivers of South America, from the Amazon to the Plata. Massive underground natural water reservoirs feed these springs and the local flora, characterized by medium sized trees and bushes with enormous root systems that penetrate deep into the earth. During a study tour to Brasilia, the planned modern capital of Brazil located in the middle of the vast nation, Open Campus students visited Parque Nacional Chapada dos Veadeiros in the state of Goiás, a national park which covers 655 square kilometers of a series of plateau and valleys in the heart of the cerrado.

Chapada dos Veadeiros national park is home to hundreds of waterfalls and stunning views. It is a refuge to the animals that have been displaced by the growth of industrial agricultural and mining operations in the cerrado. Regulations against deforestation, mining, ranching, and hunting keep this area under protection of the law. But it is not without its challenges. Illegal mining, foresting and hunting are prevalent, but the accidented geography and size of the park poses a challenge to the staff who patrol the area.  Efforts to raise awareness of the dangers of unregulated agricultural and mining economic interests have had some success. Ecotourism is the main economic activity that promotes conservation of the natural flora and fauna, while employing the local population as guides, hoteliers, and restauranteurs that cater to the visitors of the park.

The first Portuguese colonizers arrived in the area during the 17th century, in search of indigenous tribes to enslave to bring back to the plantations of the coast, and with luck, some precious metals. While gold and diamonds were found in the southern regions of the cerrado, known as Minas Gerais, the northern region of Goiás was home to vast deposits of semi-precious stones and minerals, such a quartz and amethyst. Mining operations grew around the region, along with cattle ranching and manioc farming became the framework of the local colonial economy. The region remained very much rural and undeveloped through the centuries, due to its difficult access – the only suitable mode of transporting goods and people was by donkey, and it would take weeks to reach the coastal capital of Rio.  It was not until the 20th century when industrialization came to Brazil that major national highways were built to integrate the different regions and facilitate economic development. Brasilia was built in the middle of this national road system, as a symbol of national integration. In the surrounding region of the cerrado, industrialized mining operations started propping up and agricultural technology allowed farmers to develop massive plantations to cater to international markets, first in cotton and then in soy. These industrial operations burn and uproot the trees and bushes and drain the topsoil, causing serious disruption to the replenishment of the underground reservoirs. If left unchecked, this can cause irreversible desertification of the Brazilian interior.

There is still much to be learned about the cerrado. Many endemic species of plants have medicinal and cosmetic properties known only to the local population and have yet to be explored by biomedical researchers. As the second most biodiverse region in the most biodiverse country, there are thousands of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects that have yet to be discovered. Chapada dos Veadeiros national park truly is a sanctuary of nature in the modern world.

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