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Spatial heterogeneity, land use and conservation in the cerrado region of Brazil


*Juan F. Silva, ICAE – Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Los Andes, Merida, Venezuela.


Aim  This paper presents a spatial classification of the environmental and ecological diversity of the cerrado region of Brazil, as well as an appraisal of the levels of conversion to agriculture and of the extent of land protection.

Location  The cerrado region of Brazil, located in the centre of Brazil, occupies c. 2.5 million square kilometres. Our study area represents roughly 85% of the total. This ecologically heterogeneous region is dominated by savannas, but also contains several types of forests and xerophytic communities that often form mosaics with the savannas. Its high biodiversity is seriously threatened by the accelerated process of conversion to agriculture and a deficiency in the extent and the representativeness of protected areas.

Methods  We selected 124 land systems from a previous study of the lowlands of South America. The maps were digitized and 41 parameters, where environmental information was available, were used to build a matrix. A cluster analysis was then performed and the results used to classify the land systems into units at two scales. The larger units, characterized by the dominant landform and vegetation, were considered as landscape units. Within each of these, smaller units called ecological units were defined by the physiognomy and phenology of the dominant vegetation, topography and drainage. Using GIS, we mapped the resulting ecological units and incorporated the information on land use from the municipal agricultural census of 1996. In addition, data on the extent of protected land units was used to assess the status of land protection in each ecological unit.

Results  Five landscape units and 15 ecological units were identified, mapped and explained. These units were not continuous but were represented by disjunct patches located in different parts of the study region. Brief descriptions are given including the geographical locations and dominant ecological features. They also include the extent of land conversion to agriculture (1996 census figures) in each of the various patches as well as the number and area of units of conservation.

Main conclusions  The high level of land conversion to agriculture is a major threat to the conservation of the remarkable biodiversity of the cerrado region. This, together with the poor status of land protection, represents the major environmental problem facing this region. However, the fact that areas with similar general ecological conditions have a disjunct distribution is important for conservation purposes, even though the details of floristic similarities and biogeographic influences have still to be worked out. Our detailed spatial classification has made this disjunction clearly apparent and has allowed us to map ecologically similar areas accurately. This allows the evaluation of the status of these areas in terms of land use and land protection and may be used in the design of conservation strategies.