Geography – Headwaters

The Xingu River has several tributaries, which lie in an area of naturally open woodland and savannah known as cerrados. Not as photogenic as the rainforest, the cerrados is in many ways an environmental poor relation. Without the advantage of media focus, cerrados has suffered sweeping devastation at the hands of large scale agriculture.

The history of farming in the cerrados goes back over 150 years. By the time von den Steinen was travelling from Cuiaba to the Batovi river in the 1880s, much of the countryside was already occupied by cattle ranches. However, most of the area between the Rio das Mortes and the Xingu was at that time occupied by the fierce and warlike Xavante. It took a further seventy years to complete the disposession of the Xavante.

In the last fifteen years, cattle ranching has increasingly been replaced by soya and maize. The last remnants of the trees, waterholes and even minor topographical features left to give water and shade to the livestock have been levelled, leaving unbroken, featureless biological deserts. As a result the climate has become increasingly arid, with many springs drying up completely. In areas adjoining river valleys or the edges of plateaux it is easy to see the land surface being eaten away progressively as the soil, freed from the restraininng ties of plant roots, is washed away into the river courses, causing silting of the valleys and sediment pollution of the river water.

Although cerrados does not have the biological diversity of rainforest, many of the plants and insects which occupy this difficult environment have unique properties and produce complex chemicals to protect themselves. Pharmaceutical companies often discover medicinal properties in these chemicals, so the loss of species in the cerrados is no less a disaster than the loss of species in the rainforest.

© Patrick Cunningham

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