The Water Guardians

The Water Guardians


A water crisis in one of the world's most water-rich countries.

Over a thousand cities in Brazil are currently facing major water shortage issues, including its capital, Brasilia. In 2014, over 9 million people in Brazil saw a major water crisis unfold, despite the fact that Brazil holds 12% of the world’s fresh water resources. With a new and even larger water crisis on the horizon, how could it happen in such a water-rich country in the first place?

"This depletion of the single most important resource on our planet comes as an insidious symptom of deforestation, caused by the wiping of native tree species."

This is the ugliest head of climate change, the lovechild of corporate greed and the agribusiness. It’s a complex story spanning the last 20 years.

Currently the world’s largest soy exporter and just recently surpassing the U.S. in soy exports to China, the agribusiness in Brazil has been considered a pillar of its economy for a long time, with strong corporate ties and heavy government incentives. Seemingly harmless, the soy is mostly exported to several growing economies around the world, as animal feed for the production of meat.

The reason Brazil became such an important player in this commodity began as an answer to the international pressures of Amazon rainforest preservation, starting in the 1990s. Agribusiness needed cheap land, with low visibility, in large quantities, with as much water and as plain as possible.

Enter a huge savanna called the Cerrado.

For many years, this plateau was considered the world’s last agricultural frontier due to its untapped nature. It is rich in fresh water, holding the springs to three of the major rivers in South America, and holding the second largest freshwater reservoir in the world, the Guarani aquifer.

Not surprisingly, this water is mostly underground. The Cerrado’s surface is dry for half of the year, and mainly composed of vegetation that forms an “inverted forest” of sparse trees with deep roots. Those trees act as “water guardians”. They allow for the rainfall coming from the massive Amazon flying rivers to enter the ground and be stored during the dry season. Once underground, it turns into rivers, streams, and rainfall as it gradually surfaces, and goes back towards the Amazon and other biomes.

It is an intricate and complex cycle, with these water guardian trees at its center. Fewer deep rooted trees means that rainfall is compacting the soil and evaporating immediately instead of entering it. The cumulative effect of such phenomenon over a huge area results in a drier environment, loss of biodiversity, and interferes with the regular Amazon rain cycle coming to and from the Cerrado.

"The original Cerrado vegetation was drastically reduced to a fifth of its original area."

Since the agribusiness attention turned to the Cerrado, lobbyists worked around the clock to ensure it wouldn’t be protected. Currently, more than 90% of it remains unprotected, and for the last 15 years, it has been deforested five times faster than the Amazon rainforest. The original Cerrado vegetation was drastically reduced to a fifth of its original area.

Several studies¹ ², published in Nature magazine and other journals, point out that this deforestation of the Cerrado and the transitional area in between the Amazon rainforest provokes a phenomenon called “self-amplified forest loss”, which is when tree transpiration does not reach critical mass to continue the rainfall cycle. Thus, indirect deforestation would bring the Amazon rainforest itself to collapse by 2050 according to these studies.

The collapse of the Amazon as a result of the Cerrado collapse is not something to be taken lightly, as the carbon release and water shortage from both biomes’ downfall will have a dramatic global impact on climate³ ³within our lifetimes. Considering the incalculable economic effects of this on the international community, one could say it’s apocalyptic.

In such a complex scenario, is there anything we can do?

Clearly there is a need to preserve the native flora, but relying on the Brazilian government is bound to be a disappointment, as even deforestation in the Amazon rainforest is making a comeback. From where we sit in Canada, bringing attention to native Cerrado species is one of the best ways to protect this area. One of these species is the baru tree (Dipteryx alata).

A wild, primitive Legume, it produces dry fruits with a highly nutrient-dense seed inside, arguably the most nutritious seed currently known. The baru sapling needs to reach water tables that are two meters deep in a nutrient-poor soil, and so the tree evolved to pack as many nutrients as possible in its seeds to survive. For this, it packs high concentrations of protein, antioxidants, and minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and zinc. Once grown, the tree also harbours the very pollinators and biodiversity soy crops are wiping out.

This specific tree has other interesting characteristics that make it suitable for environmental recovery: it takes five years to mature and bear fruits, depends on cross pollination and thrives best with other native species around.

"Baru trees are also seen as an extra source of income by hundreds of Cerrado communities that forage the fruits and seeds, and avoid deforestation due to this dependence."

The seeds may be the first wild product to bring international attention to the Cerrado’s deforestation, stimulating the emergence of native crops that could at the very least minimize the impact of climate change in the area, refraining from deforestation but still relying on agriculture.

Minimizing the impact of deforestation this way can have a positive cumulative effect, as the commercial awareness of a potential crop like baru bring forth other local species into the limelight. Other species bring other species – there are dozens of edible, highly nutritious, wild fruits in that area - which brings back biodiversity, and keeps the water tables in place. This way, we may not be able to recover completely the already deforested areas, but we may definitely preserve the remaining ones.

The importance of this preservation can not be overstated. The water issue in Brazil is far from being a Brazilian problem, as on the other end of the spectrum lies global meat consumption, driving the demand for cheap agricultural commodities as animal feed. It is this demand that causes the deforestation and the water issues coming from it in first place. It’s simply not sustainable, but the short term gains in employment and profits for the agri-industry means no one thinks about the mid to long term implications.

Can meat consumption stop?

Realistically, not in the short term. But we can vigilantly raise awareness on the damage it makes to the environment, and how crucial it is that we recognize the many things nature holds for us - starting with water.