Continuing conversion of Brazil’s Cerrado savannah into farmland is directing deforestation away from the Amazon rainforest but, at the same time, may be fuelling climate change and causing damage to watersheds.

The Cerrado had seen an area of 105,000km2 – roughly the size of South Korea – deforested since 2008 as it was being converted into farmland in a process that has seen Brazil become the world’s largest exporter of soyabeans, beef and chicken, according to a Reuters report on 28 August.

The deforested area in the Cerrado, home to 5% of all species on Earth, was 50% more than in the Amazon during the same period.

When accounting for the size differences of the Amazon and Cerrado biomes, the rate of deforestation in the Cerrado was almost four times higher than in the Amazon.

Having already lost roughly 50% of its native forests and grasslands, the deforestation rate had slowed down since the early 2000s when Brazil’s “soyabean boom” was gaining speed, but savannah was still being converted to feed Chinese demand for meat and grains, said Reuters.

China’s trade war with the USA had seen Brazilian soyabean exports rise 18% through the first seven months of 2018, a trend that was promising for the farmers in the Matopiba region bordering the Cerrado, consisting of the states of Maranhao, Tocantis, Piaui and Bahia.

As a result of the constantly growing demand, soya plantings in Matopiba had more than doubled in the past decade.

However, the farming boom was fuelling climate change, with 248M tonnes of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere from the Cerrado in 2016 due to destruction of surface vegetation, according to Brazilian conservation group Climate Observatory.

Additionally, the bare soil surface was being washed away into small water streams that many of the region’s communities drew drinking water from, turning them silty and unsuitable for use as potable water.

Eight of Brazil’s dozen major water systems had their sources in the Cerrado and environmental groups were now saying that deforestation in the Cerrado was now threatening entire Brazil’s water supply, Reuters said.

Groups such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Foundation were now pushing for large multinational companies to commit to stopping deforestation in the savannah, and more than 60 companies – including Unilever, McDonald’s and Walmart – had signed the Cerrado Manifesto to do so.

Unilever and Walmart had committed to achieving zero deforestation in their supply chains by 2020, while the global grain trader Louis Dreyfus Co (LDC) became, in June, the first commodity trader to stop buying soyabeans from newly deforested land.

Additionally, Brazil’s former environment minister Jose Sarney Filho had proposed an international effort to compensate landowners who preserved natural habitats.

Brazil had pledged to eliminate illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030 as part of its obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement, but there were no similar efforts in the Cerrado, said Reuters.

Farmers were required to preserve only 20% of natural plant cover and those who did not maximise land use could risk having their land declared idle and redistributed under Brazilian law.