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OU Researcher Studies Climate Change And Fire On The Brazilian Savanna

Ostriches are seen at a farm in the Cerrado ecosystem, outskirts of Brasilia, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011.
Eraldo Peres
Ostriches are seen at a farm in the Cerrado ecosystem, outskirts of Brasilia, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011.

The Central Brazilian state of Goiás is home to a diverse ecosystem known as the Cerrado, which can be understood as the Brazilian savanna. The area is massive, encompassing around 2 million square kilometers, and is home to 44 species that can be found nowhere else on earth.

Around the world, fire management is often used for the purpose of disturbing ecosystems, such the Cerrado, in such a way that it can increase the diversification of species. But in Brazil, the concept of fire management is not well developed in policy. 

Lara Souza, an assistant professor for the Department of Microbiology and Plant Biology at the University of Oklahoma, and member of the Oklahoma Biological Survey, is a native of Brazil. In 2012, Souza returned to Brazil to research fire management in an area of the Cerrado known as “campo sujo,” or “dirty fields.” She is actively analyzing how climate change and invasive species are affecting the region.

In some respects, Brazil’s “dirty fields” are similar to Oklahoma’s prairies. Souza says they both have warm season grasses and woody shrubs.

“They've also have experienced similar disturbances with cattle and agriculture and invasive species, Souza told KGOU’s World Views.

“We see, for example, when we burn the Cerrado that within the next day there’s things flowering already and re-sprouting. And so there’s definitely strategies of the plants to deal with it, but there is still a lot of contention,” said Souza.

Souza says fire management can be a good mechanism for preserving and diversifying Brazil’s savanna ecosystems, but fire management policy is still in its infancy.

Souza suggests the Cerrado’s image may be another roadblock.

“I feel like it's sort of the stepchild of Brazilian ecosystems,” Souza said.

She says the public does not adore the savannah ecosystem as much as the Atlantic forests and the Amazon. However, Souza contends that maintaining the region’s biodiversity should be of utmost importance to Brazil.

Presently, she hopes  fire management policy will become a part of Brazil’s future, as more scientists are learning how to present their information to policymakers, and more policymakers are learning the benefits of fire as an ecological tool.


The forgotten ecosystem

And partially it's because for one thing, in the Cerrado, I feel like it's sort of the stepchild of Brazilian ecosystems. Everybody really loves the Atlantic Forest, loves the Amazon, and so do I, but the Cerrado has its importance for it, you know, it's a very different system from those other two systems ... There's nothing wrong with having an open system, you know, a system that is not a forest. And so I think that there's still a little, this desire, of actually not disturbing the Cerrado and allowing it to become, because over time, if you don't burn the Cerrado, you will ... undergo succession like we have systems here in the U.S. and you become a forest gallery. But you lose a lot of species in that process. And so I think there's still a lot of like passion in Brazil for forests. And now we're starting to gain the appreciation of the importance of fire but he still hasn't the policy hasn't gotten there yet.

Hope from South Africa

There's a really famous group of ecologists in South Africa that have been working with, you know, sort of seven ecosystems there for a long time and they've actually ... started including more and more Brazilians into their symposium. That's really important because ... they basically can educate Brazilian scientists on what are sort of the approaches you should have to talk to policymakers and actually get your scientific information heard. And what are the effective, sort of, you know, approaches that they've used. And so my collaborator and other collaborators in Brazil are starting to attend those meetings and I feel like now they have the support and they know the strategies on how to potentially get their voice heard.

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