Research Article: Mapping and quantification of ferruginous outcrop savannas in the Brazilian Amazon: A challenge for biodiversity conservation

Date Published: January 17, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Pedro Walfir M. Souza-Filho, Tereza C. Giannini, Rodolfo Jaffé, Ana M. Giulietti, Diogo C. Santos, Wilson R. Nascimento, José Tasso F. Guimarães, Marlene F. Costa, Vera L. Imperatriz- Fonseca, José O. Siqueira, Walter Finsinger.


The eastern Brazilian Amazon contains many isolated ferruginous savanna ecosystem patches (locally known as ‘canga vegetation’) located on ironstone rocky outcrops on the top of plateaus and ridges, surrounded by tropical rainforests. In the Carajás Mineral Province (CMP), these outcrops contain large iron ore reserves that have been exploited by opencast mining since the 1980s. The canga vegetation is particularly impacted by mining, since the iron ores that occur are associated with this type of vegetation and currently, little is known regarding the extent of canga vegetation patches before mining activities began. This information is important for quantifying the impact of mining, in addition to helping plan conservation programmes. Here, land cover changes of the Canga area in the CMP are evaluated by estimating the pre-mining area of canga patches and comparing it to the actual extent of canga patches. We mapped canga vegetation using geographic object-based image analysis (GEOBIA) from 1973 Landsat-1 MSS, 1984 and 2001 Landsat-5 TM, and 2016 Landsat-8 OLI images, and found that canga vegetation originally occupied an area of 144.2 km2 before mining exploitation. By 2016, 19.6% of the canga area was lost in the CMP due to conversion to other land-use types (mining areas, pasturelands). In the Carajás National Forest (CNF), located within the CMP, the original canga vegetation covered 105.2 km2 (2.55% of the CNF total area), and in 2016, canga vegetation occupied an area of 77.2 km2 (1.87%). Therefore, after more than three decades of mineral exploitation, less than 20% of the total canga area was lost. Currently, 21% of the canga area in the CMP is protected by the Campos Ferruginosos National Park. By documenting the initial extent of canga vegetation in the eastern Amazon and the extent to which it has been lost due to mining operations, the results of this work are the first step towards conserving this ecosystem.

Partial Text

Several studies have investigated conservation and threats to biodiversity and ecosystem services in tropical rainforests [1]. Deforestation rates in the Amazon, the largest remaining tropical forest in the world, have also been well studied [2]. However, little information is available regarding the unique ecosystems found on ironstone rocky outcrops on the tops of plateaus and ridges. In the Carajás Mineral Province (CMP), located in the Eastern Amazon, these ferruginous outcrop savanna ecosystems are called “canga” [3] and occur within a dense forest matrix typical of the Amazon rainforest biome [4]. Canga vegetation, also associated with the presence of iron ore, is known to exist in at least two more regions in Brazil, namely, the Quadrilátero Ferrífero, or Iron Quadrangle [5], and the lateritic banks at Corumbá [6]. There are other types of open vegetation in the Amazon (Fig 1), but they are different from canga vegetation and are determined by different soil conditions (lateritic or very poor sandy soils). In 1967, geologists from United States Steel discovered these ferruginous outcrops on top of the ridges of the CMP, which is one of the most important metallogenic provinces in the world that contains large deposits of iron, as well as manganese, nickel, copper and gold [7]. Significant investments in mineral and ore exploration and exploitation have occurred over the past four decades [8]. Brazil’s constitution and National Forest Code require that in order to obtain a mining license, no net loss of biodiversity and only minimal environmental impacts can occur. Licensing processes demand basic information about biota and environmental services associated with future mining areas [9, 10]. Mining activities must be conducted in the interest of controlling their interference in the environment. Hence, it is necessary to present a Degraded Area Recovery Plan (PRAD in Portuguese), when the environmental viability of the project is assessed [11].

This project was carried out in the Carajás National Forest under permission of IBAMA (SISBIO 35594–2).

To assess the relationship between the Landsat image interpretations and terrain features, field campaigns were conducted in the study area to improve GEOBIA analysis, aiming to identify and map the different land cover and land use units. Fig 4 shows the replacement of canga vegetation observed in 1973 by open pit mines in 1984, 2001 and 2016 in the three sites exploited by the mining industry in the CMP (the N4-N5, SL and S11D mines).

In this paper, we mapped and quantified canga vegetation as well as the changes in LCLU classes in the Carajás region, mainly focusing on the effects of mining operations. Previously, the canga area in Brazil was noted as being approximately 261.6 km2, with 102 km2 in the Iron Quadrangle and 103 km2 in the Carajás region [23]; however, the methods used for these estimates were not fully described. Our results show that the Carajás region originally included 144.2 km2 of canga vegetation, a figure 40% higher than the previous estimates [23]. As mentioned before, previous studies do not describe how canga area was estimated. It is probable that canga area was calculated from analogic aerial photographs, whose spatial distortion was not corrected.

Remote sensing data and GIS tools provided four snapshots in time, permitting the mapping of canga areas and the quantifying of changes in land use. Based on the image analysis, we observed that canga areas in the CMP are 40% higher than previous estimates. The suppression of canga vegetation was associated with the implementation of mining projects, which favours the suppression of forest areas for canga conservation. It is important to emphasize that the most substantial vegetation suppression occurred during the earlier stages of mine implementation, from 1984 to 2001. Later, vegetation suppression was substantially reduced during the open pit mining phase from 2001 to 2016, where a hole is excavated from the earth’s surface. After three decades of mineral exploitation, 80.6% of the canga area in the Carajás region remains untouched. Government and mining industries have used offsets to compensate the unavoidable impacts of iron ore exploitation. Hence, the CFNP was created to protect 21% of the canga area in the CMP. We believe that mapping and quantifying the areas of canga vegetation that have already been lost can be considered the first step towards conserving this important rocky environment.




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