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Santa Terezinha, Brazil

Chapada das Mesas National Park

High plateaus and beautiful waterfalls frame this ecologically significant nature preserve. 

Brazil is famous for its Amazonian rain forest, and rightfully so. It is, then, astonishing to learn that the country is home to a whole different unique ecoregion that supports a dazzling array of biodiversity and is threatened by the demands of encroaching economic development. That region is called the Cerrado, and Chapada das Mesas National Park is one of the few parts of it designated for conservation.

The Cerrado is a tropical savanna that constitutes 21% of Brazilian territory; among the country’s major habitat types, this makes the Cerrado second only to the Amazonian rain forest in terms of total land area. Making up most of central Brazil, it has been designated by the World Wildlife Fund as the most biologically rich savanna in the world, boasting an incredibly heterogeneous range of plant and animal life with remarkable high levels of endemism (i.e., incidence of species found only in that place).

In the mid-20th century, the Cerrado was identified as a prime region for economic expansion in Brazil, thanks to the development of new agricultural techniques that could render fertile land that had theretofore been considered unfit for cultivation. Starting in the 1960s, enormous amounts of lime were dumped on newly-cleared fields in the Cerrado to neutralize the acidic soil.

Encouraged over the following decades by government policies, growing urban demand, and a rising population expanding into previously, principally indigenous areas, today the Cerrado is a source of major agricultural production in Brazil, contributing 70% of the country’s beef and providing enormous amounts of soy and charcoal (i.e., trees chopped down to make room for all this other stuff, and turned into fuel for the steel industry), among other products.

This rapid and increasing transformation of the Cerrado has seen very little counterbalance in terms of conservation efforts; the biome is not designated by the Brazilian government as a National Heritage, and currently only 1.5% of the region is federally protected. Thus Chapada das Mesas National Park — like the plateaus it is named after — is a striking, lonely island in the midst of a diverse and shifting landscape. Created only in 2005 and consisting of 160,046 hectares (395,482 acres), Chapada das Mesas isn’t easy to reach, but treats its intrepid visitors to gorgeous waterfalls, crystal clear natural pools, and an untouched pocket of a unique and enormous ecological mosaic.