The Cerrado has supported human populations for ten thousand years, first hunter-gatherers and later small-scale agricultural societies. Neither of these appears to have had a major impact on the integrity of the ecosystem. Beginning in the 16th century, colonization by Portuguese settlers focused mainly on the Brazilian coast, and the interior was once again spared any major development.
Today in Brazil there are still approximately 300,000 indigenous peoples, in more than 200 indigenous societies, the majority of whom reside in the North and Central-West. Of these, 38 ethnic groups still live in the Cerrado region, with a population of approximately 45 thousand people. These groups include the Krahô, Xavante, Xerente, Bororo, Karajá, Kayapó, and Canela. Among these groups the Avá-Canoeiro, Tapuya and Karajá are facing extinction, with less than 300 people remaining.
It was not until the 18th century that the first incursions of colonists began into the Cerrado, starting with settlers seeking gold and precious stones. These first settlements and their accompanying roads and railways opened the way for the development of cattle ranches. Ranches were the first major impact on the ecosystem and remained the primary economic activity in the Cerrado until the 1950s. After the 1970s, with the work of Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária (EMBRAPA) in soil restoration, the Cerrado region was transformed into the most productive and competitive area for crop production in Brazil. Along with deep soils enhanced by fertilizers, this was also a result of low land prices and flat landscapes, which are good for mechanized agriculture.
In the 1950s, the Brazilian government decided to build a new capital city in the state of Goiás, in the core of the Cerrado. The construction of Brasilia, which was accompanied by large-scale highway development, was specifically designed to encourage movement into the interior of the country. New transportation infrastructure enabled the transport of cattle and agricultural products to markets from the region. The Cerrado became Brazil's new agricultural frontier in the 1970s and 1980s, with the establishment of many agricultural megaprojects like roads and hydropower plants. This was accompanied by an increase in population and trade development based in agricultural production, mainly soy and corn. In 2000, the Cerrado region was responsible for 35 percent of all crop production in Brazil. Currently, 58 percent of Brazil's total soy production comes from the Cerrado.
A quarter of all grain produced in Brazil is grown in the Cerrado, and there are nearly 40 million head of cattle, with steady growth projected in both industries, as well as in charcoal production. In total, 37.3 percent of the Cerrado has already been totally converted to human use, while an additional 41.4 percent is used for pasture and charcoal production. The gallery forests in the region have been among the most heavily affected. It is estimated that about 432,814 km², or 21.3 percent of the original vegetation, remains intact today.