When photographer Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado returned home to his family’s farm in Brazil with his wife Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado, they found the land lifeless and empty. Together, they transformed it – planting more than two million trees over 20 years.
Deforestation is one of today’s most urgent environmental problems, destroying the habitats of millions of animals, birds and insects as well as producing approximately 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Losing trees also has a much longer-term impact on climate change, as they help to regulate our atmosphere by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen – so recent statistics from the United Nations reporting permanent loss of 129 million hectares of forest since 1990 are heartbreaking.
Fortunately, that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done – and Sebastião Salgado and Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado are living proof. Since creating non-profit organisation Instituto Terra in 1998, they have successfully regenerated a 1,754-acre area of Atlantic Forest in the Rio Doce Valley – an area of Sebastião’s home state of Minas Gerais.
When the project began, Sebastião had just returned from photographing the war in Rwanda – an experience which left him haunted and longing to return to the peace and beauty of the forested farm where he lived as a child. Setting foot back on his family’s land, however, Salgado and his wife did not find the idyl they had hoped for. Instead, financial pressure had forced his father to replace trees with crops for feeding cattle – leaving the land empty of life.
“The land was as sick as I was – everything was destroyed,” Salgado said. “Only about 0.5% of the land was covered in trees. Then my wife had a fabulous idea to replant this forest. And when we began to do that, then all the insects and birds and fish returned and, thanks to this increase of the trees I, too, was reborn.”
Using his renown as a photographer, Sebastião managed to secure donations and grants from governmental and environmental organisations when the project began – but the process wasn’t always easy and money was tight. The couple’s passion for their work couldn’t be overcome, however, and Sebastião eventually parted with his beloved Leica M7 camera to sustain the project – raising $107,500, which went on to fund over 30,000 additional trees.
Today, the area is unrecognisable. What was once barren land is now a lush forest home to 172 species of bird, 293 species of plant and over 33 types of mammal – each one a testament to Sebastião and Lélia’s dedication.
While programs like Instituto Terra are time and resource-intensive, they also prove that we can reverse some of the damage we have done to our planet. With climate change a more pressing concern than ever, they are also an important reminder that it’s not yet too late.