Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado and his wife Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado have spent the last 20 years planting an 1,750-acre forest to transform a barren plot of land in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state into a tropical paradise.
When the well-established photographer returned from a traumatic trip covering the Rwandan genocide in 1994, he was welcomed to a shocking sight.
His family’s former cattle ranch was in a state of natural degradation. The land was completely destroyed. The greenery he grew up seeing around was all gone. The once captivating green surrounding he was used to had been replaced with dirt and ruined by deforestation.
“The land was as sick as I was–everything was destroyed. Only about 0.5% of the land was covered in trees.” Salgado told The Guardian in 2015.
Salgado’s wife, Lélia, suggested that the couple replant the forest. “It was so natural, instinctive. The land was so degraded, so horrible. What a bad gift! Why not plant?” Lélia told Smithsonian Magazine in 2015.
Sebastião supported his wife’s idea and the couple decided to replant the entire area with a species that once flourished there. Since then, a miraculous transformation slowly began to unravel.
In April 1998, the couple founded Instituto Terra and with the help of a local forestry engineer and about two dozen workers, the Salgados planted their first seedling in December 1999.
In the 20 years since then, the badly eroded land has been completely transformed ‘into a fertile woodland, alive with flora and fauna,’ according to Instituto Terra’s website.
Hundreds of species of flora and fauna now call the former cattle ranch home, including nearly 300 species of trees, about 170 species of birds, 30 different species of mammals, and 15 species of amphibians and reptiles, many of which are endangered.
“All the insects and birds and fish returned and, thanks to this increase of the trees I, too, was reborn – this was the most important moment.” Salgado said.
Now, a large part of the couple’s property, 1,502 acres, has been declared a Private Natural Heritage Reserve and is used to educate people about the environment.
“Perhaps we have a solution. There is a single being which can transform CO2 to oxygen, which is the tree. We need to replant the forest. You need forest with native trees, and you need to gather the seeds in the same region you plant them or the serpents and the termites won’t come. And if you plant forests that don’t belong, the animals don’t come there and the forest is silent.” Salgado told The Guardian.
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