Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado expected to take refuge in the tropical forest home he knew and loved after returning from covering the horrific Rwandan genocide in 1994. What he found instead was a different sort of horror. The trees were gone. A barren wasteland was all that remained where the forest once stood.
Seeing the destruction of his home environment spurred the Minas Gerais native, along with his wife, Lélia, to replant some 1,502 acres of forest over the next 20 years, restoring his home to its former glory.
“The land was as sick as I was—everything was destroyed,” Salgado told The Guardian in 2015. “Only about 0.5 percent 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—this was the most important moment.”
The couple hired some 24-plus workers to help replant the forest tree by tree, and many volunteers hoping to help the environment joined in the efforts. Over the course of two decades, they completely transformed the area. The results are breathtaking and surprising. It speaks of what is possible when the earth is cared for with a committed effort.
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The project, which came to be known as Instituto Terra, has planted some 4 million saplings since 1998. Salgado believes it is important to “listen to the words of the people on the land” in order for the forest to flourish. The right types of flora need to be introduced or it will not be successful.
“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,” Salgado explains. “And if you plant forests that don’t belong, the animals don’t come there and the forest is silent.”
Now, the replanted forest is anything but silent. Among the flora and fauna that have repopulated the area, there are 172 species of birds, 33 mammal species, 293 species of plants, 15 reptile species, and 15 amphibian species. The thriving, biodiversity-rich zone was recently declared a Private Natural Heritage Reserve.
The reforestation has also affected the local environment and climate, causing both more rainfall and cooler weather. Tree cover and root systems help to control soil erosion. The revived ecosystem has also revived 8 natural springs that had previously dried up, which flow at a rate of 20 liters (approx. 5 gallons) of water per minute, and provide much-needed hydration for the drought-prone region.
It has been called one of the greatest environmental initiatives in the world. It certainly goes a long way to demonstrate to millions of people the vitality of Mother Nature. The right sort of commitment over enough time is all that it takes from us. She will take it from there, and she will surprise us with her powers of creation and rejuvenation.