According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 129 million hectares of forest, an area almost as large as South Africa, have disappeared from the earth’s soil forever, since 1990, due to deforestation.
With about 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions coming from deforestation, countless species of plants and animals lose more and more of their habitat every day. These are absolutely devastating figures for the health of our planet and this rate of natural habitat destruction cannot continue.
But what can you do in the face of such a massive environmental massacre? It can make people feel small and helpless when they think about the impact they can actually make. Is there anything we can do to make a big difference? Brazilian photographer, Sebastião Salgado, and his wife, Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado, decided to show what a small group of passionate, dedicated people can do by stopping deforestation and starting the reforestation process.
Salgado is a renowned photographer who has won almost every major prize in photojournalism. He has also published a huge number of books. In the 1990s, after being physically and emotionally exhausted after documenting the horrific barbarity of the Rwandan genocide, he returned to his native country, Brazil, once covered by tropical rainforest. He was shocked to discover that the area was now barren and alienated from wildlife. However, his wife, Lélia, believed it could be restored to its former glory.
“The country was as sick as I was – everything was destroyed,” Salgado said in 2015. “Only 0.5% of the land was covered with trees. My wife then suddenly had a fantastic idea to replant this forest. And when we started doing that, all the insects, birds and fish came back.”
Sebastião and Lélia jointly founded Instituto Terra, a small organisation that has planted 4 million saplings since its foundation and brought the forest back from the dead. “Maybe we have a solution,” said Salgado. “There is one creature that can convert CO2 into oxygen; and that’s the tree. We need to start planting trees on a large scale. You need forest with native trees and you need to collect the seeds in the same region where you plant them. If you plant forests that don’t belong there, the animal population won’t grow and the forest won’t continue to grow.”
And so, having been extremely careful to ensure that everything planted was native to the forest, the area underwent a remarkable transformation over the next 20 years. Nature has returned. Where there used to be a deathly silence, there is now a concert of bird sounds, with insects flying around again.
In total, about 172 species of birds have returned, as well as 33 species of mammals, 293 species of plants, 15 species of reptiles and 15 species of amphibians. This is almost a completely new ecosystem!
The project has inspired millions of people by giving a concrete example of positive ecological actions and has also shown how quickly the environment can recover with the right approach.
“We must listen to the words of the people on the land,” explained Salgado. “Nature is our Earth and if we don’t have a spiritual return to our planet, I’m afraid we’ll be in danger.”