The place that Sebastião Salgado and his wife, Lélia calls home looks like the real-life Garden of Eden. It sits in a lush enclave surrounded by 1,502-acres of green forest.
They share their backyard with five hundred over species of endangered flora and fauna.
A wasteland as barren as his heart
In the ’90s, Sebastião Salgado was a photojournalist stationed in Rwanda. The horrific on-ground experience of the Rwanda genocide left him traumatised and aching for his hometown of Minas Gerais, Brazil.
Salgado’s work left him physically and emotionally drained and his immune system was compromised under the stress. Under the behest of his physician who told Salgado his body was dying, Salgado decided to take a much needed time off.
He felt that the lush green forest that surrounded his family lands and where he grew up, would heal his heavy heart.
In 1994, he returned only to find the verdant green forest of his childhood had changed as he did.
His once beautiful hometown was a victim of rampant deforestation. Dusty, barren land replaced the once lofty treetops that stretched for miles and miles. He told the Guardian,
A near impossible mission
His wife, Lélia, proposed an impossible mission. She wanted to replant the entire forest.
They set out on their objective, that the greenery would not only return the native flora and fauna to the land but also restore the soil.
With the help of a local forestry engineer and two dozen volunteers, they founded Instituto Terra. Over the years, the team worked day and night to remove invasive weeds that crippled the barren soil.
By December 1999, the Salgados and their team planted their first seedlings on an abandoned cattle ranch he bought from his parents. Each young plant was planted, 10-feet apart across the sprawling 1,754-acres of Salgado’s family land.
Their first attempt reportedly didn’t turn out the way they envisioned for they lost about 60 percent of their seedlings.
Salgado told the Smithsonian Magazine, “We made the holes too tight”.
Undeterred by the major hiccup, the Salgados worked tirelessly and finally figured out a way to reduce their losses to 10 percent. Their hard work paid off for the native tropical trees flourished and with each successive planting, so did the health of the land.
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Since the first sapling, the Salgados and their team have planted more than 2 million saplings across 293 species of trees on their land. Not to mention the 1 lakh saplings that were generously donated that helped make up the dense forest.
Satellite imagery comparison will show how the once arid landscape was quickly replaced by the soothing green forest cover that Salgado remembers of his childhood. The Salgado’s “handcrafted forest” consists of arboreal and shrub varieties of flora native to the region.
He tells the Guardian of how important the preservation of native species are to the region,
Their years of hard work and toil have created a paradise for the native fauna species that were once thought lost. The forest has since seen to the return of 30 different native species of mammals, 168 species of birds, and 15 species of reptiles.
A lost ecosystem was reborn.
Heralded as one of the greatest environmental initiatives in the world, the Salgados’ forest is so rich in biodiversity that it has been declared as a Private Natural Heritage Reserve (PNHR).
The husband and wife’s mission has helped revive 8 natural springs in the area, relinquishing any drought woes that once plagued the region. Compared to the barren wasteland of before, the forest has also brought more rainfall to the area and cooler temperatures.
The Salgados’ forest is now a national park and the couple hopes that their efforts are proof of a simple solution to quell the advancement of climate change, possibly reversing it.
Check out Instituto Terra’s video below and hear the Salgados talking about their passion project that transformed the land: