Deforestation is one of the biggest challenges facing the world.
When you cut down forests, you interrupt the water cycle and destroy the climate.
In particular, Brazil faces ecological catastrophe with deforestation, with an estimated quarter of a million square miles clearcut in the Amazon since the 1970s and 18 trees a second cut down in 2022.
Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado found this out the hard way after returning to his family’s property in Minas Gerais, Brazil in 1994.
He’d been on assignment in the African nation of Rwanda, surrounded by tragedy and death, but what he saw when he came back also sickened him.
Miles and miles of clear cut land, desiccated and fallow.
Stunned by the scale of deforestation in his area, Salgado didn’t turn to activism or outraged letter writing campaigns.
Instead, he took action and started planting trees with his wife Lélia.
Four million trees, to be exact.
Mission: save the rainforest
In 1994, Salgado came back from reporting in Rwanda, where he’d been covering the horrific genocide of the Tutsi ethnic minority by the Hutus.
An estimated 490,000 to 800,000 Tutsi victims fell prey to the Hutu majority after being blamed for economic inequality and government injustice in the country.
The trauma of this event was more than enough for one person to bear, but when Salgado got back to Minas Gerais in central Brazil he was horrified to also see his family’s land stripped of trees and the surrounding areas almost completely deforested by timber companies.
As Salgado puts it, “everything was destroyed.”
He was disheartened, but not beaten. He and his wife, along with a modest crew of volunteers set out to replant trees in the surrounding territory and achieved tremendous results. Indeed, from 1994 to 2012, Lélia and Salgado planted four million trees.
They dedicated their time to the project zealously, eventually founding a nonprofit organization four years later named the Terra Institute with the express aim of “ecosystem restoration” and growing seedlings to plant. Terra also strove to further scientific investigation and increase environmental awareness and knowledge among Brazilian youth.
As they replanted acres and acres of the rainforest in the region, decimated animal populations started to come back as well. They began to come in at a trickle and increased, eventually including over 170 types of birds, over 30 kinds of mammals, and dozens of reptiles and amphibians.
This tremendous progress kept on building momentum and Salgado and his wife felt enormous satisfaction as trees began growing where there had only been stumps.
But they wanted to address the roots of what had caused the deforestation: putting profits above the planet and ignorance about how the ecosystem functions.
For that reason, they doubled down on education and awareness, founding CERA, the Center for Environmental Education and Recovery and already offering hundreds of programs to over 60,000 people in the surrounding areas of Minas Gerais state by a decade ago.
CERA has only grown since that time, spreading ecosystem education to an area under threat for clear cutting and in high demand. CERA is working to get through to community leaders, locals, ranchers and entrepreneurs about the value of protecting the ecosystem and how to log sustainably instead of slashing and burning, and cutting the rainforest down indiscriminately. They are also actively in communication and dialog with the government in order to educate and guide them in best practices for maintaining the rainforest ecosystem and welfare of the animals.
To say Salgado and his wife have made a big difference is an understatement, and their work has already reached a very wide audience in Brazil and also worldwide, including a recent viral article on Upworthy.
As deforestation continues to threaten the global ecosystem and especially nations like Brazil, the work of such people are incredibly valuable, as is the establishment of organizations such as Terra.
Why is this happening?
Corporate greed and lax government deregulation and corruption have had their intended effect in countries like Brazil, sending logs to timber mills and export warehouses, as they are all over the world, particularly indiscriminately in the developing world.
In addition to being horrible for the land itself, leading to the direct extinction of animal species and hijacking the water cycle, this kind of deforestation also accounts for an estimated 15% of the harmful emissions that are contributing to climate change.
Since the late 1970s around one million square kilometers of the Amazon rainforest have been laid low in South America, often with environmentally harmful slash and burn techniques.
This has been done to clear space for profitable beef cattle to graze and in order to harvest the valuable timber, regardless of the environmental cost.
The Amazon and Brazilian rainforest in states like Minas Gerais comprises only 30% of the world’s tree cover, and the picture of what’s happening is equally disturbing on continents like Africa and Asia, including serious problems with clear cutting and destruction of old-growth forests in North America.
The path forward
The path forward lies in awareness and action. Nonprofits like Terra perform a valuable service and educate the public and government, as well as groups like the Rainforest Alliance.
The Rainforest Alliance is a perfect example of a highly effective organization which works to protect the ecosystem and rural people throughout Latin America and the world, including Africa.
Rainforest Alliance is making a huge difference on the ground around the world, working with thousands of businesses and getting farmers and rural communities educated and active in helping the environment.
Valuable and dedicated work is also being done by many similar groups like Salgado’s Terra Institute in Brazil. Salgado never stopped taking photos, either. His inspiring and remarkable photography is continuing to gain an appreciative audience in Brazil and around the world.
The work that Salgado and his wife started three decades ago came at a time when many people, companies and countries still had little awareness about the crucial importance of the ecosystem and our forests.
None of us have that excuse any longer. The impact of climate catastrophe is clear for all to see. It’s time to get serious about protecting our trees and farming and growing meat in a healthier way for the land and for our communities.