Meet the adventurer: photographer Sebastião Salgado on reviving the forests of Brazil’s Vale do Rio Doce

Having spent his career documenting marginalised communities around the world, the celebrated Brazilian photographer has returned home to focus on environmental restoration in the southern state of Minas Gerais.

Sebastião Salgado working on Amazônia, a collection of photographs of the Brazilian Amazon.

Photograph by Felipe Reichert
By Angela Locatelli
Published 18 Oct 2022, 10:00 BST

What drew you to the camera?

I describe photography as a total invasion of my life. I was doing a PhD in economics in Paris when my wife Lélia, who was studying architecture, bought a camera for her projects. I looked through a viewfinder for the first time and my life completely changed. What I loved, what I found interesting, what made me upset — I could capture all of it. Photography took up so much space in my life that there was nothing left for any other activity.

How did your early life inform the socio-economic stories you covered as a photojournalist?

I came from an underdeveloped country with huge social problems, and for a while I studied and worked as an economist. I was a Marxist, then became a Maoist and afterwards a hippy. These movements gave me a communitarian vision of the planet, which inevitably led me to a human, social kind of photography. I focused on this for most of my life, until I became an environmentalist.

Why did you turn to the environment?

As a photographer, I witnessed exceptionally terrible things. After documenting the 1994 Rwandan genocide and its aftermath, my body finally started giving signs things weren’t good for me. I became sick and grew hugely depressed. A doctor recommended I rest for a few months, so Lélia and I moved back to Brazil, to the southern state of Bahia, part of the country’s Atlantic Forest region. We lived by the beach, close to ancient tribes. I became quieter, I felt better.

Around this time, my parents left me the family farm in Vale do Rio Doce, in the neighbouring state of Minas Gerais. We decided to abandon photography and become farmers for good. But when we got there, we found the land had been completely eroded. It used to be a beautiful farm, all forested, with a river streaming through it where I would swim as a child. The soil was dead, and it was impossible to live on dead land. It was Lélia who asked me, “Sebastião, why do you not replant the forest?”.

In 1998, you and Lélia set up Instituto Terra, a nonprofit organisation focused on environmental restoration in the Vale do Rio Doce. What was the process like?

It was the first time anyone had planted a rainforest on a large scale in Brazil. To rehabilitate the whole estate, we had to plant around three million trees. I had a name in photography, so I managed to raise money and we started planting an average of 150,000 trees per year. Then came a nursery, a laboratory for the seeds, which allowed us to plant over two hundred different species of native tropical trees. Afterwards, we created a training centre for environmental technicians and enrolled 20 farmers per year. We didn’t do this because of an ideology or activism; we were just ordinary citizens, who decided to plant a forest.

What does the farm look like now?

We’ve planted those three million trees, and Instituto Terra has become the biggest rural ecological institute in Brazil. When you build a forest, you have to do it in a sequence. First, you plant the ‘pioneer’ tree species, which create the conditions for the forest to grow. Then come the secondary trees. Two decades after the start of the project, we’re planting one million ‘climax’ trees [durable species that thrive in stable conditions]. Many will disappear, but the ones that don’t will be around for 1,000 years.

Within our farm, we’ve brought back a huge amount of biodiversity. We have practically all the insects of the region, 173 different bird species, mammals — we’ve even seen jaguars. Now these pockets of biodiversity are starting to radiate out to other areas.

What’s next?

We’ve created a project for the entire Vale do Rio Doce. The valley was named after the river that runs through it, the Rio Doce. When I was a child, it was large, full of alligators; today, there’s very little water left. We’re rehabilitating the entire water basin — each small stream that feeds the river and 370,000 springs. To rehabilitate a source of water, you must plant on average 500 trees in one hectare of land. So far, we’ve planted about 2,100 such small forests, and we’ve just received financing to plant 4,200 more in 3,000 different farms.

How has your relationship with nature changed?

When I returned to the farm, I came back to my origins. I know it as I know my palm lines; it’s 37 miles in length, but I know every angle, every stone. I came to know it when it was a forest, and I’m seeing it as a forest again. Today, I realise I’m closing a circle, and this circle is my life. At the moment, whenever Lélia and I visit, we stay in the training centre, but we’re building a house there because it’s where we want to finish our days. You cannot imagine how happy this makes me.

Every year, Annabel’s private club in London hosts the month-long Annabel’s for the Amazon campaign in partnership with The Caring Family Foundation to raise awareness about the perils of deforestation. In 2022, they hosted acclaimed photographer and conservationist Sebastião Salgado, co-founder of Instituto Terra.

Published in the December 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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