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Sebastião Salgado: A Father of a  Forest

Wikimedia | Fernando Frazão/Agência BrasilSebastião Salgado is a world renowned photojournalist, having captured images from every corner of the earth; he has a collection that spans 45 years. His monochrome images have been noted as a documentation of the human condition, delivering striking images of life in over 120 countries, finding the most unsettling, poignant, eye-opening and perspective-altering shots. They display lives we would not otherwise have known of.  
Salgado was born on a farm, which he describes as 50% rainforest. During his Ted Talk he describes how he grew up with flocks of incredible birds, and swam in small rivers with caimans who he bonded with as if they could were family pets. He continues painting this idyllic picture as he recalls living alongside 34 other families on this ‘farm’, and being self-sufficient, literally living off the land for all their needs. They consumed what the land produced and only traded on a market once a year. This lifestyle paired with the tumultuous politics in Brazil at the time, led Salgado to become a leftist activist and then an economist. His work included starting initiatives in Africa with the World Bank. Although it seems like photography is a world away from a career in economics, Salgado was exposed to the politics and international workings of the world which led him to document it. Combined with his own political beliefs and childhood, he took to photography, displaying the silent dramas of the world.

Wikimedia | PkobelHis collection entitled ‘Migration’ became a popular exhibition and book. After beholding and recording every aspect of the human existence, Salgado became known as an anthropologist journalist, telling us everything we didn’t know about human existence; the good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between. However, the experiences Salgado had when taking the pictures triggered illness and a lost faith in humanity. After witnessing the height of brutality in Rwanda, Salgado’s health took a turn for the worse and he was advised to stop photography for a while until his health returned. His family left him and his wife, Léila, a large plot of land which Salgado describes as being ‘as dead as [he] was’. Due to development projects, the region in which Salgado grew up in went from being 50% rainforest to less than 2% rainforest. The original Atlantic Rain Forest covered an area of well over 400,000 square miles of Brazilian territory, stretching the length of the country. It is considered one of the planet’s richest repositories of biodiversity yet also one of the most threatened. Salgado has stated that “this considerable wealth is so significant that the two major world records of botanical diversity for woodland plants have been registered in this biomass: 454 species in a single 2.5-acre area south of Bahia and 476 species in a similarly small area in the mountainous region of Espírito Santo”.

Flickr | Ulrich PetersIt was Léila’s idea to restore the area to aid her husband’s recovery and simply to bring back a beautiful part of nature that had once lived and offered life to so many others. In a way, Salgado and the forest were a reflection of each other. Both needed Léila to help them flourish and live, both needed to recover from experiencing the worst of humanity. They enlisted the help of a forest engineer and began planting trees, failing for many years to establish sustained growth. Their perseverance led them to results. By only using local and native plants, and meticulously replicating the ecosystem that made up the previous forest, Salgado and Léila eventually regrew and entire section of the Atlantic Forest! They learnt about seedling distribution and started slowly, only planting a few hundred trees. This eventually increased to hundreds of thousands of trees being sown. Not only did they regenerate the plant and fauna population, their results managed to reintroduce wildlife that had left or deceased due to the exploitative development projects. Native jaguars, blue macaws and the tamarin monkey all became endangered but found a home in the newly restored forest and started to increase in number. The Atlantic forest is home to around 20,000 species of flora and fauna! The Salgado’s project has been pivotal in conserving the rich biodiversity within Brazil. Around 39 endemic species lived in the area the Salgados were working on and they have managed to reintroduce the various animals that once inhabited the area.  This beautiful project grew into so much more than a rainforest, they were able to convince developers, NGOs and their government to invest in their plot of land which after success, allowed for the establishment of Instituto Terrar. The institute offers vital environmental education, has initiated conservation projects and ecosystem restoration. It has even helped to install effective and eco-friendly water irrigation systems in villages in the surrounding areas!

Flickr | cvptsSalgado is one of those rare people who have managed to make positive change within various industries. He has shown us how we are a deeply intelligent and creative yet deeply destructive species. Salgado’s photography has prompted much humanitarian work and education around isolated lives across the world. After exposing all aspects of the human existence, whether they be good or bad, Salgado then turned his lens to everything else; the Earth that we take for granted so often. It seems like a regression, to photograph nature and animals after telling such intricate stories about humanity and how we have manipulated the earth to our specifications. Conversely, Salgado went back to photography after a long break to display a time when we used to live in equilibrium with nature, when our arrogance didn’t result in so much injustice. He also chronicled the many effects the human race was having on the earth. After experiencing the worst of humanity, Salgado had to find a way to heal, and that was through rekindling his bond with nature, the mother of us all on this Earth. Léila convinced him to recreate the paradise he remembered so often and so fondly. He describes the project as creating the only factory that will turn carbon dioxide into oxygen. The only natural machine capable of capturing the carbon we are constantly producing and turning it into something positive, are the trees.

Flickr | Catarina NevesIf two people can achieve such an astonishing victory for the environment, then there is still hope. Imagine what we could preserve and re-establish if we all contributed to such projects.


By Hanna-Johara Dokal - Online Journalism Intern

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