In the 1990s, Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado had just returned from East Africa, where he’d been documenting the Rwandan genocide.
The traumatizing project made Salgado physically and psychologically sick. “I saw in Rwanda total brutality,” he told the British Journal of Photography. “I saw deaths by thousands every day. I lost my faith in our species.” The mortal risks of his work began materializing as his own body attacking itself, the trauma response causing infection to spread rampantly.
Salgado became depressed and lost his passion for photography. He returned to his family land in the state of Minas Gerais, expecting to see the lively, lush rainforest he remembered as a child. However, he was devastated to find the trees cut down and the wildlife gone. “The land was as sick as I was,” Salgado told The Guardian. “Everything was destroyed.”
An ambitious idea
His wife, environmentalist Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado, had an idea: They would rebuild the forest.
The ambitious and seemingly impossible project led them to set up the the environmental organization, Instituto Terra. With support in their efforts, the Salgados slowly began the process of rebuilding the 1,754-acre forest.
Over the course of 20 years, the couple worked hard to confront the advanced environmental degradation, turning the barren land into a thriving forest.
During the project, Salgado’s health was replenished alongside the forest’s. Commenting on her husband’s healing as a result of her idea, Lélia said: “There was no hidden agenda. [Replanting the forest] was so natural, instinctive.” However, it’s hard to separate the labor of mending the sick land with a labor of love.
As the insects, fish, birds, and trees returned “I, too, was reborn,” Salgado stated.
An exquisite transformation
The Salgados transformed the land, caring for it until it was once again alive with flora and fauna. “The experience shows that, with the return of vegetation, water again flows from natural springs and Brazilian animal species at risk of extinction have again found a safe refuge,” they wrote on the Instituto Terra site.
Indeed, after years of persistence, 293 species of trees, 172 species of birds, 33 species of mammals, and 15 species of amphibians and reptiles have returned to the land — many of which are endangered.
The Salgados’ major feat also had a significant impact on the area’s ecosystem and climate as a whole. Dried-up springs have been rejuvenated and local temperatures have balanced out.
It wasn’t an easy task in the slightest, with many setbacks — but the couple did not waver. “Like to grow a baby, you need to teach it to walk, to speak, and then they can go to school on their own,” Salgado told Smithsonian Magazine. “Trees are the same. You need to hold them close for a while.”
The Salgados brought a section of the Atlantic Forest back to life: an unprecedented achievement in modern Brazil and a magnanimous act of love.