Sebastião Salgado returned home to Brazil in 1994 after spending years abroad, expecting to find comfort in the tree-covered rainforest paradise he’d left behind.
However, when he got back to Minas Gerais, he found that the forest that had belonged to his parents had completely dried out and died due to deforestation and uncontrolled exploitation of its natural resources, especially iron ore. He and his wife acquired the land and decided to do something about it, spending the next 20 years replanting the entire forest.
“The land was as sick as I was – everything was destroyed,” Salgado told the Guardian. “Only about 0.5% of the land was covered in trees. Then my wife had a fabulous idea to replant this forest. And when we began to do that, then all the insects and birds and fish returned and, thanks to this increase of the trees I, too, was reborn – this was the most important moment.”
The couple set up Instituto Terra with the noble goal of restoring the 17,000-acre property to its natural state. The organization they set up and ran recruited partners and volunteers, and together they set about planting 4 million saplings.
Taking care of the plants – all carefully sourced and native to the area – they were able to restore the forest, which flourished over the next 20 years.
It wasn’t easy. The land was dry, and the rains didn’t return until 1999. They first had to restore nitrogen to the soil, planting legumes, before they could plant seedlings. Even then, after the first planting, most of the plants died in the ground.
“We made the holes too tight,” Salgado told the Smithsonian. “For weeks I was sick – sick to see this disaster.”
They got better at it, and the following year they only lost 20 percent of the plants. Today, it is only around 10 percent. The forest, now restored and home to all sorts of local wildlife, including snakes and birds, is a nature preserve and nonprofit. They train young ecologists, who plant and nurture millions of seedlings in the nursery, the Smithsonian report.