Meet the Brazilian Couple who turns deserts into forests

Image source: PNHR Bulcão Farm | by Weverson Rocio - 2012

A Brazilian couple, Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado and wife Lelia have successfully created a 1502 acre forest in a span of 20years. The Minas Gerais natives, in 1998 founded Instituto Terra and invited well-wishers to join them in replanting trees to restore the value of land that had been rendered worthless through reckless human activities. With the support of friends and other sources of goodwill, the Salgados managed to spearhead a thriving project that so far houses over 500 endangered plants and animal species.

Have you ever planted a tree that made it to maturity? Well, many years back, I recall planting a few trees which probably made it into full grown and commercially viable landmarks. I say “probably” because I am not very sure when, where and how it happened. It was most likely during a tree planting initiative by the government, learning institution or scouts club.

That’s just how casual and flippant my attitude was towards environmental conservation, but, does that surprise you?

Well, it may, but unfortunately, I represent a large constituency of people whose reckless attitude towards trees and wildlife would leave you wondering whether tomorrow exists at all.

Not so for the legendary Brazilian photojournalist Sebastiao Ribeiro Salgado. In the early 1990s, this man was busy covering and documenting the shocking accounts of genocide in Rwanda. As you would expect, he left the massacre fields shaken and unable to make sense of what man is capable of doing when he is set free from the leash of sanity and conscience.

While boarding his flight back to Brazil, Ribeiro weighed heavily with dejection. He hoped to find solace and psychological healing in Mother Nature’s embrace as he traversed a lush green forest that he had left back home.

But on arriving in the village, he only found a barren, dusty land that stretched miles on end.

“In less than five years, a land once well covered with trees and assorted vegetation had all been wiped out by rampant deforestation” he lamented.

It even hurt him more to learn that the birds and wildlife might have been displaced or even died following the wanton human activity.  The land was fallow, neglected and mostly exposed to the ravages of wind.

“The land was as sick as I was. Only about 0.5% of the land was covered in trees,” He said.

Shocking reality

Image source:, @ Instituto Tarra

As the most significant plants on earth, trees store carbon, supply us with oxygen and provide shelter for wildlife. Sad to say, we lose approximately 18 acres of forest cover every year (this is almost the size of the country of Panama)

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), ½ of the world’s tropical forests have been destroyed.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) on its part reports that Mother Nature loses 18.7 million acres of forest every year. For Sebastiao Ribeiro and other people of conscience, these statistics are unnerving to say the least.

Saldago’s wife proposes a recovery plan

While Salgado was still engulfed in a state of lamentation and blame shifting, his wife Lelia was thinking big.

“What do you think honey, can’t we just replant this entire forest,” she proposed.

As if that is all he had been waiting to hear, Sebastiao supported her and the couple embarked on the noble mission.

The project begins

Image source:, @ InstitutoTerra

Without delay, the ambitious conservationist purchased a neglected cattle ranch from his dad and launched a network of passionate partners and Sebastiao Salgado workers who would finance and keep the extraordinary project afloat.  Encouraged by the massive goodwill and support, the couple founded Instituto Terra, an organization that they used to restore the forest                                                                                                                  The first seed was planted in December 1999 by Salgado. To hasten the process they hired 24 workers, to begin with. Later on, many more volunteers joined the team, and together worked day and night uprooting weeds and planting new seeds.

Hard work truly pays off.

Native trees responded well and following that initial success they received a generous donation of one Lakh samplings that blossomed into a dense forest.

Ribero’s human made forest mainly comprises of shrub varieties and local arboreal.

Wow! Unbelievable, an area which was once an arid and disturbing eyesore is now bubbling with green vegetation cover? Miracles are real.

Since the project kicked off in 1998, over two million saplings of 293 tree species have been planted. Overall, 1502 acres of forest has been restored.

Owing to its richness in biodiversity, this zone was upgraded to a Private Natural Heritage Reserve.

The impact the forest has had

Image source: Instituto Terra’s Fauna | by Leonardo Merçon – 2012.

This project is unique and unrivaled by any environmental initiative in the world.

  • It has not only helped to check soil erosion but also restored some of the dying natural springs in the surrounding. About eight spring s of water which had dried up now flow at approximately 20 liters per minute. The once drought-prone area can now heave a sigh of relief, thanks to the  Salgados
  • The project has also silenced the climate change nay-sayers by confirming that no matter the damage, the trend can well be reversed. This forest has created much more rain and cooled the area climate in a way that no one can doubt and question.

So far, the most outstanding aspect of Salgado’s forest is the return of the lost fauna. The current headcount stands at;

  1. 172 bird species
  2. 33 mammal species
  3. 15 amphibian and reptile species

This is a significant milestone because just two decades ago, it was impossible to imagine that this area would teem with such plant and animal species.

Amazingly, the majority of plant and animal species in this forest are featured on the endangered list.

Let’s face it; Climate change is a reality. Although several people including the US president, Donald Trump have dismissed it as a “Chinese hoax”, the efforts of people like the Salgados, the late Nobel peace laureate, Professor Wangari Maathai and others gives the world hope that patience, determination, goodwill, and persistence can heal all wounds of mother nature, no matter the extent.

If a couple can create a 1502 acre forest in 20 years, how much more can be achieved if a few more hands came on board in the fight against environmental damage. Perhaps it would be useful for you to know that for every tree you plant, you are adding 118 Kilograms of oxygen into the air per year. You will also be reducing the carbon trace by 22kilograms.

Are we talking about the next Nobel peace winner? Well that remains to be seen but for now make plans to plant at least one tree every month for the remaining part of this year and be a player in Salgado’s “league of honor.”