1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Sebastiao Salgado finds hope in reforestation

Thomas Milz Aimores, Brazil
October 20, 2019

Photographer Sebastiao Salgado has been honored for environmental work in Brazil, where he revived the lost forests of his childhood. The German Publishers and Booksellers Association said his work promotes biodiversity.

A bird's-eye view of the Instituto Terra and surrounding hills
Image: Instituto Terra

Endless rows of saplings stretch peacefully up toward the blue sky over the village of Aimores, in Brazil's southeastern state of Minas Gerais. Here at the Instituto Terra nursery, as many as 1.2 million seedlings from some 100 different types of local trees are planted each year.

The forests on the hillsides surrounding the old cattle ranch are gray and bare at the moment due to months of drought, but when the rainy season begins in November the area will transform into a sea green.

Read more: Brazil's indigenous people fight back against Bolsonaro's attacks on Amazon

A poster at Instituto Terra shows the progress made over the yearsImage: Thomas Milz

Satellite photos on a poster on one farmhouse wall clearly illustrate the changes that have taken place at the 700-hectare (1,730-acre) conservation area over the years, ever since it was founded in 1999 by photographer Sebastiao Salgado and his wife, Lelia Wanick Salgado.

In 2000, it was nothing but a patch of brown dirt. Six years later, the hills were predominantly green, and by 2012 there was already a lush blanket of Atlantic rainforest.

"We measure success by the fact that the forest is back, that once dry springs are bubbling again and that the animals have returned," says Isabella Salton, executive director at Instituto Terra.

"The better the situation became, the more suitable it became for wildlife, the more the animals began to appear. You can find birds here, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, everything. You can even find endangered species here at the farm."

Salgado's biggest project

For Salgado, 75, the farm represents the biggest project of his long and impressive career. He says his love of nature stems from a traumatic experience he had after completing a long and difficult photo project on migrants and refugees in 1999.

"I was sick. I was not well. I had lost faith in our species," he told Canada's The Globe and Mail newspaper in 2015. "It's very difficult for us to survive as a species. We are too violent, too egoist … what I saw made me lose faith." He decided to take a break from photography.

At the time, Salgado and his wife — who were living abroad — inherited the farm in Brazil from his parents. He was shocked when he discovered that nothing remained of the magical forests he had played in as a child, the place where he first discovered the magical interplay of light and shadow. Intensive livestock farming, deforestation, drought and erosion had turned the family home into a lunar landscape.

Read more: Russia's forests threatened by illegal logging

"When we inherited this piece of land it was as wounded, as dead, as I was," he says. "Once it had been an ecological oasis. When I was a child, half the farm was forest — I grew up in paradise. But when we arrived less than half a percent of the land was wooded."

Rebuilding 'paradise'

One day, Salgado says, his wife suggested that they "rebuild paradise," just like it used to be. With the help of wealthy friends and sponsors, the Salgados began to do just that.

Salton says locals were perplexed at the time, because it was common practice to clear-cut forests to make space for grazing animals or crops.

"It went against everything they had been taught to think," says Salton. "Today, with all of the droughts and climate change, farmers are suffering, especially from lack of water. Now they are finally beginning to get it."

Instituto Terra now delivers most of its saplings to regional farmers looking to replant forests, in part to help restore lost sources of water. The institute also teaches young people about sustainable forestry, so they can help to replenish the wooded areas at their own family farms.

Salgado, seen here with his wife Lelia, is known for his striking black-and-white photographsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/TT/S. Stjernkvist

New hope for humanity

Salgado's focus on nature has renewed his hopes for the world, and for humanity. "As I witnessed how strongly and elegantly life began to return [to the farm], I began to believe that there may be a way forward, that there may be hope … for our planet," he says.

That newfound optimism inspired him to create a monumental love letter to the Earth, his 2013 photo book Genesis, which features his black-and-white photography showing people displaced by war or climate disasters.

The German Publishers and Booksellers Association, which presented Salgado with its 2019 Peace Prize on Sunday, has described Salgado as an artist "who works for social justice and peace through his photographs and who lends urgency to the global debate on nature and protecting the climate." The prize, worth €25,000 ($28,000), is awarded for contributions to literature, science or art in support of peace.

Depth of field: The photography of Sebastiao Salgado

Brazil's celebrated photojournalist and documentary photographer has spent a lifetime capturing the delicate balance between people and nature — and the consequences when this balance is lost.

general.image.copyright_prefix Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images

Inspired by nature

Sebastiao Salgado and his wife Lelia Wanick Salgado pictured at the site of Instituto Terra, his conservation project in Minas Gerais, Brasil. Since the late 1990s, Salgado's photography work in books like "Genesis" has been complemented by his own massive reforestation project. It is another way of addressing the consequences of globalization that he documents in his powerful images.

general.image.copyright_prefix Ricardo Beliel

Women in Zo'e village

Here Salgado captures the women in the Zo'e village of Towari Ypy who use "urucum" red fruit to color their bodies. The Zo'e are a tribe who were living isolated deep in the Amazon rainforests of north Brazil until discovered in the 1980s. The image also featured in Wim Wenders' 2014 documentary about Salgado, "The Salt of the Earth."

general.image.copyright_prefix Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas images

Grand perspectives

The photographer's signature black-and-white works are sometimes like landscape paintings. This photo from 2010 showcases the magisterial grandeur of the Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, at the confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado rivers in Navajo Indian territory.

general.image.copyright_prefix Sebastião Salgado / Amazonas images


Salgado spent eight years traveling for a photo essay project, titled "Genesis." Across 32 journeys in extreme regions, he captured pristine natural environments in his trademark chiaroscuro, black-and-white style. This image of sea birds was shown as part of the project's exhibition at C/O Berlin in 2015.

general.image.copyright_prefix dpa

In harmony

Also from the "Genesis" series, here Salgado — who is also a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and honorary member of the Academy of Arts and Science in the US — captures Waura indigenous people fishing in Brazil's Lake Piulaga. The scene is located in the Mato Grosso region that is also threatened by deforestation.

general.image.copyright_prefix Sebastião Salgado/Amazonas Images

Gold rush

In 1986, Salgado employed his masterly skills as a photojournalist to capture a modern day gold rush in the Serra Pelada mining region in northern Brazil, where many thousands of people descended out of blind hope to make their fortune. Here he captures conflict between mine workers and Brazilian military police amid the crazed, chaotic rush for gold.

general.image.copyright_prefix Sebastião SALGADO/Amazonas images

Capturing the times

Back in 2008, Sagado's travelling exhibition "In Principio" included 60 images of coffee growers and harvesters around the world. The photographic journey, compiled between 2002 and 2007 in Brazil, India, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Colombia, imbued a faceless, daily cup of coffee with real lives and landscapes.

general.image.copyright_prefix picture-alliance / SCHROEWIG/RD

"By describing his evocative black-and-white photographs as an 'homage to the greatness of nature' and showing the defiled Earth as well as its fragile beauty, Sebastiao Salgado presents us with the opportunity to understand the Earth for what it is: a habitat that does not belong to us alone, and that must absolutely be preserved," said the association.

"Over the next 20 years, before I die, I want to see this valley restored," Salgado said in 2016. "To see it once again as beautiful as it was at the beginning of the last century."

Every day, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage