Photographer Sebastião Salgado has seen and shown us much of the world; pristine places, wild creatures, age-old customs, violent ravages, unjust systems, and catastrophic conflicts. He has travelled to over 120 countries to record some of our most urgent social and environmental issues in such epic documentary collections as Workers, Exodus, The Children, Kuwait, and his “love letter to the planet”, Genesis.
Less well known is Salgado’s extraordinary project close to home, back on his family farm in the Rio Doce Water Basin of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. There, in 1998, Sebastião and his wife and creative collaborator Lélia Wanick Salgado established the Instituto Terra, a non-profit organization and TASCHEN’s environmental partner which works, seedling by seedling, acre by acre, to restore a ravaged rainforest.
When Sebastião and Lélia took on Bulcão Farm, they looked out on a wasteland: bare and arid slopes devastated by years of drought, erosion, aggressive agriculture, and soil deterioration. Their dream was big and green: to revive the forest to its lush abundance and to establish the thriving and sustainable ecosystems central, too, to the message of Genesis.
Integral to the Instituto’s enterprise are its vast seedling nurseries where precious native species – many of them only found in this region of Brazil – are nurtured and then planted during the rainy season. In the initial stage, the Instituto prioritized species that grew fast, protecting the soil from direct rain and improving its physical and chemical characteristics. As the forest grew, biodiversity could be expanded, gradually restoring the forest to one of the richest biomes in the world. Today, the Instituto has planted about two million seedlings of over 300 endemic species. The once lifeless property is now blanketed with the likes of the jenipapo, cherry tree, the aroeira pepper, and the pau brasil (which gave Brazil its name).
With the trees, the rainforest creatures could begin to return, and with them the great web of relations that make up the diversity of life. Careful monitoring of the land’s fauna has shown the presence of 33 mammal species, 16 reptiles, 15 amphibians, and a staggering 173 species of birds, who together provide the Instituto with a chorus of exotic tunes from dawn to dusk and also play a central role in seed dispersion. These feathered beauties include parrots, macaws, hummingbirds, hawks, and the “night queens” of the Tawny-browed, Tropical-screech, and Pygmy owls, known for their exceptional night vision.
The recent arrival of a family of ocelot (dwarf leopard) on the Instituto’s land is a crucial indicator of a healthy and consistent food chain, allowing this predator cat to once more make a home in the area.
Interaction with the local community has been central to the Instituto Terra from the outset, with Sebastião and Lélia determined to expand environmental education alongside the growing rainforest, with a particular focus on children and students. As well as community events with NGOs, town halls, and local committees, the Terrinhas Project, twice selected as an exemplary environmental education program by UNESCO, teaches children up to 14 years old about environmental sustainability through classes, lectures, film screenings, and first-hand experience of the Instituto’s work. For older students aged 18 to 24, a one-year program in Ecosystem Restoration combines theory and hands-on learning in residence at the Instituto to train up the agro-environmental experts of tomorrow.
Since 2010, Instituto Terra has also expanded its activities into “planting water” alongside seedlings, with a new water source restoration program, aimed at recovering and protecting all of the estimated 370,000 natural springs in the Doce River Valley.
Once again a safe haven for flora, fauna, and many endangered species, the Instituto Terra has played an exemplary role in the recovery of Brazilian biodiversity. It is also a global example of the possibilities of devoted environmental endeavors and the chance to recover damage done if we act quickly and carefully. In the words of Lélia Wanick Salgado herself, “it is possible to recover what seemed lost forever.”
TASCHEN is proud to work in environmental partnership with the Instituto Terra. Find out more about our reforestation funding and carbon neutral campaign here.