Reforestation institute finds room to grow


After visiting his family’s denuded property in 1990, Sebastião Salgado and his wife Lélia Wanick Salgado began planning an ambitious reforestation project that led to the creation of a related educational center. (Photo by Ricardo Beliel)

In December of 1990, renowned Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado and his wife Lélia visited his family’s former cattle ranch for the first time in over two decades.

They couldn’t believe their eyes.

The couple had not seen the 711-hectare (1,757-acre) ranch in the east-central state of Minas Gerais since before they self-exiled to Paris in 1969, five years after a coup had initiated a 21-year military dictatorship in Brazil. Back then, the property had boasted a lush, albeit isolated stand of Atlantic Forest. But after more than two decades away, the Salgados were confronted with the results of the relentless land clearing carried out by Salgado’s father, also named Sebastião, for his cattle operation.

“We were shocked and saddened,” says Salgado, who is still based in Paris but continues to visit family and friends in Brazil. “Virtually all of the land of my father’s former cattle ranch, 50% of which was forested when I was growing up there, had been deforested for pasture.”

Then, however, came an intriguing proposal from Salgado’s parents, followed by an inspired idea from his wife. Recalls Salgado: “When, during this visit, my parents told us that they wanted to legally transfer the family land to us, Lélia got the idea of reforesting it, and I agreed to help undertake the project.”

That project has done far more than rejuvenate a patch of the Atlantic Forest—the richly biodiverse woodland that once covered much of coastal Brazil but now occupies just 12% of the area it did at the time of European colonization.

In 1998, before the reforestation got underway, the Salgados got most of the property—609 hectares (1,505 acres)—designated as Brazil’s first Private Natural Heritage Reserve (RPPN) to be created on degraded former ranch land. The status, which carries a property tax exemption, was granted by Minas Gerais state on condition the land be reforested and conserved in perpetuity, a requirement the Salgados have gone to extraordinary lengths to meet.

The couple planned and initiated an enormous reforestation program, and they didn’t stop there. They also founded an on-site nonprofit called Instituto Terra, or Earth Institute, both to oversee the reforestation and to use the project as a fulcrum for environmental restoration and education in the region.

The initiative drew interest and funding from a range of stakeholders. The nonprofit Brazilian Biodiversity Fund (Funbio) donated the first US$500,000 for reforestation of the RPPN, a sum matched collectively by the Salgados, U.S. foundations and Natura, a Brazilian cosmetics firm.

The institute began taking shape on land once comprising pasture and ranch buildings. It now consists of the vast RPPN reforestation area as well as a complex of offices, dormitories, classrooms, a library, an auditorium and a gift shop—all aimed at making a difference beyond the property’s borders. Says Salgado: “The Earth Institute’s on-site school teaches how to replant native species in order to disseminate this skill and further encourage such efforts elsewhere.”

Plans for the woodland-restoration work were drafted in 1999 by Renato de Jesus, a forest engineer who for four decades had carried out reforestation for the Brazil-based mining giant Vale—a significant cause of land clearing in Minas Gerais. Several dozen contract workers supervised by de Jesus began the reforestation during 1999-2002. They took delivery of 100,000 Atlantic Forest seedlings donated by Vale and planted them in concentric circles, first along the bottom of a valley and then up its slopes.

With the eroded soil exposed to relentless sun in the dry season and the workforce requiring extensive on-the-job training, about 60% of the 300,000 seedlings planted in the first year did not survive. The attrition rate decreased to 40% of the 300,000 seedlings planted in the second year, however, and currently ranges from 10% to 20%, with the RPPN reforestation now 90% complete, organizers of the project say.

After 2002, the Salgados continued to reforest using seedlings from a nursery they had established on the property with donations from SOS Mata Atlântica, a Brazilian nonprofit, and the U.S.-based environmental group Conservation International. The nursery initially had a capacity of 80,000 seedlings, but thanks to two expansions it can now hold up to one million seedlings. It has produced six million so far—2.5 million for reforestation of the RPPN and 3.5 million for reforestation projects elsewhere.

The Earth Institute has reforested the RPPN property with 293 native tree species, creating habitat for fauna that now include over 172 bird species, 33 mammal species, 15 species of amphibians and 15 reptile species, project organizers say.

The reforestation also has produced knock-on restoration effects, enabling the recovery of eight natural springs on the property that help feed the watershed of the Doce River, which flows near the institute. Whereas rains on the bare earth used to race down slopes and erode the soil, the new forest canopy slows them and softens their impact, allowing them to seep into the ground and raise the water table.

“Reforestation of the Salgado family’s land has made their RPPN a mini-oasis in a state where only 8% of the Atlantic Forest remains,” says Maria Dalce Ricas, executive director of the Minas Gerais Association for Environmental Defense (AMDA), a nonprofit green-advocacy group in the state. “The government should use the example they set and create public policy to restore more [of the] Atlantic Forest.”

The institute, in fact, was intended to serve exactly that purpose, says Isabella Salton, its executive director. “The Salgados embarked on this huge forest restoration effort to show that deforestation is reversible via a model that can be replicated and expanded elsewhere in Brazil and other countries,” she says.

De Jesus, who retired from his post at the Earth Institute in January 2019, agrees, adding: “The only major impediment to replicating this project is the high cost of labor and seedlings.”

The replanting efforts reflect an interest in nature that is evident in the photographic work of Salgado, who has documented human suffering and struggle in remote developing-country settings ranging from Rwandan refugee camps to the Serra Pelada gold mine in the Brazilian Amazon. Genesis, a 2013 collection of black-and-white images taken over eight years, shows landscapes, wildlife and communities around the world that have maintained ancestral traditions and cultures.

In a measure of his devotion to the work of his institute, Salgado auctioned off his special-edition titanium Leica M7 camera in 2005, when the institute was running low on funds. Leica had presented him with the camera to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its premier line. The $107,500 auction price set a world record for a camera built after 1945—and allowed Salgado to plant 30,000 more seedlings.

Today, the institute reports it is on solid financial ground, drawing on a variety of funding sources to cover its current R$10 million (US$2 million) annual budget and 60-member staff. Those sources include payment for institute services such as supervision and consulting for environmental-restoration projects elsewhere, gift shop revenues and financial contributions from Brazilian, European, U.S. foundations and companies.

Since 2005, the Earth Institute’s school has trained 177 students in a yearlong, tuition-free course on ecosystem restoration. It admits 20 pupils each year, many from family farms in the region, providing room and board for them on the institute grounds. Students must have completed courses at accredited agricultural schools in Minas Gerais or neighboring Espírito Santo state. Graduates have gone on to staff environmental departments of corporations.

“The Salgados surmounted two self-imposed challenges: to reverse the deforestation of their property and to set up a school to train others in forest restoration,” says de Jesus. “It’s the school that sets their effort apart from similar ones worldwide.”

Major headwaters project
Arguably the institute’s most ambitious undertaking is Olhos D’Água, or Springheads, described by project organizers as one of the world’s biggest headwaters-restoration efforts. Begun in 2010, the project seeks over several decades to restore forest and, in the process, many thousands of springs and streams in the headwaters region of the Doce River, a principal waterway in southeastern Brazil.

Half of donations to the institute currently go to the Olhos D’Água project, whose main funders are Energias de Portugal (EDP), a private electric utility; the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation; and Fundação Renova, a nonprofit overseeing remediation in the wake of the 2015 collapse of a mine-tailings dam in Minas Gerais. The rupture of that dam, owned by Samarco, an iron-ore mining company co-owned by Vale, unleashed a flood of tailings sludge that flattened a village, killing 19 people, and devastated aquatic life in the lower 650 kilometers (403 miles) of the Doce River. (See "Rupture of mine reservoir brings disaster in Brazil" —EcoAméricas, November 2015.)

A far deadlier tailings-dam collapse in another Minas Gerais watershed occurred in January of last year, claiming 270 lives and fueling concern about the structural integrity of tailings dams nationwide. (See "Fatal deluge signals wider tailings-dam safety risk" —EcoAméricas, January 2019, as well as related articles in last year’s February, March and October issues of EcoAméricas.)

Seedlings, fencing and more
Olhos D’Água has provided Doce River valley landowners with several hundred thousand seedlings, protective wire fencing and technical advice. They have used the assistance to reforest 2,000 headwaters sites in 28 municipalities in two states. Aiming to curb pollution of the watershed, the program also has given landowners materials to install septic tanks.

Says Luciene Teixeira, president of the Doce River Valley Hydrographic Basin Committee, a public-private water-policy council: “[The project] is helping landowners install efficient septic systems that should improve the quality of their stream water and, as a result, the health of the Doce River basin.”

In 2011, UN-Water, which coordinates UN entities and international organizations working on water and sanitation issues, named Olhos D’Água one of the world’s 70 “best-practices” water recovery and conservation programs.

De Jesus says Olhos D’Água is helping Doce headwaters areas once again serve as “natural sponges to capture and store rainwater, which they gradually release into [Doce] tributaries to continually replenish the river and maintain its flow.” Adds de Jesus: “It is an example of how one couple’s initiative can help guarantee the health of a major Brazilian river.”

Salgado reports the Earth Institute has planted a total of 2.5 million trees on the RPPN and 200,000 just outside it. He says it is now starting an eight-year project, mostly within the RPPN, to plant one million native, slow-growing trees that will live longer than 100 years “so this woodland will be an eternal one.”

His goal, beyond restoring his vast family woodland and rejuvenating Doce River headwaters, is to encourage others to undertake similar initiatives. Says Salgado: “We hope that reforesting such a large parcel of land with native species inspires others, both in Brazil and abroad, to restore degraded lands to closely resemble the ecosystems they once were.”

- Michael Kepp

In the index: Photos show the dramatic results of reforestation efforts at what was once the Salgado family ranch and is now Instituto Terra, an environmental-education center that promotes ecosystem restoration. (Courtesy of Instituto Terra)

Maria Dalce Ricas
Executive Director
Minas Gerais Association for Environmental Defense (AMDA)
Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
Tel: +(55 31) 3291-0661
Renato de Jesus
Forestry engineer and ecologist
Vitôria, Espírito Santo, Brazil
Tel: +(55 27) 99973-7742
Isabella Salton
Executive Director
Instituto Terra
Aimorés, Minas Gerais, Brazil
Tel: +(55 33) 3267-2302
Luciene Teixeira
Doce River Valley Hydrographic Basin Committee
Governador Valadares, Minas Gerais, Brazil
Tel: +(55 33) 3212-4350