Couple Transforms 1,750-Acre Dry, Arid Forest Into Biodiversity Paradise With 2 Million Saplings

Couple Transforms 1,750-Acre Dry, Arid Forest Into Biodiversity Paradise With 2 Million Saplings

The landscape is unrecognizable. The effort included planting almost 2 million saplings of 293 species of trees mostly of local arboreal varieties.

After capturing the horrific accounts of the Rwanda genocide in 1994, renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado decided to return to his home to Minas Gerais, Brazil for some peace and quiet. But to his dismay, the land full of trees he knew, loved and cherished were almost razed, with only about 0.5% of the land covered in trees. According to the Smithsonian Mag, back in the 1950s when he was growing up, the 1,750-acre former farm in the valley of Rio Doce, the freshwater river was a remote piece of land. The road to the outside world was a dirt track along the river that was muddy and impassable six months out of the year.

Google Earth Screenshot

His wife Lélia suggested replanting the entire forest. And that was when their efforts to revive the once fertile land started. With the help of 24+ workers and later, numerous volunteers, the couple slowly repopulated the land with trees. Salgado and Lélia secured a donation of 100,000 seedlings from one of the world’s biggest mining companies, a $29 billion MNC called Vale. The couple also went to governments and foundations worldwide to secure funds for this massive undertaking.

During the rains in 1999, they placed the seedlings roughly ten feet apart, 2,000 trees per hectare. Plants such as fig species, long-leafed andá-açu, Brazilian fire trees, and other legumes were planted. The objective of the first phase was intended to provide shade, trap moisture and give shelter to birds and insects. The legumes would help restore the depleted nitrogen. But unfortunately, after that first planting, three-fifths of the seedlings died in the ground. Only 40,000 trees had survived. But they continued to work on it. By 2002, they were producing seedlings in their own nursery. They didn't need the seedling donations from Vale anymore.



After years of toil, their hard work bore fruit as tropical trees native to the region started flourishing in the area. This was quite literally a hand-crafted forest. Since 1998, the combined efforts of the couple, the workers and volunteers have rejuvenated 1,502 acres of tropical forest. They have planted more than 2 million saplings of 293 species of trees mostly of local arboreal varieties.

The latest satellite image of the land shows lush and beautifully green forest cover which once was a devastating arid eyesore.


The biodiversity-rich zone has recently been declared as a Private Natural Heritage Reserve (PNHR). This means they don’t own the property anymore. The land is now a federally recognized nature preserve and a nonprofit organization that raises millions of tree seedlings in its nursery, trains young ecologists and welcomes visitors to see a forest reborn. 

The project has also revived the natural springs in the area relieving the drought-prone region. Eight water springs, which were once completely dried up, now gush down the hill at around 20 liters per minute. The forest has also resulted in more rainfall and cooler weather, creating a drastic but welcome change in the climate. Perhaps one of the greatest environmental initiatives in the entire world, this afforestation project has helped control soil erosion and has proved that the much-debated notion about climate change can be reversed, if tried.

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