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Rebuilding Paradise

We destroyed many of the world’s forests in our human quest for development. How can we rebuild the paradise that we lost?

“...this land was as dead as I was.

Those were the haunting words used by Sebastião Salgado to describe his family’s farmland within Brazil’s Atlantic Forest – a place where he had spent his childhood – when he returned to it in the late 1990s.

Photo: Sebastião Salgado by Fernando Frazao / Agencia Brasil

Speaking at a TED event, Salgado -- a renowned photographer who spent years capturing poignant human images around the world, from Brazilian gold miners to oil wells workers in Kuwait to refugee camps -- told his story of wanting to go home after witnessing the human suffering in the Rwandan genocide. What he found instead, was land just as ravaged as he was.

Years of human activity had destroyed his family’s land, reducing it from more than 50 percent rainforest cover to just half a percent. Sadly, as pointed out by Salgado during his talk, the same is true for many other forests around the world: We – mankind – “came to a huge contradiction” when we destroyed everything around us in order to build our developments.

It was Salgado’s wife, Lélia, who planted the seeds of change for his family’s land. “You say that you were born in paradise,” she’d told him. “Let’s build the paradise again.

How to save a (forest’s) life

Photo: Tree planting in Cerro Blanco Ecuador. Fundacion Pro-Bosque. World Land Trust

How do we, mere humans, rebuild paradise? Unlike the biblical creation of the garden of Eden, there seems to be neither a quick seven-day fix nor a set formula. There is a wealth of research on forest restoration methods. That said, I believe that a few common themes can be drawn from restoration stories around the world.

Planting 8349283493284 trees is not the answer!

It sounds counter-intuitive, forest restoration is not just about planting trees. Preserving and restoring the natural environment and ecosystem is far more important than increasing the tree count.

In fact, injudicious tree planting could be harmful. A tragic demonstration took place in the 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Canada. The deadly fire which swept through the whole town had started in nearby peat swamps -- swamps that had been converted into forests of black spruce by the government in a 1980s tree-planting campaign. The new trees consumed much of the groundwater, and a different, drier species of moss took the place of the naturally growing peat moss in the area. As a result, what should have been fire-retardant swampland instead became fuel for a fire which tore through 1.5 million acres of land and continued burning for 15 months.

In the same vein, questions have emerged over China’s massive tree-planting programs and how successful they really are. Researchers argue that the increased tree cover may not necessarily result in forests gained, and the planting of non-native trees in unsuitable arid and semi-arid environments may deplete the groundwater, with human and ecological repercussions.

A little can go a long way

The corollary of the above may be true -- less intervention could produce good results if we leave nature to do its own thing.

In Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, where the remaining forest cover is sparse and fragmented, it has been suggested that planting fewer trees to create ‘bridges’ between these forest areas could be more effective in promoting forest and biodiversity growth than to plant bigger, but more fragmented, patches of forest.

Over in the next continent of Africa, farmers in the drought-scarred Sahel region have succeeded in practising ‘farmer-managed natural regeneration', whereby farmers allow native trees and shrubs to regrow from remnant underground root systems within their agricultural lands, instead of rooting them out. These are often just single trees scattered throughout the landscape, but they nevertheless make a significant difference in regenerating soils, fertilising the ground, and ultimately improving food security in the region.

Go loco for local

Agroforestry practices across Africa are, in fact, a great illustration of another fundamental takeaway -- that the best ways to heal our natural environments are often hidden in the wisdom and traditions of local indigenous peoples.

In Burkina Faso, many smallholder farmers have spent years learning how to grow food effectively in less-than-ideal conditions -- degraded lands, low-quality soil, and inadequate rainfall. One example is the technique of digging planting pits (or “zaï”) on degraded land, which are then filled with organic matter which adds nutrients to the soil where crops are grown. The manure which fills the zaï also contains seeds from trees and bushes eaten by livestock, and the trees and bushes which emerge are allowed to grow alongside the agricultural cereal crops. These non-crop trees and bushes play a key role in restoring the productivity of the degraded farmland and provide other benefits such as providing shade and reducing erosion, as well as producing useful products such as fuelwood and fruit.

This “re-greening” process, whereby farmers protect and manage non-crop trees which grow in their agricultural lands, is practised in several parts of Africa. Notably, these areas which practise “re-greening” have been found to have better crop yields and are more resilient to changes in weather and climate.

In weMORI, we partner with the World Land Trust (WLT), a charity which funds forest restoration projects around the world from the Americas to South-East Asia. WLT works closely with local partners where the restoration works take place. Its philosophy is not to tell its local partners what to do -- instead trusting its partners with full autonomy to make use of their local knowledge. In the coming articles, we will talk more about WLT, their partners and projects, and the amazing work that they do.

Forest in Rio Zunac Ecuador by Lou Jost EcoMinga. World Land Trust

Paradise, regained?

In April 1998, Sebastião and Lélia Salgado founded Instituto Terra, a non-profit organisation for the restoration of sustainable development of the Valley of the River Doce in Brazil’s Atlantic forest. Salgado’s Bulcão Farm obtained a Private Natural Heritage Reserve status that same year, and the work began to restore what had been lost.

Since then, the land has undergone an incredible transformation - from barren land to lush rainforest.

Salgado’s Instituto Terra, along with many other restoration stories around the world, are success stories -- but the fight continues. This is what we’re up against: Despite a slight decrease in the rate of deforestation in the last 30 years, we are still losing 10 million hectares of forest a year -- and current forest regeneration efforts are not keeping up. To add to this challenge (as discussed earlier in this article) we also have to be mindful to think about our forest restoration works not only in terms of a numbers game but also in terms of true, meaningful regeneration of the natural environment.


Salgado, S. (1 May 2013) The silent drama of photography. TEDTalks:

Elbein, S. (26 April 2019). Tree-planting programs can do more harm than good. National Geographic

McDermott, V. (1 September 2017). Fort McMurray wildfire finally extinguished after 15 months. Edmonton Journal

Antje Ahrends, et al. (2017) China's fight to halt tree cover loss. Proc. R. Soc. B.28420162559

Lu, C., et al., Ecological restoration by afforestation may increase groundwater depth and create potentially large ecological and water opportunity costs in arid and semiarid China, Journal of Cleaner Production (2016), j.jclepro.2016.03.046

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