Saving Lost Edens

The Amazon is calling for help. Deforestation is back on the rise, and to protect the rain forest, says Sebasti?o Salgado.



The Amazon is calling for help. Deforestation is back on the rise, and to protect the rain forest, says Sebastião Salgado, consumers must demand certificates identifying Brazilian products grown on denuded rain forest land — so they can refuse to buy them. It’s the kind of plan you’d expect from a Ph.D.-level economist like Salgado.

But Salgado is also the world’s foremost photographer of indigenous people struggling against environmental catastrophe and industrial civilization, and he’s made it impossible to ignore his campaign to protect the Amazon—by giving the rain forest a face.

In captivating black-and-white images, Salgado’s latest campaign portrays the lives of the nomadic Awa of Brazil’s eastern rain forest. The tribe of indigenous hunter-gatherers with fewer than 400 remaining members today find themselves on the front line of a struggle with industrial agriculture interests that are aggressively logging, slashing and burning their way into Brazil’s rain forest.

Salgado spoke with Briefings on Talent & Leadership from Amazonas Images, the Paris-based agency he founded in 1994, a day before heading to Central America in November for a two-month project. “It’s very important that people know the dangers that all these Indian cultures face,” he says. “We must, I believe every one of us, fight for this forest, and fight for the Indian culture that holds this forest.”

Brazil’s annual deforestation report for 2013 brought renewed urgency to the struggle. After nearly a decade of steady declines in the rate of rain forest loss, deforestation rose nearly 30 percent  in the year ended in July 2013. Salgado has no illusions: saving the rain forest will be a battle. Despite being ordered in early 2013 by Brazil’s highest court to enforce laws against rain forest logging, the Ministry of Justice has not removed the loggers who have razed the rain forest where the Awa live.

Salgado brings technical credibility to the task. He trained as an economist in Brazil and Paris, worked at the International Coffee Organization in London, and then tried his luck as a freelance photographer in his mid-30s. He and his wife established a foundation on the site of his family’s farm in central Brazil, the Instituto Terra, to study and promote sustainable farming; since 1998, they’ve planted more than 2 million trees. Salgado also understands the threat posed by the effort of Brazil’s agribusiness industry to amend the country’s constitution in order to wrest control of the rain forest from the executive branch and hand it to a friendly group in the Brazilian Congress. He proposes a solution on their terms; “economic pressure” he says. “We must do serious pressure on [agribusiness].”

The Amazon rain forest is Earth’s genetic laboratory, and more than 60 percent of it lies within Brazil. In what the World Wildlife Fund calls the “decade of discovery” between 2000 and 2009, scientists identified more than 1,200 previously unknown species in the Amazon, and the WWF’s latest report last October reported the discovery since then of more than 440 additional new species believed to exist only in the Amazon

The decade of discovery was a golden age for rain forest protection. Between 2003 and 2011, Brazil cut its deforestation rate in half. Salgado says Brazil’s official policy against logging is appropriate, but a controversial new law passed in 2012, the Forest Code, sparked a resurgence in logging, despite President Dilma Rousseff’s veto of nine sections of the law that heavily favored loggers. Today the Awa confront loggers illegally clearing rain forest land to make way for soybean production and cattle grazing – and Salgado portrays the divide between intact rain forest and land stripped of its pristine vegetation.

“The major problem is agricultural development,” says Salgado. Large farmers, he says, “are fighting against the Indian lands, against the Amazon forest. This is the biggest fight of the Awa Indians today, the loggers that go in the front line that take out the wood, and the farms that come back inside the Indian land.” Tactically, Brazil’s large ag companies “were very smart,” he says. “Agrobusiness [companies] in Brazil, they produce 4-5 percent of the national income, but through advertising and political pressure they have given the impression that they are responsible for half the national income in Brazil. They organized big political backing. There are a lot of senators, a lot of elected deputies in Brazil that defend their interests.”

Congressional supporters are known as the bancada ruralista, the rural workbench, which was instrumental in passing the Forest Code. The code weakened enforcement by shifting responsibility for many aspects of rain forest protection to state and local government agencies that lack the resources to counteract illegal logging and development. “Brazil is a federation like the United States. There is huge pressure on local authorities, and the pressure is very strong. It’s this kind of thing we must be very aware about,” says Salgado.

Clearing rain forest isn’t the only way to farm in the Amazon. A research team led by archaeologist and paleoethnobotanist Jose Iriarte of the University of Exeter believes indigenous people also used sustainable methods to farm savannas at the edge of the rain forest as long as 800 years ago, constructing small mounds that provided drainage, soil aeration and moisture retention. The practice, called raised-field farming, suited the Amazon’s cycle of drought and flooding. Resuming “raised-field agriculture can become an alternative to burning down tropical forest for slash-and-burn agriculture,” Iriarte says.

But time is short. Salgado says the best way to protect the Awa and the rain forest is to strike at the financial core of large-scale farming. “These are public lands, and there is a lot being done to destroy these lands in order to produce soyabeans, to produce fish” and other products, he says. “Countries such as the U.S., China, the E.U., that import all these products that come from farms in Brazil must pay attention to where these products are coming from. We must have certificates – if it is Indian land that we destroy, if it is rain forest public land that we destroy to go to those farms, we must stop importing those products.”

It won’t be easy. Agribusiness and the bancada ruralista are pushing back. In early December, more than 500 people, many members of indigenous tribes, marched on the presidential palace in Brasilia to protest the proposed amendment to the constitution that would give Congress sole authority to decide which land to protect as rain forest or indigenous territory. Security forces dispersed the protestors with pepper spray.

Salgado’s Awa campaign marks his second major collaboration with U.K.-based Survival International, which works to save endangered tribes around the world.  With deforestation back on the rise, Salgado modestly urges renewed vigilance. “I’m just a photographer,” he says. “This is a way that we can call attention to these problems.” Those facing the problems, he says, “are the people that are living inside this forest, protecting this forest, the Awa Indians.”

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