Raging wildfires and scorched landscapes have become the default visuals accompanying any conversation about the Amazon and climate change. Consequently, the world’s largest and most biodiverse tropical rainforest has become synonymous with death and destruction. In his book Amazônia, Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado wants to shift the focus back onto the breathtaking beauty of the forest and the indigenous peoples who protect it.
Protecting Amazon is a critical step in addressing the climate crisis, as the immense rainforest produces nearly a fifth of the world’s oxygen, absorbs vast quantities of carbon dioxide, and is home to 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Since the vast majority of the rainforest lies within Brazilian borders, the country’s leaders are key players in the global fight against climate change.
Unfortunately, the country’s current president Jair Bolsonaro is a notorious climate denier whose time in office has overseen the destruction of around 10,000 square miles of the Brazilian rainforest and repeated attempts to exploit indigenous territories for mining and agribusiness, embodying a type of leadership that goes directly against the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals on Climate Action and Life on Land.
While so many headlines have understandably focused on the negative - the fires, the human rights abuses, the shameful behaviour of political leaders - Salgado’s stirring photographs bring us back to the positive, as he tells The Guardian, “To show this pristine place, I photograph Amazônia alive, not the dead Amazônia.”
Indeed, his series of photographs taken over nine years and 48 trips capture a place where every corner exudes life and lush beauty, and where the human inhabitants live with - not against - the earth that sustains them. What we are accustomed to seeing as a sea of green, Salgado captures in black and white, allowing us to look upon the “lungs of the earth” with renewed awe, as though we are seeing it for the first time.
Salgado, who has been fostering relationships with the indigenous tribes in the Amazon since the 1980s, believes that the rest of us could draw an important lesson from their harmonious existence with nature.
“We must protect what we didn’t destroy,” he says. “We must be smart enough to survive.”
Salgado’s admiration for the native peoples’ way of life translates into the dignified manner with which he portrays them in his photographs. While photographers and indigenous peoples have a problematic track record of the former exploiting the latter for personal gain, Salgado’s images speak to a mutual respect between himself and his subjects. Relaxed, elegant, and comfortable in their natural element, they are portrayed with a sensitive eye that honours their interiority and agency.
Salgado’s passion for the environment does not end with his photographs. In 1998, Salgado and his wife Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado founded Instituto Terra, a non-profit civil organization dedicated to environmental restoration and sustainable rural development. Since its beginnings, the organization has recovered more than 600 hectares of forest, slowly but surely revitalizing the ecosystem.
“It was a kind of miracle,” says Salgado. “With the trees, the insects, the mammals, every kind of bird, every kind of life was coming back.”
Salgado’s collection of photographs are compiled in his book Amazonia, with the profits going towards supporting the Instituto Terra to continue in his mission to protect the Amazon.