This article appeared in the Guardian newspaper in 2004, at the beginning of Salgado’s Genesis project. A book of the project will be published next year, click here to view some of the stunning images. Sebastião Salgado discovered photography while working as an economist for the World Bank. He is probably the world’s greatest social documentary photographer.
The world is in peril, both nature and humanity. Yet this cry of alarm is heard so often that it is now largely ignored. International conferences are routinely organized to debate global warming, sustainable development, water resources, destruction of forests, endemic poverty, the AIDS epidemic, housing needs and other facets of the global crisis. But the daily struggle for survival of the majority of humanity and the appetite for comfort and profit of the minority mean that, in practice, these fundamental problems are tackled only superficially. We have lost touch with the essence of life on earth.
The modern notion that humanity and nature are somehow separate is absurd. Our relationship with nature with ourselves has broken down. As the most developed species, humanity may have a special, often dominant, relationship with nature, but it is no less part of nature. Indeed, we cannot survive outside it. And yet accelerated urbanisation over the past century has distanced humanity from the very animal and plant sources of life itself. We are living in disharmony with the elements that comprise the universe, as if we too were not similarly formed, as if we were purely rational beings. We are disregarding the spiritual and instinctive qualities that until now have ensured our survival. We assume grave risks when we distance ourselves from our natural roots, roots which in the past always made us feel part of the whole.
Only recent generations have come to recognize the real possibility of nature’s collapse. We live today on a planet that can die. We use nuclear energy in various fields, in our daily life and in scientific programs, but we do not fully understand the risks posed by secondary effects and by nuclear waste. And yet, we have accumulated unthinkable numbers of nuclear weapons that can be used in war or by terrorists. We are also threatened by environmental disaster. Industrial farming and largescale cattle ranching are using techniques that decimate wildlife habitats, while soil and water are poisoned by excessive use of chemicals. What we produce is now merely a commodity to be traded. We are damaging the stratosphere and destroying the last portions of the tropical forests, with the parallel reduction of the photosynthesis that assures our survival. Our very existence is in danger.
This is tragically mirrored in the current state of humanity. Immense wealth has been created through the labour of the entire world’s population, but it is concentrated in the hands of all too few people, spawning tensions both within affluent societies and between a handful of rich countries and the rest of the world. We produce more food than ever and yet millions die of hunger. And in recent decades we have witnessed the worst acts of genocide of our history .
Throughout the 20th century, accelerating population growth and economic development destroyed the natural habitats of most of temperate zones of the northern hemisphere. Now the focus of destruction has shifted to megadiverse tropical regions. The 25 regions of the world (or “hotspots”, a concept developed by the British ecologist Norman Myers in the late 1980s) that account for more than half of the planet’s species have already lost around 90% of their natural habitat; this extraordinary biodiversity is now facing its last stand in a mere 1.4% of the world’s land surface.
Only in wilderness zones does biodiversity still flourish. These drylands, coldlands and tropical forests, which represent around 46% of earth’s land area, contain as endemic only a tiny 1.6% of the world’s plants and 2.3% of nonfish vertebrates. But they are crucial to maintaining regional ecosystems (such as water cycles) and even global ones (for example, carbon sequestration). These are also the last places on earth where we can understand our origins as a species and find biological diversity in a pristine state.
Thus, for all the damage already caused to the environment, a world of purity, even innocence, can still be found in these wilderness areas. As an attempt to reconnect our species with our planet, I now intend to explore this world in order to record the unblemished faces of nature and humanity: how nature looked without men and women; and how humanity and nature long coexisted in what today we now call ecological balance.
This project is designed to reconnect us to how the world was before humanity altered it almost beyond recognition. It is a project that follows on from the long photographic research that led to my books and exhibitions, Other Americas, Sahel: L’Homme en Détresse, Workers and Migrations. In these early undertakings, I did not focus specifically on the environment, but I was constantly confronted by dismaying evidence of the dramatic deterioration of humanity’s relationship with nature. All too often, extreme poverty and migration were both a cause and a result of the degradation and pollution of nature’s resources.
This is also a project born of an initiative that my wife, Lélia Deluiz Wanick, and I took to reforest 1,500 acres of land that we own in Brazil with the original species of the Atlantic Forest, one of the 25 “hotspots” of the planet. From the beginning, the idea was to create a pilot project that could serve as a model for regreening deforested and depleted land across Brazil. To ensure that our experience was shared, we also founded the Instituto Terra to provide a practical environmental education to municipal officials, teachers, farmers and students. We have already planted half a million trees, while our school has graduated its first generations of students. We believe Instituto Terra is demonstrating that it is possible to turn back the clock and recover what seemed lost forever.
I conceive this project as a potential path towards humanity’s rediscovery of itself in nature. I have named it Genesis because, as far as possible, I want to return to the beginnings of our planet: to the air, water and fire that gave birth to life; to the animal species that have resisted domestication and are still “wild”; to the remote tribes whose “primitive” way of life is largely untouched; and to surviving examples of the earliest forms of human settlement and organisation. This voyage represents a form of planetary anthropology. Yet it is also designed to propose that this uncontaminated world must be preserved and, where possible, be expanded so that development is not automatically commensurate with destruction.
My photographs will be divided in four chapters. But since this will be a journey of exploration and discovery, I have a better idea of where I will look than what I will find.