Several hundred years ago, a wide swath of tropical forest stretched along Brazil’s Atlantic Coast for thousands of miles. Like the Amazon rainforest to its northwest, the Mata Atlântica, or Atlantic Forest, was a hotspot of biodiversity and home to thousands of plant and animals species found nowhere else on Earth.
These days, just slivers of that ancient forest remain. With about three quarters of Brazil’s population living along the Atlantic coast, a fragmented patchwork of undisturbed forest stands alongside a mosaic of farmland, pastureland, cities, and roads. Estimates vary, but satellite-based surveys show that about 10 to 15 percent of the original Atlantic Forest is left.
For one Brazilian couple, the changes to the Atlantic Forest felt especially personal. In 1994, celebrated photographer Sebastião Salgado returned to his home in Aimorés (in Minas Gerais state) after a stressful assignment reporting on genocide in Rwanda. He found that the lush forests around his childhood home had been cleared and converted to a cattle farm. Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado, his wife, had an idea: replant the lost forest. And that is exactly what the couple did.
Lélia and Sebastião set up a non-profit reforestation organization called Instituto Terra and started planting trees in 1999. Twenty years later, the organization has planted more than 4 million seedlings across the 1,754-acre (7-square kilometer) property once known as Bulcão Farm. Eroded, bare hillsides have been replaced by forests, and many of the plant and animal species that had gone missing have returned. Several streams that had gone dry have also started to flow again, according to Instituto Terra.
Evidence of the reforestation effort are visible to sensors on the Landsat series of satellites. The Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) on Landsat 7 acquired the first image on June 28, 2000; the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 acquired the second image on July 11, 2019. Hillsides that have been cleared for pasture or other reasons mostly appear brown in the 2000 image. The reforested area is the narrow dark green strip that runs southwest of Aimorés in the 2019 image. Note that in the 2019 image, surrounding pasture and cleared lands (which have not been reforested) appear light green because it was a relatively wet year in this area compared to 2000.
The modest size of the reforested area underscores just how many trees are required to replant forests on a large scale. Planting 4 million trees sounds like a lot, but it is only enough to transform a few hillsides and stream valleys. “These Landsat images are a reminder about the potential for further reforestation efforts in this landscape,” said Douglas Morton, the chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “When forests are young, you can have 1,000 trees per hectare before larger trees crowd out the smaller stems. Meeting Brazil’s ambitious goals to restore 12 million hectares of forest by 2020 means planting or regenerating billions of new trees.”
Another notable change in this pair of images is the construction of a new dam and reservoir north of Aimorés. The hydroelectric power plant opened in 2006 along the Doce River.
NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Caption by Adam Voiland.