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A collaboration between a forest fanatic and an insurance company is helping to restore one of the world’s most threatened forests.
A Brazilian proverb says that “love is repaid with love.” Where climate change is concerned, everyone on the planet benefits from trees, which capture carbon dioxide (CO2) that otherwise contributes to global warming. And how do we repay the trees? Often with quite the opposite of love: forests that cover nearly one-third of the planet’s land area are disappearing. Yet, restoring trees can restore the planet — and us, too.
That’s the thinking behind an ambitious reforestation project in Brazil, which Zurich is supporting. Together with non-profit Instituto Terra, Zurich Insurance Group is making it possible to plant one million native trees on over 2.7 square miles of land in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. It’s allowing us to repay — with a little love — the trees that do a whole lot of good for everybody.
The “Zurich Forest” project in Brazil will take eight years to complete. It is part of an ambitious plan to regrow a small portion of what used to be one of the largest single wooded places on Earth: the mighty Mata Atlântica, or Atlantic Forest, which once stretched over 1,900 miles north to south. When the Europeans arrived some 500 years ago, the forest’s Brazilwood trees were among the first to face destruction. These were prized to make a red dye. More forest disappeared as coffee and sugar cane plantations were established, and crops like soy were planted. Cattle grazed in pastures created through slash-and-burn destruction. The giant forest became a ghost. By some estimates, today less than 10 percent of the original Atlantic Forest still remains.
There are two determined individuals driving this positive change. Renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado and his wife, Lélia, who trained as an architect, didn’t plan to regrow a forest initially. A professional photographer with a degree in economics, Sebastião took up a camera almost by accident.
After the young couple moved to Paris from Brazil in the late 1960s, it was Lélia who bought their first camera, but it was Sebastião who was hooked. The former economist began taking pictures and selling them to newspapers. Through his lens, one can perhaps imagine the world as an impassioned economist might see it. Characteristically in black and white, his photos present landscapes and people as whole systems. They have been described as biblical in scale. They might even be considered precursors to the forest project, which really, according to Sebastião Salgado, is all about “ecosystems.”
Realizing a dream of a renewed forest
Their dream of a renewed forest grew out of a sense of loss after the couple inherited Sebastião’s parent’s farm in Brazil. “My father had a great farm. I grew up in a paradise,” he told Zurich’s management in 2019 at a meeting where he was introduced to the company’s leaders. But when he and Lélia returned to the land in the 1990s, the hills surrounding Bulcão Farm were barren, resembling more a circle of hell than a paradise. The farm’s land, set mainly in the Doce River valley, was pronounced “dead” by one soil expert. But Sebastião the photojournalist had returned home sickened by what he’d seen in places of human disaster, such as Rwanda and the Balkans. He needed renewal. Lélia suggested that by re-growing the forest, Salgado could heal himself. So began the career of Sebastião, the forest fanatic.
The project was daunting. To realize their vision and manage the enormous challenges, the couple founded Instituto Terra in 1998. Part of the key is in funding. Sebastião even auctioned a special-edition camera awarded to him by a camera company to raise money to plant trees. The project has grown in the meantime, thanks to support from the community, public sources and private donations. As a photographer, Salgado says, “When you work with faces, faces do not smile all the time.” Standing on stage before Zurich’s management, he shows another photo of the green canopy that now covers the once-barren hillsides of the old farm. At this point, many managers in the audience smiled. And some applauded.
Zurich North America CEO Kristof Terryn was one of the Zurich executives in the audience that day. “The work that Instituto Terra is doing is inspiring and aligns well with Zurich’s commitment to sustainability,” he said. “Since we announced the ‘Zurich Forest’ project, our employees in North America and in other regions have embraced our collective effort to revitalize this large swath of Brazilian forest, which is an important part of the global ecosystem. We are creating a brighter future together.”
Zurich North America is even enlisting spectators at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans to help grow the Zurich Forest. To celebrate Earth Day, the same day as round one of the Zurich Classic, Zurich is planting a tree on behalf of each spectator to support the “Zurich Forest.”
So far, Instituto Terra has planted 2.5 million trees. The “Zurich Forest” project will add a further million. With most of the land now designated one of Brazil’s Private Natural Heritage Reserves, native animals are also returning. The area is home to 172 different bird species, of which six are endangered, and 33 mammals, with seven at risk of extinction. That includes jaguars which were in danger of dying out due to destruction of their habitat.
A tree for each Zurich employee
In the “Zurich Forest” of Brazil, a tree will be planted for each of about Zurich’s 55,000 employees, with the remainder available to customers who can choose to plant trees when they purchase insurance. Thus, forests can be stories about sadness and loss, but also, if they are regrown, about redemption and hope. Salgado knows how hard it is to grow trees. “Like raising a kid,” is how he describes it. It requires knowledge and time. The first trees are “the pioneers,” the first generation, which enables the second generation and — if all goes well — a third generation of trees. That final generation will include those in the “Zurich Forest” project.
If all goes well, the trees Zurich is helping to plant now could last for 500 or even 1,000 years. The lifespan of a tree is long. To see things in tree-time, humans need to think long-term, too, including when it comes to the future of the planet. For that, one might consider another Brazilian proverb: “For those who know how to wait for an opportunity, everything comes at its own time and volition.” In this case, the long wait is ending. The trees are returning.
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