Brazilian writer, filmmaker and environmentalist Lelia Wanick Salgado will be attending COP26 this week with an urgent message.
“The entire world is responsible for the protection of the Amazon rainforest," she tells The National. “Our planet depends on this forest. It provides the earth with air, moisture and fresh water.”
“The conference has always been a conversation between politicians and city-dwellers, without including those who plant forests,” she says. “It’s great that industries are cutting back on carbon emissions, but we need more trees to absorb these emissions.”
For seven years, Wanick Salgado accompanied her husband, award-winning photographer Sebastiao Salgado, on expeditions across the Amazon. Together, they flew in helicopters across the vast green forest canopy, and lived with remote indigenous communities.
“Flying above the rainforest is so moving,” she recalls, “It’s like being on a boat in the middle of the ocean, but instead of water you are surrounded by trees”.
Sebastiao Salgado’s ensuing photographs are part of Amazonia, a major travelling exhibition curated by Wanick Salgado, and that is currently on display at London’s Science Museum. “I want to create a movement of people who are conscious about protecting the Amazon rainforest,” she says.
The Amazon rainforest is a major lifeline for the planet, and it plays a crucial role in absorbing global greenhouse gas emissions. It is home to 600 billion trees, and tens of thousands of plant and animal species. Its self-sustaining system of water transportation is vital to tens of millions of lives on the continent, and impacts weather patterns across the globe.
But today, the forest is in urgent need of protection, threatened by massive deforestation from soy plantations and cattle farming. In recent years, the rate of destruction has accelerated and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been accused of actively supporting this with his policies.
Losing this forest could present a major existential risk for our planet. “If the Amazon rainforest passes its climate tipping point, fires become much more abundant and the forest is transformed into a savannah,” said Tim Lenton, professor of climate change and earth system science at the University of Exeter, in a film commissioned by the Science Museum for the exhibition.
According to the exhibition, European settlers once described the rainforest as a “Green Hell,” an impenetrable and dangerous jungle. By conquering it, they sought to enrich themselves through the rubber trade, and with fruitless expeditions to the rumoured gold mines of El Dorado.
But it was also a place of magic and mystery. Among Salgado’s images is the river where Macunaima, the hero of a foundational novel in modern Brazilian literature, is born. Macunaima travels across a jungle that is replete with wonders, into the burgeoning urban centre of Sao Paulo, where he encounters greed and vice.
“Few people ventured into the Amazon back then,” says Wanick Salgado. “It is still difficult to access today, but there are more people working with the indigenous communities there.”
Salgado’s aerial shots capture the immensity of the rainforest and its tempestuous surroundings, while his intimate portraits of indigenous tribes give a sense of the fragile communities that inhabit them.
The images of the forest are printed in large scale, and hung from the ceiling as if they were floating. An immersive soundtrack with sounds from the Amazon by composer Jean-Michel Jarre was specially commissioned for the exhibition. Wanick Salgado says she wanted viewers to feel “enveloped" by the forest as they walked through the space.
The visitor is guided into the depths of the jungle, above vertiginous mountain ranges and across the labyrinthine canals of the world’s largest freshwater archipelago. “It’s extremely difficult to capture the mountains of the rainforest because they are so remote. Sebastiao travelled with the army in their helicopters to get there,” she says.
The exhibition sheds light on a phenomenon known as the Amazon’s “flying rivers”, the vapour that accumulates into a white bed above the humid forest. In Salgado’s photographs, these clouds appear like sculptural objects floating above the forest, or are mirrored in the streams of still water.
Scientists estimate that these aerial rivers move 60 billion tonnes of the Amazon’s moisture per day, as the rainforest recycles its own rainfall. And, when viewed from above, localised tropical storms appear like mushroom clouds.
Three clay-coloured pavilions house Salgado’s portraits of the Amazon’s many indigenous communities. “Brazil was one of few countries to protect its indigenous communities. By taking control of the land they lived on, they became the guardians and protectors of the forest,“ says Wanick Salgado.
One such example is the Yawanawa tribe, which suffered the near complete erosion of their language and culture under the influence of missionaries. By the 1970s, they numbered at just 120 people.
Today, after reforms initiated by their leader in the 1990s, they have revived their language and grown into a self-sustaining community of 1,200 people, combining their traditions with modern entrepreneurship.
Yet Wanick Salgado worries about their future. “Bolsonaro has undone the institutions that helped support indigenous communities and protect the Amazon rainforest,” she says.
In video interviews, members of the Ashaninka tribe describe the impact of these new policies, and the challenges they faced during the pandemic. “They couldn’t get access to food or medical supplies, and when prospectors entered the forest in search of gold, members of the tribe caught the virus and many died,” says Wanick Salgado.
It’s not just the Amazon rainforest that Walnick Salgado aims to preserve. In 2008, she founded the Instituto Tierra with her husband, which supports the recovery of forests in the Vale do Rio Doce, on the Atlantic coast of Brazil. There, they transformed 600 hectares of parched and damaged land into a national park. Today, they are working on reviving over 370,000 known water springs in the area, to rehabilitate a river that once crossed the valley.
Wanick Salgado hopes the exhibition at the Science Museum will encourage visitors to fight for better protection of the rainforest. In particular, she hopes it will help curb consumption of products that contribute to its deforestation. “We have to stop buying wood that has been illegally logged from the rainforest, or soya and meat products from the rainforest,” she says.
There may be lessons to learn, she adds, from the lives of the indigenous communities portrayed in the exhibition. “They lived a life that was so pure, unlike like ours, which revolves around consuming,” she says.
More information about Amazonia can be found here.