When Brazilian photojournalist Sebastiao Ribeiro Salgado returned to his country in the 1990s after covering the genocide in Rwanda, he discovered a different kind of genocide at home.
His home state of Minas Gerais, in southeastern Brazil, had been virtually deforested. Only 0.5 percent of the woods remained.
Worse, the loss of this tropical forest habitat meant that the plants, birds, mammals and reptiles that once called it home were also gone.
Minas Gerais had become an ecologically lonely land.
Instead of lamenting the loss of something irreplaceable, Salgado and his wife, Lelia Deluiz Wanick Salgado, decided to do the impossible. They did try to replace it.
Surprisingly, they have succeeded.
The Salgados attempted afforestation – the process of planting trees in barren lands. They founded the Instituto Terra in 1998, which recovered 1,502 acres of cattle land and began planting native trees there in 1999.
Twenty years later, the land has gone from barren and lifeless to lush and green; the forest is coming back. Nearly 3 million trees have been planted. Even wildlife, including some rare species, are returning.
Tree geeks – and I am one – must draw inspiration from this story – a classic example of tikkun olam.
And it’s not the only one:
Australia has embarked on a massive tree-planting initiative, setting a goal of 1 billion new trees in the ground by 2050.
The Indian state of Madhya Pradesh set a Guinness World Record in 2017 when 1.5 million volunteers planted 66 million trees in 12 hours.
Even in Louisville, which is losing some 54,000 trees a year to development, neglect and extreme weather, tree-planting initiatives are … umm, taking root.
The University of Louisville, through the $5 million Green Heart Project, is planting thousands of trees and shrubs in urban areas, studying their impact on human health. Tree giveaways have taken place at dozens of schools; churches and synagogues have planted trees on their own grounds; and an anonymous donor contributed $1 million in 2016 to plant trees throughout the city.
And, of course, there is Israel, where the Jewish National Fund has planted more than 240 million trees since its inception in 1901, marching steadily toward the goal of “making the desert flourish.”
Make no mistake; deforestation, a factor of climate change, is very real. About 31,000 square miles of rainforests a year are being lost – about the size of one South Carolina per annum.
Trees are the lungs of the planet, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. If they go away, the earth can’t breathe.
When forests disappear, so do the flora and fauna – sources for medicine and food – natural beauty that makes life worth living.
And yet, in Israel, which has seen so much success with afforestation, there are disturbing examples of trees being used, not as sources of life, but as weapons of war.
Palestinians were recently accused of uprooting 50 trees planted in the West Bank in memory of Ori Ansbacher, a 19-year-old woman who was raped and murdered in a forest outside Jerusalem by a Palestinian man.
Bomb balloons have been floated across the Green Line from Gaza to touch off wild fires. And Palestinian terrorist leaders have openly promoted the idea of using forest fires as a weapon against the Jewish state.
But Jewish settlers also have sap on their hands, having cut down groves of olive trees in the West Bank belonging to Palestinians farmers. B’tselem, an Israeli organization that monitors human rights in the West Bank, documented 10 cases between May and July last year in which more than 2,000 trees, grapevines and barley fields belonging to Arab farmers where destroyed.
Whether Israel’s future lies in a one- or two-state solution, who can say? But the ecology of the land is intermingled; it can’t be divided. If it is irreparably degraded, Arabs and Jews will all suffer, their claims to the land notwithstanding.
When that happens, we can only hope more people like the Salgados will step forward on both sides of the Green Line, ready and able to do the impossible.
For the sake of the future, leave the trees alone.
(Lee Chottiner is the editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)