What is our planet worth? Movies like Waterworld, Frozen, and The Day After Tomorrow feature environmental disasters for entertainment value, but the truth is, these dangers are all too real. Though climate change threatens all of humanity, it also offers us a rare chance to band together.
For many scientists, it felt like all they could do was watch as forests shrunk from every corner of the Earth. But when their machinery picked up on an inexplicable trend, none of them knew exactly what to think.
By 2019, the Earth’s future was at a crossroads. Every time the United Nations Environment Assembly met, they upped their efforts to save the planet. Nevertheless, their prospects were looking bleaker by the day.
Among the smorgasbord of environmental issues, deforestation posed a particularly large threat to the international community. The Earth was losing over 18 million acres of greenery each year.
Skeptics will downplay the effects of this trend. Wood is a major resource; how could we just stop harvesting it? How much harm could a few extra logs do to the planet? Well, even in an urbanized society, forests remain one of our most valuable assets.
Of course, these wooded areas serve as the habitat for countless plant and animal species. Without a stable home, these creatures could be in danger of going extinct. But deforestation is also a problem for humans.
Twitter / global canopy
It’s no secret that man-made emissions of carbon dioxide are permanently raising temperatures all over Earth. It’s unclear if we can turn back this tide, but without robust forests, we do not stand a chance.
Unsplash / Roman Khripkov
Areas of dense vegetation serve as a sort of sponge for carbon dioxide, plus they also help keep moisture inside the soil. But with their influence shrinking, climate change is brewing strange weather patterns that are endangering people everywhere.
Unsplash / Boudewijn Huysmans
NASA has monitored these effects using satellite technology. Years of data from MODIS — Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer — have shown unexpected shifts in greenery over recent periods.
For most of the 21st century, the drop in trees has allowed temperatures to rise and water to escape, thus transforming lush agricultural areas into virtual deserts. This process has forced entire communities to leave their homes.
Particularly in China, which contains a small percentage of the world’s forests compared to its massive size, desertification became an incredible danger. If the dust storms in center-city Beijing were any indication, the Chinese were quickly losing their country.
YouTube / Info Desk
Zhang Jianlong, Director of China’s Forestry Administration, understood the dire situation required an immediate response. Pulling a few strings with friends he had in other parts of the government, he set a bold plan into action.
The rest of the world, however, wasn’t aware of the Forestry solution at the time. They only noticed it in 2019, when NASA’s satellites picked up on a startling find on Earth’s surface below.
Thanks to the work of concerned environmentalists everywhere, greening was on the rise. All of a sudden, however, about one 25% of that growth appeared to be coming out of China. Only a few years prior, it looked like it was on the verge of becoming a sandbox.
Clearly, this was no happy accident. With the trees sprouting in such neatly organized rows in many of the most vulnerable regions of China, only a human operation could be responsible. But how did this all happen so quickly?
State Forestry Administration
It turns out that Zhang convinced the government to lend him the assistance of 60,000 soldiers. Instead of carrying rifles, however, these troops trudged out to the environmental battlefield with shovels and gardening tools.
When the first spade broke through the dirt, the Three-North Shelter Forest Program was underway. The troops got to work planting thousands of trees to form an artificial forest. Ultimately, the plan was to build a “Great Green Wall.”
Naturally, the strategy isn’t a guaranteed success. Ecologist Jiang Gaoming pointed out that the government has planted much of the greenery in spaces not capable of sustaining plant life. Many of the trees will die out before too long.
For the short term, at least, China’s forests have boomed. The renewed greenery elongated the growing season and lessened the severity of dust storms. Best of all, the program inspired similar efforts worldwide.
India suffered from many of the same industrial and ecological problems as China, so they too turned their attention to forestry. Summoning a huge number of volunteers, the country managed to plant a record 66 million saplings in just half a day!
India also upgraded its irrigation systems nationwide, bringing water to previously dried-out areas. While this process does siphon moisture away from other areas, it’s been effective at fighting back against desertification.
Given the current state of our planet, a ton of work is necessary to keep our world beautiful and liveable. But whether you’re a soldier or a civilian, anyone can make a difference.
Unsplash / Noah Buscher
For instance, Sebastião Salgado, a Brazilian photojournalist, made a huge impact, after spending years abroad highlighting injustices across the globe. When he saw the effects of deforestation, he and his wife cooked up an unbelievable scheme to help out.
See, the Earth mattered a lot to him. He took photos that told stories about war, famine, poverty, disease, and violence. But fans of his work found relief in Salgado’s nature photos, which portrayed the power of our planet.
His wife, Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado, wrote and edited the context to his photography books and produced a documentary about her husband’s work called The Salt Of The Earth. Together, they saw all there was to see — or so they’d thought.
Back in 1994, the couple spent months documenting the Rwandan genocide. Understandably, the horror left them feeling broken, and when the war was over, all they wanted was to rest up in their hometown in Brazil.
After having been on the road for years on end, seeing Minas Gerais, Brazil, felt like huge relief at first. That was until the Salgados began to notice the change in the landscape around them; their home hardly looked familiar anymore.
The trees outside of their land had vanished, and all that remained were empty stretches of dirt. While this region is not part of the Amazon rainforest, its flora is supposed to be quite similar. Clearly, that was no longer the case.
Deforestation has plagued South America for decades now, as the demand for wood just keeps on rising. In fact, Brazil specifically has seen the highest deforestation rates of natural forests in the continent, and most of it is done illegally.
Between 2000 and 2008, both legal and illegal deforestation turned Brazil into a shell of its former self, with satellite imaging picking up less green year after year. Sebastião and his wife recognized this — and it broke their hearts.
“The land was as sick as I was – everything was destroyed,” Sebastião told The Guardian in 2015. “Only about 0.5% of the land was covered in trees.” Without drastic intervention, he knew, that number would likely soon be 0.
“Suddenly, my wife had a fabulous idea to replant this forest,” Sebastião recalled. It was a tall order, one the couple wasn’t even sure was possible. Could they even put a dent in deforestation’s impact? They knew they had to try.
So they gathered all the manpower they could get and went to work. The plan was to gather the remaining seeds from the local region and carefully plant them, one by one, to get natural fauna to return to the area as well.
Every day for years on end, the Salgados and a few volunteers woke up, put on their gear, and worked for hours to undo the damage and rebuild the forest that once adorned this province.
Trees and plants needing a little extra TLC were grown in several greenhouses the Salgados built. There, Lelia looked after them with the help of a local gardening expert. The more flora that survived and grew, the more land they could recover.
And as time went by, seeds grew roots, roots grew branches, and branches grew leaves. It was difficult for the hard workers to not see their progress overnight, but after several months, their blood, sweat, and tears began to pay off.
As the trees grew, Sebastião felt peace. “All the insects and birds and fish returned and, thanks to this increase of the trees,” he said, “I, too, was reborn – this was the most important moment.”
“We need to listen to the words of the people on the land,” Sebastião explained. “Nature is the Earth and it is other beings and if we don’t have some kind of spiritual return to our planet, I fear that we will be compromised.”
Over two decades, the 1,700-acre forest was almost completely restored by planting nearly 300 different types of trees and plants, which caused a whopping 172 of bird species to return to the area.
Along with the birds, 33 endangered mammal species and 15 endangered reptile species were welcomed back into their native home. This meant the world for animals like the orangutan, who suffered greatly from deforestation.
The Salgados’ work was unbelievable, and they proved small groups can make a huge difference. Planting more trees, plants, and flowers is a fantastic place to start, even if you don’t have many resources!