The power to preserve?

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Two men are balancing on a small craft, propelling themselves along a moonlit river using long sticks as oars. There are two more boats ahead. All the half-naked sailors are fishermen, from an indigenous people called Waurá, who live in the Brazilian rainforest and comprise a grand total of 400 people.

This stunning image is one of 250 black and white pictures that will make up photographer Sebastião Salgado’s “Genesis” exhibition, which opens at London’s Natural History Museum in April 2013. Salgado, who is Brazilian, has spent the last eight years documenting the “places that modern life hasn’t touched, to find sanctuaries from the ravages of economic growth”. He has covered 32 countries, spending several weeks in each, living with local people and experiencing the world the way indigenous tribes experience it – in equilibrium with their environment and respectful of nature.

Though Salgado, in his own words, is “just a photographer”, he has been involved as an environmental campaigner for decades. He and his wife have, since 1998, run a rainforest-preservation organisation called Instituto Terra, and they own a section of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest that they have transformed into a nature reserve. Though he says he doesn’t want to convince anyone of anything through his photographs, he does feel passionately that the beauty he highlights needs preserving – and in fact the photograph of the Waurá fishermen was shown at an exhibition in 2011 run by Sky Rainforest Rescue and the World Wildlife Fund, as part of an awareness-raising campaign focusing on the Amazonian rainforest. The exhibition was at Somerset House, where Salgado gave a speech emphasising the importance of feeling close to the planet

The Waurá, who live in north-west Brazil, have an economy based on hunting, fishing and horticulture, they retain traditional dance festivals for the dead, and when young women reach puberty they enter a dark tent for one year to prepare for womanhood. Salgado spent two months living with them, loving the lifestyle so much that when he left he was “desolate”.

Other photographs in “Genesis” will show Salgado’s interactions with the Zo’é Indians, who live over 1000 miles away from the Waurá in another part of the Amazon. They are nomadic and walk constantly; their planet consists of about 275 people. Among Salgado’s atmospheric images (though he now uses a digital camera he has never deviated from black-and-white) is a beautiful shot of Zo’e women colouring their bodies with the red fruit of a shrub called a urucum.

Despite laws protecting Brazil’s indigenous population and their lands, the lifestyles of the Waurá and the Zo’e remain at risk from the persistent encroachment of modern Brazil. Among the main threats are farming, ranching, logging and roads. Small-scale farmers cut and burn trees to grow crops, moving on to cut and burn more when the soil becomes infertile. Ranchers clear trees for their cattle, loggers remove the trees to sell as commercial wood, and obviously roads can’t run through dense forest. Campaigners are working with local people in Acre to teach them more sustainable farming methods – tips on how to keep the soil fertile for longer, for example – and introduce them to rubber-tapping, an occupation that does not destroy trees.

The campaigns have had some success; since Salgado’s Somerset House exhibition there has been evidence of farmers in the Waurá home state of Acre embracing new techniques and taking advantage of financial incentives to change their practice. Salgado makes visitors to his exhibitions care about the lives of individuals, but he is also a master of sweeping panoramics. One such shot is of the Anavilhanas, a collection of 350 forested islands that cover roughly 1000 square km of the Amazon. This picture is not intimate in the same way as Salgado’s portraits, but it is an equally important perspective on why recent changes to Brazil’s forestry laws are potentially a concern. The Brazilian government has granted concessions to agriculturalists, for example relaxing the laws on how much forest each farmer is obliged to protect.

Can Salgado’s photographs influence what happens in Brazil? Though the campaigners involved in the Somerset House exhibition can’t put a value on Salgado’s involvement, his show was so popular that it was extended by two weeks. Whatever the politics around the protection of “pristine” places in his home country and across the world, “Genesis” will doubtless keep the debates going long after those Waurá fishermen have hooked their last catch.

by Jennie Gillions

Genesis: Sebastião Salgado is at the The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD
From April 11 – September 8, 2013

The book Sebastiao Salgado: Genesis will be published by TASCHEN on the 11th April. Priced at £44.99


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Glass Magazine editor in chief

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