Fact Check

Couple in Brazil Planted More Than 2M Trees in 20 Years To Recreate Forest?

In 1998, photographer Sebastião Salgado and his wife Lélia embarked on a remarkable journey to revive the ecosystem in a part of Brazil.

Published April 24, 2024

 ( Getty Images)
Image courtesy of Getty Images
A couple in Brazil planted over 2 million trees in 20 years to recreate the forest.

While it's true that a couple in Brazil planted more than 2 million trees over a 20-year period, they reportedly received help from local students and workers to accomplish the task.

In 2019, an aerial view captured the lush greenery of Instituto Terra's tree nursery, nestled in Aimorés, Brazil. This land, once devastated by erosion and deforestation from cattle farming, now stood as a testament to the power of reforestation efforts.

Tributes to the tree nursery garnered widespread attention on social media platforms such as Facebook and Reddit, where posts claimed that a Brazilian couple planted 2 million trees to recreate the forest.



The claim that this couple planted more than 2 million trees over a 20-year period — albeit with help reportedly from local students, hired workers, donations from multinational corporations, plus financial support from the government — holds true.

In 1998, award-winning photographer and photojournalist Sebastião Salgado and his wife, Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado, founded Instituto Terra, a federally recognized nature preserve and nonprofit organization, thus embarking on a remarkable journey to revive the ecosystem.

The roots of this endeavor trace back to the mid-1990, shortly after Salgado's return from a photo assignment covering the genocide in Rwanda, and the couple's acquisition of the cattle ranch reportedly purchased by Sebastião Salgado's father in the 1940s.

"The land was as sick as I was – everything was destroyed," Salgado said at a Paris climate change meeting in 2015, according to The Guardian. "Only about 0.5% of the land was covered in trees. Then my wife had a fabulous idea to replant this forest. And when we began to do that, then all the insects and birds and fish returned and, thanks to this increase of the trees I, too, was reborn – this was the most important moment."

According to Smithsonian Magazine, replanting the farm with trees was Lélia's idea. "There was no hidden agenda," she told the outlet in 2015. "It was so natural, instinctive. The land was so degraded, so horrible. What a bad gift! Why not plant?"

Over two decades, the Salgados transformed barren landscapes into thriving forests by planting millions of seedlings, starting with an initial donation of 100,000 seedlings from a local mining company. This monumental effort aimed not only to restore the ecosystem but also to produce plants and trees that would be a natural habitat for native fauna including birds and insects.

The former farmland is now known as Instituto Terra, serving as a hub for environmental education, seedling cultivation and ecological research. Located in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, this 1,750-acre expanse sits about 100 miles inland from the Atlantic coast, nestled within the valley of the Rio Doce. The biodiverse Atlantic Forest was integral to the Rio Doce Valley's ecosystem, covering both the family cattle farm and surrounding areas. 

Nov. 2019, aerial view of the Instituto Terra tree nursery in Aimorés, Brazil. (Getty Images)

The transformative impact of the Salgados' efforts is documented in various sources. Earth Observatory, a NASA initiative dedicated to sharing images and stories about the environment, Earth systems and climate research, highlighted the couple's role in reforesting and the restoration of degraded ecosystems.

Numerous sources corroborate the remarkable achievements of the couple, with their story garnering attention from media outlets worldwide, including the Daily Mail and DeMilked, which chronicled the couple's two-decade journey to transform the barren ranch into a thriving habitat for wildlife and biodiversity conservation.

Visual evidence of the couple's achievements can be found in a YouTube video showcasing the lush greenery that now blankets the once-devastated landscapes, showcasing the couple's transformative impact on the landscape.

The pioneering efforts of the Salgados' initiative in reclaiming lost forests and combating deforestation not only contribute to environmental conservation but also serve as a source of inspiration for individuals and organizations worldwide to take action.

Snopes has previously reported on environmental issues in Brazil, including a Swedish multimillionaire purchasing around 400,000 acres of Amazonian rainforest, and claims that a logger cut down the world's oldest tree.


A New Patch of Green in Brazil. 23 July 2019, https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/145324/a-new-patch-of-green-in-brazil.

"Brazilian Couple Plants Over 2 Million Trees To Restore A Destroyed Forest." AA Environment Possibility Award, https://www.ep-a.org/trend/en/brazilian-couple-plants-over-2-million-trees-to-restore-a-destroyed-forest. Accessed 19 Apr. 2024.

Chronos. THIS COUPLE FROM BRAZIL PLANTED 2.7 MILLION TREES! AND HERE'S WHY. 2021. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJ9YxXauP1M.

"Instituto Terra." Instituto Terra, https://institutoterra.org/.

Log in or Sign up to View. https://www.facebook.com/login/. Accessed 19 Apr. 2024.

Magazine, Smithsonian, and McKenzie Funk. "Sebastião Salgado Has Seen the Forest, Now He's Seeing the Trees." Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/sebastiao-salgado-forest-trees-180956620/. Accessed 19 Apr. 2024.

ORFL. Instituto Terra – ORFL. 13 Sept. 2022, https://www.orfl.org.hk/instituto-terra/.

Reforestation Institute Finds Room to Grow. https://www.ecoamericas.com/issues/article/2020/3/444CA184-06F2-48E9-8AC1-4AF8245EA4C9. Accessed 19 Apr. 2024.

Uptas, Aušrys. "This Couple Planted Over 2 Million Trees In 20 Years And Made The Animals Return To The Forest." Demilked, 24 Apr. 2019, https://www.demilked.com/couple-replant-forest-sebastiao-leila-salgado-reforestation/.

Vidal, John. "Sebastião Salgado Focuses on Big Picture with Parable of Reforestation in Brazil." The Guardian, 27 July 2015. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/jul/27/sebastiao-salgado-fredrick-shoo-reforestation-brazil-tanzania.

Wingate, Sophie. "Brazilian Photographer Transforms Barren Ranch into Tropical Paradise." Mail Online, 3 June 2019, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7099537/Brazilian-couple-spends-20-years-planting-trees-barren-ranch-create-paradise-animals.html.

Nikki Dobrin is based in Los Angeles and has previously worked at The Walt Disney Company, as well as written and edited for People, USA Today and The Hill.