Brazilian Man Spends 40 Years Bringing a Forest Back to Life

83-year-old Antonio Vicente has spent the last four decades of his life fighting against the current. As Brazilian landowners cut down rainforests to make room for profitable plantations and cattle grazing grounds, he struggled to bring the lush jungles of his childhood back to life. Today, his efforts are being rewarded, as the completely stripped land he once began planting trees on 40 years ago, has become a beautiful jungle teeming with tropical wildlife once again.

It was 1973 when Antonio took up the challenge of restoring the forest on a 31-hectare piece of land that had been razed for cattle grazing. Ironically enough, he bought the land on the outskirts of Sao Pablo, in Brazil’s Sao Paulo region, using credits that the military government was giving out to promote deforestation and investing in advanced agricultural technology. But Antonio had no intention of using the money to boost the national agriculture. He just wanted to revive the forest.

Photo: Gibby Zobel/BBC

“You are dumb. Planting trees is a waste of land. You won’t have income. If it’s full of trees, you won’t have room for cows or crops,” Antonio’s neighbors, who were all cattle and dairy farmers, used to tell him. But he knew that the damage caused by deforestation was far greater than any financial profit, so he paid them no heed. Vicente had grown up on a rural farm, and had watched his father and the other villagers cut down neighboring forests at the owners’ orders, either for charcoal production or just to clear land for grazing cattle. He had watched the ancient water sources dry up and people struggling to survive.

“When I was a child, the peasants cut down the trees to make grasslands and charcoal, and the water dried up and did not come back,” he told the BBC. “I thought: ‘Water is valuable, no one makes water, and the population will not stop growing. What is going to happen? We are going to run out of water.'”

Photo: video screengrab

With only some donkeys and a small team of hired workers Antonio Vicente set about bring back the forest to his land. What started out as a weekend hobby soon became a permanent way of life, and Antonio recalls often spending whole days and nights in his young jungle, surrounded by rats and foxes, and eating banana sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Over the last 40 years, he has planted an estimated 50,000 trees on his 31-hectare land, which now make up a small oasis of rainforest, and a sanctuary for wildlife.

As the forest grew, the water returned, and Antonio says that there are now over 20 water sources on his land that were no longer there when he bought it. Then the animals started making a home there. Today, the forest is alive with the sounds of birds and insects living there, and more species are settling in every year. “There are toucans, all kinds of birds, a great rodent called apaca, squirrels, lizards, opossums, and even the boars are returning,” Vicente says.

Photo: video screengrab

“If you ask me who my family are, I would say all this right here, each one of these that I planted from a seed,” 83-year-old Antonio told The Guardian.

As impressive as Antonio Vicente’s life-long dedication to reforestation is, his is a very rare story. Data shows that nearly 8,000 hectares (19,770 acres) of Brazilian rainforest were destroyed between August 2015 and July 2016. That makes Antonio’s 31 hectares seem like a drop in a pond, but just imagine if we had more people like him, who cared more about water and clean air than money.

Photo: video screengrab

“If everyone followed Vicente’s example, our task would be a lot easier,” says Rodrigo Medeiros, vice president of Conservation International Brazil. The scale of restoration that we are dealing with here is unprecedented in the history of Brazil. Without forests, water, food and a pleasant climate are basically not possible.”

Luckily, there are more people like Antonio Vicente around the world. Just a few weeks ago we wrote about Anil and Pamela Malhotra, who turned 300-hectares of agricultural land in India into a paradise of biodiversity, but there are also the stories of Jadav Payeng, the Forest Man who single-handedly planted a 550-hectare forest, Yi Jiefeng, a Chinese woman who planted millions of trees in memory of her deceased son, or M.C. Davis, a Florida gambler-turned-businessman who spent $90 million purchasing thousands of acres of land, and turning it into a natural paradise. And the list goes on.