To encourage the wealthy landowners to expand, Brazil’s then military government offered them generously subsidized credit to invest in modern farming techniques. It was a move to boost national agriculture. But water, or an impending lack of it, the expansion of cattle grazing, industry, the growth of the population and the rapid urbanization of the state brought the destruction of the local forests.
“The government was giving the land away for cheap, but the land didn’t serve for anything,” he says. “People cut down the trees but after 3 to 4 years, the soil turned into sand and nothing grows.” Maintaining forests are essential for water supplies because trees absorb and retain water in their roots and help to prevent soil erosion.
“The area was totally stripped,” he says, demonstrating by pointing to a painting of the treeless land in 1976. “The water supplies had nearly dried up.”
Vicente has seen first-hand the devastating effects of mass deforestation when he traveled at one point to Rondonia, now one of Brazil’s most deforested Amazon states.
With some donkeys and a small team, Vincente worked on his little patch – 31 hectares (77 acres) of land that had been razed for grazing cattle – and set about regenerating. What started off as a weekend gig has now become a full-time way of life. More than 40 years later, Vicente – now 84 – estimates he has replanted 50,000 trees on his Serra da Mantiqueira mountain range property.
When Vicente was growing up, he’d watched his father cut down the trees at the owners’ orders, for use in charcoal production and to clear more land for grazing cattle. Eventually, the farm’s water springs dried up and never returned.
It was 1973 when Antonio Vicente bought a patch of land in São Paulo state. It was a time when forests were seen by many as an obstacle to progress and profit. Neighbour cattle and dairy farmers, used to tell him: “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.”
“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,” he says.
But Vicente is working against the national trend. After several years of successive falls in deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon, the numbers are beginning to rise again. Nearly 8,000 hectares (19,770 acres) of rainforest were destroyed between August 2015 and July 2016, a 29% from the year before and the highest increase since 2008, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). Deforestation levels are still nowhere near their peak in 2004 when more than 27,000 hectares (66,720 acres) were removed, the upward trend is still worrying. There are a number of reasons behind the rise such as 2012 Forest Code which gave amnesty to property owners who committed illegal deforestation.
Today, local government initiatives in the region give a small monthly payment to farmers who protect the water supplies by planting and maintaining trees. São Paulo is currently managing to achieve almost zero deforestation. Sadly, there is so little forest left to be cut down.
Nationally, there are signs of a fightback. In 2015, Brazil committed to replanting 12m hectares (29.6m acres) of deforested land by 2030, as part of the Bonn Challenge, a target that was derided as unrealistic by many.
“If everyone followed Vicente’s example, our task would be a lot easier,” says Rodrigo Medeiros, vice president of Conservation International Brazil, one of the organizations in the coalition. “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.”
“Regeneration is a slow process, we need zero deforestation now,” Mazzetti from Greenpeace says.
Others have joined Vicente in his work. Brazil’s most famous reforestation advocate, a celebrity photographer, and activist Sebastiao Salgado reforested nearly 7,000 hectares of Atlantic Forest in the late 1990s on his childhood home.
On Vicente’s own patch, there are now eight waterfalls, a spotless trail with a rich earthy smell and views in the distance of the Mantiqueira mountain range’s rolling green valleys. The only noise that you hear is the trickle of the waterfall.
Speaking of his own project in the Mantiqueira mountain range: “I didn’t do it for money, I did it because when I die, what’s here will remain for everyone.” He adds: “People don’t call me crazy any more.”