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The Hidden World of the Amazon

Legendary photojournalist Sebastião Salgado returns to his native Brazil to find an ancient people – and the Earth’s most crucial ecosystem – at risk of being destroyed
© Sebastião Salgado

F or much of Sebastião Salgado’s four-decade career, the renowned Brazilian photojournalist captured indelible images of human catastrophe – famine, poverty, genocide. The brutality he witnessed eventually pushed him to seek the other extreme: pockets of the planet not yet spoiled by mankind, a project that brought him to the most isolated places on Earth and resulted in his landmark book and exhibit, Genesis. His latest work brings him to a pristine landscape closer to home: the Javari Valley in the Amazon jungle, a region he desperately hopes will avoid the tragedies he documented earlier in his career. “We must fight very hard to protect this last big slice of forest that is Amazonia,” says Salgado.

The Javari, 33,000 square miles of virgin rainforest in northwestern Brazil, is believed to be home to more isolated tribes than any other region on the planet – as many as 20 of its indigenous groups have had no contact with the outside world. Brazil has provided extraordinary protections for its native people, granting them exclusive rights to more than 25 percent of the country’s rainforest. But severe recession and a pro-business government have recently made the indigenous people and their lands more vulnerable than they’ve been in decades. Brazil has drastically cut funding for the National Indian Foundation, the agency tasked with protecting native reserves. With nearly a third of the forest’s guard outposts now closed,illegal miners, loggers and hunters are encroaching on the delicate ecology of the territory, polluting its crystal-clear waterways and attacking natives. Meanwhile, President Michel Temer, who was formally charged with corruption last year, seems to be in the pocket of industries eager to exploit vast swaths of the Amazon’s natural resources – timber, minerals, gold, oil. Last year, Temer tried to abolish a forest reserve the size of Denmark. “This government, they don’t respect Amazonia,” Salgado says.

As of 2015, deforestation is again on the rise in the Amazon, undermining its role as the world’s largest terrestrial carbon filter – essential for fighting climate change. And there may be no better way to protect it than by protecting its native people; there’s been almost no deforestation on their land. They’re the “age-old guardians of the forest,” said Salgado, who has so far documented 12 tribes.

Last October, he made a three-day boat journey deep into the Javari reserve to meet the Korubu people. Brazilians call the Korubu caceteiros, or “club men.” Unwanted visitors have met violent ends. But the tribe granted Salgado the honor of entering their world, where he camped out for four weeks. “Their way of life is the most pure you can imagine,” he says. “They are exactly like we were 2,000, 4,000 years ago. They live in perfect harmony with nature.” Protecting that, he says, will protect all of us. “Not only the Indians, not only the Brazilians,” says Salgado, “but the whole planet depends on this forest.”