“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.” That’s what eighty-three-year-old Antonio Vicente used to hear from his neighbors. But that was many, many years ago. Although his neighbors most likely believed that they were giving him good advice, Vicente knew better both then and now.
When Vicente was a child, he would tell his family, friends, and neighbors, that the water was going to run out. He lived in a rural area named Pouso do Rochedo just outside of Sao Pablo, in Brazil that was all farmland. Even his own father, along with others, would cut down forests to use for making charcoal or to use as cattle grazing land. Vicente’s dad, like the others, was not insensitive to his pleas. They were trying to survive in times of struggle in the best way they knew how. But still, Antonio grew up feeling as if he were watching the inevitable demise of his homeland.
In an interview with the BBC, Vicente said, “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.’” He was right. he could not convince people that deforestation had a price, one far greater than any temporary profits made at the time.
With one denial after another, Vicente finally decided that if something was going to be done, he would have to do it himself. In 1973, he began his effort by purchasing the thirty-hectare (74 acre) chunk of land using credits from the government to promote deforestation and encourage investments in agricultural technology. This was Vicente’s home. He was not focused on boosting agriculture, he just wanted his forest back.
With a few donkeys, hired hands, and intense commitment, he embarked on his mission to bring the forest back to life. It started as a weekend endeavor, but it soon became Vicente’s life. Vicente remembers “spending whole days and nights in his young jungle, surrounded by rats and foxes, and eating banana sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
His efforts started paying off as the forest grew. Vicente has planted 50,000 trees over 40 years. His forest has since returned to its original splendor, and may have even surpassed it. Filled with lush beauty, an ever-growing population of tropical wildlife, and the most precious resource of all, water, Vicente has much to be proud of. In fact, there are more than twenty sources of water there that didn’t exist before he started his mission. Everything Antonio created he now considers to be his “family;” a strong, healthy family that began with the planting of a single seed.
Antonio Vicente’s story is inspiring but rare. Almost 8,000 hectares of rainforest in Brazil were destroyed between August 2015 and July 2016. That might appear to dwarf Vicente’s lifelong project, but if we had more Vicente’s and people who value air and water over profits, just imagine the impact we could make.
“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.”