The Amazon at a Tipping Point: Can We Turn It Around? | Leila Salazar-López

This keynote talk was given at the 2019 Bioneers Conference.

Unprecedented fires, deliberately set to expand industrial agriculture and other extractive development, are burning across the Amazon, a dangerous escalation of the global climate emergency. Scientists warn that the Amazon is reaching “the tipping point” of ecological collapse, but Indigenous movements across the region are resisting and calling for international solidarity to help them defend their rights and territories. For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have protected their sacred ancestral territories. Leila Salazar López, Executive Director of Amazon Watch, urges us to stand with them to protect and restore the bio-cultural integrity of the Amazon, because our collective future depends on it.

Leila Salazar-López, the Executive Director of Amazon Watch, has worked for 20+ years to defend the world’s rainforests, human rights, and the climate through grassroots organizing and international advocacy campaigns at Amazon Watch, Rainforest Action Network, Global Exchange, and Green Corps. She is also a Greenpeace Voting Member and a Global Fund for Women Advisor for Latin America.

To learn more about Leila Salazar-López and her work, visit Amazon Watch.

Read the full verbatim transcript of this keynote talk below.


Introduction by Eriel Deranger, Executive Director, Indigenous Climate Action.


[Greeting] My name is Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, and in my native language my name means Thunder Woman. I’m so happy to be here, and I want to recognize the traditional territory of the Coast Miwok for allowing me to be here today, and it’s so good to be here. Bioneers’ 30th anniversary.

As a board member of Bioneers, I remember when I stood on this stage three years ago, as a keynote, and one of the things that helped ease my time up here was the introduction provided by Clayton Thomas-Muller, a friend. And today I so honored to have the privilege of introducing Leila Salazar-López, a friend and a comrade in the movement to protect and uphold the rights of Indigenous Peoples. [APPLAUSE]

Leila is a mother, a proud Chicana Latina woman and passionate defender of Mother Earth, the Amazon, indigenous rights, and climate justice. Since 2015, she has served as the executive director of Amazon Watch, leading the organization in its work to pretend—to protect and defend the biocultural and climate integrity of the Amazon rainforest by advancing Indigenous Peoples rights, territories and solutions, including solar for energy, communications, and transportation in the Amazon.

But for more than that, she has worked to defend the world’s rainforests, human rights, and climate through many grassroots organizations and international advocacy campaigns at Amazon Watch, Rainforest Action Network, Global Exchange and Green Corps. She is currently a Greenpeace voting member and a Global Fund for Women advisor for Latin America.

I first met Leila in the halls of the Rainforest Action Network in 2008 when we were both campaigners. And I looked to her. I immediately found comradery as another racialized woman working within the environmental movement. I looked to her for guidance and courage to continue to move forward in places that often didn’t accept us in those rooms, and at those board tables, and with our own thoughts.

Leila left the Rainforest Action Network in 2009, where she moved onto the Amazon Watch, just one floor away from RAN, and I continue to stay in touch with her, where I continue to look and see how she pushed the boundaries in the organization she moved through, that she pushed and advocated for the rights of communities, of the redistribution of power and privilege. As the executive director of Rainforest—or of Amazon Watch, she has continued to show tremendous leadership and demonstrating what it means to show up for community, and grounding her work in what it means to be a true ally.

I, in my own journey to become executive director of my own organization, I looked to Leila for leadership and for mentorship. Just this past month when we were together in New York City for the climate week, I said to her, “Leila, you’re one of my mentors. I look to you as a strong women of color leading an organization and showing what it means to have real demonstrated leadership of showing up for community and really putting your heart in your work.”

We have to ensure that we support women like Leila Salazar-López, like Atossa Soltani, like the many women of the Sarayaku and the Zapara people who are rising up and demonstrating what it means to be true leaders in the face of adversity.

Leila first traveled to the Amazon in 1995 as a student intern, and as she continued to move forward, she met so many people that taught her so much about what it means to be in the region, and what it means to stand up and protect the rights of those communities. Today she will share that story and journey with you. Please join me in welcoming Leila Salazar-López. [APPLAUSE]


Good morning, Everyone. [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] Thank you, Eriel. She already made me cry, and for those of you who know me, I will probably cry. Thank you, Bioneers. Thank you so much for holding this space for all of us during this very difficult and challenging, but inspiring time here on Mother Earth.

I first want to acknowledge the Coastal Miwok and all the California native peoples whose land we are on. I want to acknowledge our ancestors, all of our ancestors, my Yaqui and Aztec ancestors from what is now Northern Mexico, Sinaloa, Zacatecas, and also from Yucatan, where my great grandfather’s from. I want to acknowledge and thank our family who migrated from Baja, California, and then to Southern California to search for a better life, just like many migrants are doing today. And I want to give a special thanks to my family who’s out there somewhere, who always supports me, always loves me, even when it’s really difficult, especially over these last few months, which have been very, very intense since we heard about the fires burning across the Amazon. And I want to thank the Amazon Watch staff and family, who have been working tirelessly for 23 years to defend the Amazon. [APPLAUSE]

Woo, that’s what it looks like. So the Amazon rainforest is on fire. Let that sink in for a moment. How many of you have heard about this? Okay. Kind of preaching to the choir here, but here it goes. And how many of you were here yesterday during Bill McKibben’s talk? How many of you cried or were terrified? I was crying and terrified for the rest of the day yesterday, and I hope while you hear me speak, I won’t make you terrified – maybe a little – but I’ll also inspire you to join us, and to join Indigenous Peoples in resistance for existence and survival for all of us. [APPLAUSE]

So, you probably have heard about the fires in Brazil, and most of the fires have been in Brazil. And they are raging across the Amazon in Brazil, and in Bolivia, and across the entire Amazon, and they’re devastating, they’re catastrophic. And combined with the threats across the Amazon – oil and gas and agribusiness, and deforestation, and degradation, and mining, and megadams – this is what—these threats and the fires combined with climate change, this is what could lead the Amazon to a tipping point of ecological collapse.

But can we turn this around? That’s the question. That’s a question that we’re here to answer today.

First, the Amazon, and our beautiful, beautiful planet Earth. This is South America, and this is the Amazon Basin. And the Amazon Basin is as large as the continental United States. It’s massive. It’s the world’s largest tropical rainforest. It is a global treasure. It houses a third of the plant and animal species on Mother Earth. It produces 20% of the Earth’s oxygen. So we need the Amazon to breathe. We need the Amazon for global biodiversity. We need the Amazon for…protecting our climate.

The Amazon—You might have heard of the Amazon as the largest tropical rainforest. It also has one of the largest rivers on the planet, and above the river, the Amazon River, are the flying rivers, which are the atmospheric rivers which regulate our global weather system. Without the flying rivers, our entire global weather system is destabilized. And the reason why the flying rivers can be taken off course is because of increased deforestation caused by these fires and many other threats.

This is one of the many images that you’ll see if you’ve traveled to the rainforest. How many of you’ve actually been to the rainforest? A lot of you. And for those of you who have been, once you’ve been, just like once you know, you can’t go back, and that’s what happened to me when I went to the Amazon rainforest when I was 21 years old. I went to learn about plants. I wanted to study ethnobotany. And my life took a different course once I met Indigenous Peoples who were a living library, who are a living library. When you walk with Indigenous Peoples in the rainforest, and they can name every single plant and tell you every single property – for food, for medicine, for housing, for clothing, for shelter – then you know there is—they have a millennial knowledge that needs to be protected.

And in the Amazon, there are these. So I said that the Amazon houses a third of the plant and animal species on the planet. This is one of my favorites – the pygmy marmoset. It’s about this big. You can hold it in your hand, and you just want to take it home. It’s the cutest thing ever. But you can’t take it home. And they’re almost extinct. And so they are, like many of the plants and animals on this planet, under a lot of threat. So we’re working to protect them. We’re working to defend them. And the best way that we can do that is by standing with Indigenous Peoples. [APPLAUSE]

There are over 400 distinct indigenous nations, peoples throughout the Amazon rainforest, and they are the best protectors of the Amazon. They are the best protectors of biodiversity on our planet. The UN – you guys have probably heard this stat before – the United Nations says that 80% of the global biodiversity on this planet is on Indigenous Peoples’ lands. So that’s why we are working to stand with Indigenous Peoples to protect biodiversity, to protect the climate, and to protect life.

And when we see these images of these fires, and this destruction taking place all over the Amazon, this is—This is what it looks like. This is what industrial agribusiness does to the Amazon, and this is why the fires have been intentionally set. Let’s make no mistake. The fires in the Amazon are not wildfires. They’re not a mistake. They are intentional. They are malicious. They are set by government policies and economic policies and drivers to do this to the rainforest.

This is a map that we created in late August, right after the fires started, just to map out where some of the fires were happening, and also to show that, yes, a lot of the fires were happening in Brazil, but they were happening all over the Amazon. And we’re talking thousands of fires. In Brazil alone there’s been over 100,000 fires, just this year alone. In Brazil alone, there’s been over three million hectares burned. In Bolivia alone, there’s been over five million hectares burned. Just this year. Just this year. And that is forest that has been there for thousands and thousands of years. And we’re not going to get that back anytime soon.

What we have to do now is protect it and restore it as quick as possible. [APPLAUSE] Alright, I’m going to go back for a second.

A lot of people ask us, Well, who’s responsible? Who’s doing this? And it is the government. It is the Bolsonaro government. Let’s not make light of it. The Brazilian government has a policy, has not only the rhetoric, but the policies to destroy the Amazon to make way for economic development, to make way for agribusiness, to make way for soy and cattle, to make way for mining. It is their policy to destroy the Amazon for economic development. So it’s not a mistake. It’s not a wildfire. It’s intentional and malicious, and destructive. And not only are they intentionally setting fire to the forest, they’re intentionally rolling back rights of Indigenous Peoples. The moment Bolsonaro got in office, he rolled back the rights of Indigenous Peoples, merged environmental and agribusiness ministries to intentionally destroy the lands and the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

And so we have been standing strong with Indigenous Peoples, APIB, the indigenous movement of Brazil, to say no, to stand up for rights, to stand up for lives, to stand up for territories. And the indigenous movement of Brazil, actually just on Friday, embarked on a trip to Europe, a 20-city tour for six weeks, to go to Europe to go to companies, to go to banks, to go to European governments, to the EU parliament to say don’t trade with Brazil. Don’t trade in high-risk commodities with Brazil. [APPLAUSE] Because that is what’s destroying the forest. If you care about the forest, if you care about human rights, if you care about indigenous rights, if you care about the climate, then don’t trade in high-risk commodities. No government, no corporation, no retailer, and no bank should be doing this.

And that’s why we actually joined together with APIB to put out a report called Complicity In Destruction to highlight and expose these corporations, big agribusiness traders like ADM, and Bunge, and Cargill, and retailers like Costco and Walmart, and banks, financial institutions like Chase and Santander, and BNP Paribas. And asset managers, very, very big banks, like BlackRock, and—How many of you all have heard about BlackRock? So thank you for those of you who know about BlackRock’s big problem. The rest of you look up BlackRock’s big problem and you’ll know that they are the biggest investor in climate destruction, whether it be agribusiness or fossil fuel.

And speaking of fossil fuel, these are the fossil fuel reserves in the Amazon. You may have heard about Chevron in Ecuador or Occidental Petroleum in U’wa territory or in northern Peruvian Amazon. That’s in the Western Amazon, that’s in the most biodiverse part of the Amazon, an area that we call the sacred headwaters region. It is the most biodiverse, culturally diverse part of the Amazon, and it’s in the Western Amazon. And these are the fossil fuel reserves across the Amazon that these companies and these governments would like to get their hands on.

There are many protected areas throughout the Amazon and Indigenous Peoples’ territories that are protected in the Amazon. In Ecuador, for example, Indigenous Peoples have rights to their ancestral territories, but they don’t have rights to the subsurface minerals. So the government can still go in and drill, and concession off territories like this. These are Indigenous Peoples’ territories overlapped with oil concessions. And this has been the model for decades.

And as I mentioned, I was just in Ecuador last week with some of my colleagues, and standing with Indigenous Peoples in meetings, actually. We were in meetings to talk about the alternative—alternative solutions to oil development. And it was very hard to be there last week because we were in meetings but we were also standing with Indigenous Peoples as they were rising up, rising up against the continued policies that would cause this, that would cause the destruction of Indigenous Peoples lands and the rainforest to cause massive oil spills like this. This is what it looks like. This is just a very small picture of what it is. We’re talking billions and billions and billions of gallons of oil and toxic wastewaters that have been spilled into the Ecuadorian/Peruvian Amazon as a result of oil development.

And for what? For a few weeks’ worth of oil? This is why people like Sarayaku, who are very close allies, have said no. We’re not. We’re not going to ever allow fossil fuel companies onto our land. We want to be free from oil development. We want to keep fossil fuels in the ground. [APPLAUSE]

And it’s indigenous people, it’s Sarayaku, it’s women, Women Defenders of the Amazon Against Extraction, it’s indigenous movements that we’re working with to protect the Amazon, to restore the Amazon, to advance indigenous solutions, to advance and support climate justice. And we’re doing this together. We’re doing this as NGO allies, we’re doing this as movements in the climate justice movement and indigenous rights movement, in the women’s movement. We’re doing this together. And this is what we have to do at this time.

The youth have called upon us to stop talking and take action. How many of you were out in the climate march, climate strike? [APPLAUSE] I was out there with my kids in San Francisco marching for climate justice, and I have to say that it restored my hope. After the fires, it was pretty daunting and devastating to come to work, and just get up in the morning, but seeing the youth stand up for climate justice and demanding that we take action really restored my hope.

Being in Ecuador last week, seeing Indigenous Peoples stand up to the IMF and to their government who is imposing policies on them without their consent gave me hope and re-inspired me to really do everything possible to stand up to forces like BlackRock for our children, because like the sign says, we have to act as if our house is on fire, because it is. It’s the Amazon. It’s the Arctic. It’s the Congo. It’s Indonesia. All of these ecosystems have been on fire, and we have to put out the physical fires and we have to put out the political fires, and we have to come together like we did in this ceremony last week. We have to come together, all of us. We have to get out of our silos and we have to come together for our future, for our collective future.

So I want to ask you all to please come together, unify. That’s what we’re doing here at Bioneers. We come together. We share ideas. We inspire each other. We challenge each other. We cry together. And what I want to ask you all to do is to take action for the Amazon.

My time is up, but I want you to go to and take a pledge to protect the Amazon, and stand with Indigenous Peoples. And just—If you remember anything of what I’ve said today, I want you to remember that the best way we can protect the Amazon is by standing with Indigenous Peoples. And if we protect the Amazon– [APPLAUSE] And if we protect the Amazon, we will protect our climate, and we will not reach that tipping point, and we will have hope for our future generations. So will you stand with me? [AUDIENCE RESPONDS] Then stand. [APPLAUSE]

And I’m going to just do this real quick. [CHEERS] Thank you!

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