Leila Salazar-López, the executive director of Amazon Watch, has worked for 20-plus 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.
The Amazon rainforest is on fire! More than 100,000 fires have burned across Brazil this year alone, a 44% increase from the same time period last year. Deforestation has also increased dramatically this year in Brazil by 90%, 278%, 222%, and 96% in June, July, August, and September respectively, compared to the same month of the previous year. It is an international tragedy and a dangerous escalation of the climate emergency.
To make matters even worse, the indigenous guardians protecting forests from illegal logging, mining, and intentional fires being set on their ancestral territories are facing deadly attacks on a daily basis. A recent report by Brazil's Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) showed a dramatic rise in violence against native communities and invasions of indigenous territories, with 160 reported cases of land invasions in the last 9 months, a doubling of last year's numbers.
The fires, coupled with increased deforestation and deadly attacks on forest guardians, are causing the Amazon rainforest to reach a “tipping point” of ecological collapse, which is unconscionable considering the global significance of the world’s largest tropical rainforest, as the lungs of the earth and the engine of the global weather system, needed to maintain climate stability.
The fires, threats, and attacks on the Amazon and its peoples are the direct results of the malicious policies of the Brazilian government led by the far-right and Evangelical President Jair Bolsonaro, who is determined to destroy the Amazon rainforest for “economic development,” including industrial agribusiness and resource extraction.
While the Brazilian government is responsible for dismantling environmental and indigenous agencies—leaving forest guardians to defend themselves from invasions of their lands—companies, like ADM, Cargill and JBS, and their financiers are also responsible for and complicit in the destruction of the Amazon and human rights violations.
To stop this destruction, we must unite to stop sourcing, trading, and investing in conflict commodities, such as soy and beef, from the worst actors operating in the Amazon and Cerrado biomes. Specifically, we can pressure European and North American financial institutions, such as BNP Paribas, Santander, JPMorgan Chase, and Blackrock, who finance the industries responsible for today’s worst devastation, including the Brazilian cattle industry. We must hold major banks and asset managers accountable for providing the means for industries directly responsible for the Amazon fires.
The indigenous movement in Brazil is also calling on the European Union to take action at this critical moment by halting the ratification of the EU-Mercosur agreement until Brazil can guarantee that its forests and forest peoples are being protected. This will signal that Europe will not reward Bolsonaro for his behavior by further opening its markets to conflict commodities.
Religious communities and faith-based organizations can join this call in solidarity with indigenous peoples to act for the Amazon with guidance from the final document of the Amazon Synod, which declares that the Catholic Church is an ally in defense of the Amazon and indigenous peoples. The pope, cardinals, and the highest levels of the Catholic Church, which have a dark legacy in the Amazon, have traveled to the Amazon and have invited Amazonian leaders to the Vatican to hear their concerns and recommendations for how the Church can be an ally.
Patricia Gualinga, a Kichwa indigenous leader from Sarayaku, Ecuador, and member of REPAM (a Catholic Church network that promotes the rights and dignity of people living in the Amazon) who attended the Amazon Synod at the Vatican last month, recommended that the Church join the movement to divest from fossil fuels, minerals, and conflict commodities that are destroying the Amazon and threatening the lives of indigenous peoples and all humanity with climate change. “If the Vatican and all the Catholic organizations around the world truly want to protect the Amazon and be allies to indigenous peoples, why continue to invest in industries that are killing us? The Church needs to divest and work in support of indigenous peoples’ rights,” she said.
Patricia also said, “It’s time for us to unite across faiths and religious creeds to protect life and all creation. We have the opportunity to unite for profound transformation on this planet and show who we truly are as human beings. We are beings that take care of our one and only habitat, our Mother Earth.”
Indigenous leaders from the Brazilian Amazon agree. Chief Raoni, legendary chief of the Kayapó people of the Xingu Indigenous Reserve, and Benki Piyako, Ashaninka spiritual leader, have also called for all peoples to unite to protect the Amazon and Mother Earth.
Last April, I was incredibly honored to join an esteemed panel of forest defenders during the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, including Patricia Gualinga, Benki Piyako, Sonia Guajajara, and Vicki Tauli-Corpuz, UN special rapporteur for indigenous peoples, organized by the Interfaith Forest Initiative. Benki opened the event with a song and then explained what he had sung, a prayer for all humanity to unite to protect all life.
“Since the beginning of creation, indigenous peoples have respected all life. We take care of the forest because she takes care of us. But, now we are threatened by those who want to destroy it. We must unite and work together to shift consciousness,” he said.
The forces behind the destruction of the Amazon may have caused an Amazon fire crisis, but they have also ignited a movement of people around the world who have awoken to the gravity of the destruction of the forest and its peoples and want to take action. Now is the time for us to unite and act for the Amazon, climate justice and indigenous forest defenders!