To defend water, forests, animals, plants and people; to defend the Amazon is to defend life. The story of Leila Salazar-Lopez is a tale of how an ecologist is forged. By Fernando A. Torres. LatinOpen
The call of the jungle; to defend the Amazon is to defend life
From the rank and file to the forefront of one of the most important defenders of the planet’s lungs; the Amazon rainforest, the story of Leila Salazar-Lopez is a tale of how an ecologist is forged.
Recently, Amazon Watch’s board named Salazar-Lopez as its Executive Director. A responsibility not to be overlooked; the first Chicana-Latina in that post will replace its founder Atossa Soltani, a recognized trooper who for over two decades established her name as a staunch supporter of indigenous people and their fight to protect their lands, natural resources and cultures.
Salazar-Lopez “has been an incredible force in the organization, in our program, our strategy and is highly regarded by our allies and indigenous leaders in the Amazon. They trust her. She has demonstrated her commitment, passion and love for the Amazon. She is very well positioned to make a major impact on the future of the Amazon rainforest. It was a right decision … (her leadership) will take Amazon Watch into its next chapter, ” said Atossa.
From its headquarters in Oakland, Amazon Watch is one of the most important international environmental organizations upholding the integrity of tropical forests in South America and Indonesia. The appointment of Salazar-Lopez is a step forward; there are not many Latino environmentalists in the United States and most of the leaders of these organizations are men.
Why they are throwing this into rivers, beaches?
Of Mexican immigrant parents, Salazar-Lopez was born in San Diego. His first ecological experience – that marked her for life, was on Ocean Side beach where she used to spend family holidays. “One summer the beach was closed because hospital waste was found ashore. That was my moment of ‘this is wrong.’ Why are they throwing this onto beaches, into rivers? “Leila recalls.
So at 16 years old, Leila took the initiative and with some friends began to clean up the beach.
Since then, for Leila, ecology, environmental protection and recycling are social issues intimately linked to the people and to the affected communities. Her travels with her family were revealing experiences. “Every weekend we traveled to Mexico. I grew up knowing both sides of the border watching poverty and a father who always opposed government corruption.”
The call of the jungle
Together with a group of students, Leila founded a club of young environmentalists. “Once a friend of my science teacher Dean Capralis, came to talk to us about their experience working in the jungle of Ecuador. He showed us pictures and told us that he had helped to create a biological reserve”. And that was how Leila heard for the first time and in first person a discussion about the Amazon.
At the University of Santa Barbara in the early 90’s, she proposed a unique idea, especially for a young women; she requested to do her internship in the Jungle “and they accepted so I went to Ecuador for the first time; when ‘save the rainforest’ was popular. Ecuador was a very different then: it was not dollarized” recalls Leila.
At 21 she went to work as a volunteer in a biological reserve for three months. “What opened my consciousness was an oil spill I witnessed. We were on a public bus when we saw a break in the trans-Ecuadorian oil pipeline and everything was besmirching the Papallacta River, the main river to Quito’s side. “It was a moment of shock because at that time I didn’t know there was oil in the jungle. What’s going on! ” she exclaimed.
In Ecuador Leila began to hear about the need to preserve and care for the rainforest and the “legacy that Texaco (now Chevron) had in the jungle. Oil companies are destroying the rainforest.” When she returned from her first trip, Leila began researching organizations that “are doing something for the forest and the people of Ecuador who are suffering because of Texaco’s actions”.
In 1995 Leila formed a college environmental group to support Rainforest Action Network’s international campaign to boycott Texaco and began to travel yearly to the jungle to meet indigenous communities and to work as a eco-tourism guide for young Americans.
Leila is now heading Amazon Watch with an experience that has turned her into an expert. She was an outstanding student in the Green Corps, directed campaigns for the Rainforest Action Network, coordinated crusades for Global Corporate Responsibility Exchange and Remedy to Ecuador’s Amazon Watch. In the Ecuadorian Amazon she was leader of the Jatún Sacha Biological Station’s Tropical Ecology program.
Amazon Watch is a small but “very strong organization. We are dedicated to defending the most bio-diverse and largest rainforest in the world. Our focus is not only to save the rainforest but to help indigenous peoples who are the rightful owners; it is their ancestral territory. If we want to defend the jungle we must also defend the ancestral territories… against all threats such as; oil, mega-dams, legal or illegal logging, agribusiness, roads. Our focus is in the tropical jungle rainforest of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and the center of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil (where rivers) are threatened by these mega-dams.”
With a soft but firm voice, Leila expressed her aim to move the organization forward through education and community partnerships. “It’s very important that Latinos support indigenous peoples of our countries because they are the most affected by climate change and injustices. We must work together. We need solidarity from Alaska to Argentina. As our allies in the Amazon say: to defend water, forests, animals, plants and people; to defend the Amazon is to defend life.”