Standing For Trees: Leonor Varela Weighs In On Environment, Laws And More

Today, in the world, almost 62,800 forest fires are detected from space by satellite. Amazonia, Central Africa and Indonesia, among others, are still burning. Trees are an intrinsic part of life on earth. ‘Inside every turning leaf is the pattern of an older tree, the shape of our future, the shape of all our history,’ to quote one of Sting’s songs. ELLE meets with some of the most enthusiastic eco-celebrities fighting to give trees a break, and some oxygen, in return. Let’s breathe with them all!

Meet Leonor Varela. You might remember this Chilean-born from the television series Cleopatra. Also a dedicated activist, this radiant beauty has been a vegetarian from a young age. She first began to support ocean conservation, but the fires devastating the amazon forest were a revelation. Leonor now also supports Amazon Watch through the artists for Amazonia campaign. Nothing stops her. “There is no time left”, she says.

Leonor Valera

ELLE: What prompted you to first get involved with this environmental cause?

LEONOR VARELA (LV): Using my voice for the advocacy of the environment has been a long time passion that began with ocean conservation. I am from Chile, and we have so much Ocean to care for! But like for many people around the world, when I saw the devastating fires that ravaged the Amazon – my heart just sunk. I really needed to take action. So I joined Amazon Watch’s efforts through a newly formed advocacy campaign, Artists for Amazonia. I decided to lend my voice to this organisation because I strongly believe in its mission to protect the Amazon by supporting Indigenous peoples. Amazon Watch is an example of solidarity done effectively as they partner with Indigenous and environmental organizations in campaigns for human rights and corporate accountability. I recently narrated a powerful video on Amazon Watch’s YouTube, “Life as an Indigenous Earth defender,” to educate the public on the real stories and experiences of Indigenous people. Recognizing the power of local communities is key if we want lasting changes.

ELLE: What are its current goals and current projects?

LV: Right now, the organisation is focused on COVID-19 rapid response, bringing attention to the conflicts and environmental destruction caused by fossil fuels in the Western Amazon, and advocating against the Indigenous rights violations, environmental deregulation, and massive deforestation happening in Brazil. Unfortunately, many of the extractive industries, like mining, logging, and fossil fuel extraction, have not been halted despite the pandemic. Amazon Watch is here as a witness and continues to make sure this destruction never goes unchallenged by providing activists like us a way to stay involved and maintain public awareness of these atrocities. In March of this year, Amazon Watch will be celebrating 25 years of protecting the rainforest and advancing the rights of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin.

The organisation has accomplished several victories with Indigenous peoples at the helm. Most recently, they partnered with Indigenous organisation CONFENIAE in Ecuador and research organisation to push European banks to end their trade financing of Amazon crude. Last year, following years of fierce opposition from the Achuar People of the Pastaza and the Wampis Nation of the northern Peruvian Amazon, the Santiago, Chile-based oil company GeoPark announced it would be leaving the oil concession known as Block 64 (Morona Block)! They show us what’s possible when we build upon a strong model of solidarity with Indigenous communities, organisations, and leadership. We are in the middle of a transformative time, both for Amazon Watch and in my personal life.

I just released a very personal book called, To Heaven and Back (Penguin Random House) about my journey as a bereaved mother, and I’m about to shoot two new films. My goal is to continue to open the conversation and shed light on the topics that I deeply care about: Living in harmony with our environment, our own feelings, and bringing the taboo subject of death and loss out of the shadow of fear.

ELLE: What is the worst thing you have witnessed?

LV:  Human greed is the ugliest thing I have ever seen, it spares no one and nothing; like a black hole, it consumes all that surrounds it. Unfortunately, I have seen it in too many places and circumstances. It is often what drives the human rights violations and the burning of rainforests that we see on the news.

ELLE: And the most hopeful or best?

LV: When people come together after a challenge. The heroes rise, the leaders inspire and people’s hearts are in the right place. These are the signs of humanity that keep me positive and hopeful we actually have it in us to turn things around. When I think of heroes in the Amazon, I think of women leaders: Sonia Guajajara and Alessandra Munduruku in Brazil, and Patricia Gualinga of the Mujeres Amazónicas in Ecuador. Despite all of the challenges they face, they continue to advocate to the world that the most sustainable way of life is to live in harmony with the rainforest.

I believe it is the right thing to do to gather behind these women and protect the Amazon as if it was our own backyard. Our lives and our future really depend on it! According to scientific studies, Indigenous lands are ‘currently the most important barrier to Amazon deforestation.’ They are by far the best stewards and protectors of the rainforest. Where Indigenous lands are demarcated, registered, and controlled by their peoples, those territories are preserved and cared for.

ELLE: How do you think the conversation around environmental issues has changed in recent years?

LV: There are new players on the block and they are bringing a new wave of hope: the Youth. Helena Gualinga, Isra Hirsi, Greta Thunberg, Xiye Bastida, and the millions that have joined the Climate movement are unwilling to play the game the political leaders have held us captive in for so long. The key is to adopt concrete solutions instead of just giving nice speeches. There is no time left. The global crisis of climate change, the accelerated loss of biodiversity, and even this pandemic can be solved if we all get together to take serious action.

ELLE: If you were President of the earth, what laws or amendments would you enforce to make the planet a better place to live in?

LV: No more fossil fuels. Period. I would make a swifter transition so that we are fully reliant on renewable energy. I would make mandatory ratios of conservation so that ecosystems can re-flourish and regenerate. There is a National Geographic campaign supported by renowned scientists that call on countries to commit to protecting at least 30% of the planet’s land and ocean by 2030. This is the level of commitment I am inspired by. I would also put more women in charge, we seem to think more creatively when faced with the same issues.

Photographs: Courtesy of ELLE International, Instagram

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