“Amazonian Leapfrogging” tackles the ‘generational and Earth-defining’ challenge of safeguarding the Amazon

Miqueias Mugge and Rodrigo Simon ・ Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies

The Amazonia region has more species of animals and plants than any other ecosystem and is home to hundreds of Indigenous groups. As one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, the rainforest faces a crisis of deforestation and biodiversity loss that imperils the world’s chances to avert the worst effects of climate change.

Princeton’s campus became a focal point in the effort to address the critical environmental and climate justice issues facing the Brazilian Amazon and its Indigenous peoples as top thinkers and stakeholders from Brazil gathered May 5-6 for the conference, “Amazonian Leapfrogging: Tackling the Climate Crisis and Social Inequality With Nature-Based Solutions.”

[Watch the full conference online]

“Safeguarding the Amazon is a generational and Earth-defining problem,” said co-organizer João Biehl, Princeton’s Susan Dod Brown Professor of Anthropology and director of the Princeton Brazil LAB. “Under an authoritarian government [in Brazil], we have witnessed an accelerated march of extractivism and illegality in the rainforest and extreme violence against Indigenous peoples amid generalized poor living standards.”

“We should remember that we cannot save nature unless we save the people protecting it,” said opening speaker Txai Suruí, a Brazilian Indigenous leader represented Brazil’s Amazonian peoples at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021. “Everyone must understand the importance of the forests and of Indigenous peoples in attaining climate justice and for the future of our planet. We need genuine, concrete action in order to keep on fighting for all of our lives.”

HMEI Director Gabriel Vecchi (standing) described the Amazon as a “complex interactive problem” in his address to conference attendees. He was joined by conference co-organizer Beto Veríssimo (left); Brazilian Indigenous leader Txai Suruí (near right); Amaney Jamal (middle right), dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs; and João Biehl (right), director of the Brazil LAB. (Photo by Sameer Khan, Fotobuddy)

The conference was hosted by the Brazil LAB, together with the High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI), Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS)the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), the Brazilian research initiative Amazônia 2030, the University Center for Human Values, and the Program in Latin American Studies at Princeton.

At the conference, more than 80 Brazilian and international guests across academia, business, government and activist sectors interacted with Princeton faculty and students, probing nature-based solutions that might guarantee the conservation of this vital planetary nexus and “leapfrog” the region into much-needed socioeconomic development. This year’s event was the second Amazonian Leapfrogging conference. The inaugural gathering held in 2019 focused on a long-term vision for safeguarding the Amazon from threats including illegal deforestation, fires and socioeconomic inequality.

HMEI Director Gabriel Vecchi, professor of geosciences and the High Meadows Environmental Institute, described the conference as “a wonderful template for how to address globally challenging problems that have such a connection to place.”

“What stands out to me is both the global nature of the Amazon and its connection to place — the Amazon cannot be anywhere else. The peoples, the animals and the plants of the Amazon are also of that place. And this is the world that we’re in — it is a world of connectedness, but it’s also a local world,” Vecchi said.

“How we navigate these multi-scale fundamental interactions is going to be a challenge that is going to repeat itself and is presently repeating itself,” Vecchi said. “This collection of people who have a deep, deep connection to the Amazon and multiple interests in the Amazon is a path that we should try to replicate and is an opportunity to serve as a model for other activities.”

Stephen Pacala, the Frederick D. Petrie Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton and director of the HMEI Carbon Mitigation Initiative, urged participants to consider the specific actions that Brazil and the international community can do to halt further degradation of this vital biodiversity hotspot and climate regulator.

“The story is amazingly more precise than just a few years ago,” said Pacala, who is a member of President Joe Biden’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. “We are watching the train approach the edge of the cliff with increasing clarity and it is disturbing, to say the least.”

Before the conference, Suruí met at Princeton’s Guyot Hall with members of the Natives at Princeton student group to discuss Indigenous rights and environmental justice in Amazonia and the United States. From left: Ella Weber ’25, Suruí, Jessica Lambert ’22, Gustavo Blanco-Quiroga ’25 and Travis Chai Andrade ’24. (Photo by Morgan Kelly, High Meadows Environmental Institute)