Eye on the Amazon

Amazon Watch Fearless Founder Named Hillary Leadership Laureate

Atossa Soltani

On this World Environment Day, Amazon Watch couldn't be more proud to celebrate our fearless founder and leader Atossa Soltani who has just been named the 2013 Global Hillary Leadership Laureate. From a global watch-list on leaders in mid-career whose leadership is exceptional and inspirational, the Institute's international board, the Hillary Summit selected Atossa as its 5th Annual Hillary Laureate awardee for Leadership in Climate Equity. Former Hillary global Laureates are Jeremy Leggett (UK-2009), Peggy Liu (China-2010), Aimee Christensen (USA-2011) and President Anote Tong (Kiribati-2012).

The following is an Op-Ed written by Hillary Institute Executive Director Mark Prain, which appeared in Christchurch, New Zealand's The Press.


Serving the Amazon

Mark Prain – Executive Director, Hillary Institute for The Press (Christchurch, New Zealand)

World Environment Day has a proud history of calling the world's attention to global challenges. The most compelling arguably, is climate change. The globe's just reached 400+ parts per billion CO2, which our species has never experienced. We have this century already, 11 of the warmest years on global record.

But despite the camera-friendly focus provided by Superstorm Sandy; Hurricane Katrina; recent inundation of Prague's ancient city centre; or rapid emergence of a summer passage through the Arctic ice-sheet, the temptation is to continue to bury our heads in the proverbial. That in turn puts minimal pressure on politicians and global business to expend their respective capital – to take courageous leadership, to do the right thing.

In sum, there remains a profound psycho-social, communication challenge. How do we find the resonant chords that break through; change hearts and minds; reach deep into the fear of losing our fossil stock-invested pension funds/Kiwi Savers and build a global coalition of the willing for action? Surely the blindingly obvious is enough?

Unfortunately history reveals ‘having the facts on our side', plus possession of high doses of common sense and moral authority, doesn't necessarily mean that Jo Average (in Wellington, Warsaw, Wuhan or Washington), hears or even wants to listen. Or worse, is in fact perversely inspired to take a denialist position. And so the vast majority of us stumble blindly on, many hand-wringing with legacy guilt about the planet we're leaving our children. However well-intentioned, failure to fundamentally challenge our collective comfort, isn't a solution.

One theatre however where dramatic shifts in climate impact is clear is the Amazon River Basin. Contributing 20 per cent of planetary freshwater, after the oceans the Amazon is the planet's largest weather conveyer. Amazonian rainforest functions like a massive heart pumping columns of heat and vapour into the atmosphere, thereby driving global weather systems. The Amazon-ocean link is so direct it's easier to comprehend as parts of the same organism rather than separate entities.

This remarkable oasis of biodiversity and carbon capture, sometimes called for good reason the lungs of the planet (by indigene the "heart of the world") , pours 300,000 cubic meters of freshwater into the Atlantic (during the wet season) every second. Every hour, the Amazon River delivers to the ocean more fresh water than utilised in the LA metropolitan area annually.

But the Amazon is under attack and not just from the encroachment of dirty oil and mineral exploitation. Annually deforestation from existing industrial activities in the tropics accounts for 20 percent of global carbon emissions. In turn warmer global temperatures bring historic droughts, contributing to the death of trees and the risk of large scale forest fire. Science predicts a loss of one-third of Amazonian forest cover would have catastrophic impact on its weather generating and climate regulating functions, further destabilizing our global climate.

Enter stage left Atossa Soltani, Founder and Executive Director of Amazon Watch. Just announced as the 2013 global Hillary Leadership Laureate; Soltani's leadership over the past two decades supporting indigenous peoples rights to self-determination, natural resources, culture and way of life, brought her squarely onto the Institute international board's "Climate Equity" radar.

A native of Iran, Soltani moved to the United States at the age of thirteen. Multi-lingual, she speaks Spanish, Portuguese, English and Farsi. In line with breakthrough communications, she is a highly-skilled strategist in media, policy advocacy and movement building, and a firm believer in the power of storytelling to create change. Documenting and publicizing Amazonian forest destruction and human rights abuses, she has led successful campaigns convincing oil companies and international financial institutions to adopt stronger environmental and social standards.

Soltani and her savvy team of campaigners at Amazon Watch have taken on Chevron in Ecuador in support of 30,000 indigenous and rural plaintiffs who recently won a US$19 billion verdict against the company – earning Atossa the moniker of the Amazon's "Erin Brokovich". 2013 sees the launch of their post-verdict (Ecuadorian plus US Appeal Court) "Chevron Campaign", supporting legal enforcement of the judgment for the environmental and social harms to forest communities caused by the company's oil extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Soltani has identified several issues that will be crucial this year. Prominent among them is the auction of massive areas of rainforest for oil leases in Ecuador and Peru, accompanied by the energy and environmental crossroads of the world's sixth largest economy and fourth largest greenhouse gas emitter, Brazil, whose growing economic clout has impact far beyond its borders. There, US$47b has recently been earmarked for construction of large dams in the Amazon region.

Soltani contradicts Brazilian claims of hydro "clean energy." Unlike in NZ, large dams in the tropics cause significant methane emissions, given decomposing vegetation and soil in their reservoirs. Amazon Watch is instead promoting a wind and solar energy trajectory for the entire region. An outspoken critic of the massive Belo Monte Dam, Oscar-winner James Cameron has travelled (at Soltani's instigation), to the Brazilian Amazon three times since 2010, expeditions embedded in the DVD edition of his epic "Avatar."

And 29 new oil blocks are on offer in the Peruvian Amazon where extant oil production has left a toxic legacy severely affecting the environment and health of indigenous peoples. New oil projects include heavy crude, led by UK based Perenco between the Napo and Tigre river basins, and a light crude find in Block 64 – a remote flooded ecosystem of high bio-diversity in a critical hunting and fishing area for the Achuar people.

Increasing capacity of the indigenous movement, promoting indigenous voices and perspectives in international fora, and supporting indigenous leadership development programmes are primary to Soltani's work. As with the Institute's 2012 Laureate Anote Tong, President of the low-lying Pacific atolls of Kiribati, the voices of our most vulnerable communities are often least heard and frequently worst hit. But where they go, history also tells us, ultimately so can we all.

By phone from Quito (Ecuador), Atossa Soltani. "It's an honour to join such a truly exceptional group of leaders and to be connected to the spirit of Sir Edmund Hillary whose courage, determination, and passion for service has inspired so many of us." The Hillary Institute in turn, is honoured to have her join our small family of truly courageous global leaders.

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Amazon Watch works to protect the rainforest by advancing the rights of indigenous peoples. Defending indigenous rights and territories is a demonstrably effective solution to the threat of climate change. Together with our indigenous allies, we are growing the movement to leave all fossil fuels in the ground and promote a just transition to 100% renewable energy.

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