Eye on the Amazon

My First Decade at Amazon Watch

In early May of 2007, I started working at Amazon Watch. Over ten years, I have been privileged to play a role in most of the organization's major campaign initiatives. Sometimes I have been the lead organizer, other times I have supported my amazing fellow activists. While the moments of exhilaration, frustration, learning, anger, and beauty could fill a book, I want to share ten snapshots of key experiences that represent what serving with Amazon Watch has meant to me.

2007 – ConocoPhillips Shareholder Meeting

My first two weeks at Amazon Watch were a whirlwind. Joining the whole campaigns and communications team, I supported Achuar and Kichwa indigenous delegations to the annual shareholder meetings of Occidental Petroleum in Los Angeles and then that of ConocoPhillips in Houston, TX. We employed classic inside/outside strategies: indigenous spokespeople confronting corporate CEOs and boards of directors in the meeting, and public protests and media work immediately outside. This was also my introduction to one of our long-term partners: Patricia Gualinga from Sarayaku. I remember the moment I first heard her speak publicly, being blown away by her clarity, strength, and wisdom. After Paty's statement before the shareholders and board of directors, Conoco CEO Jim Mulva announced the company would cease and desist its plans in the Ecuadorian Amazon. That moment, which had been preceded by years of campaigning, was a powerful testament to the effectiveness of this kind of work.

2008 – Assembly in Achuar Territory

May of 2008 brought my first visit to the Amazon rainforest proper. I traveled with Amazon Watch colleague Maria Lya Ramos to an Achuar assembly in the community of Washintsa, not far from the border with Ecuador. A few months earlier we had been in Calgary, Canada with a delegation of Achuar leaders, taking the Achuar's opposition to operations of the Canadian company, Talisman Energy, within Block 64, in the heart of Achuar ancestral territory. Complementing the testimonies of Achuar representatives who traveled to Canada, the Amazon Watch reportback to the communities about the trip included newspaper clippings and photos. The assembly offered me a holistic view into the Achuar Life Plan, which outlines their vision for territorial defense, bilingual education, inter-cultural healthcare, among other areas. Over the next four years the Talisman campaign would intensify – including further trips to Canada and community assemblies – culminating in 2012 with the company's withdrawal from Block 64.

2009 – Racing to Prevent a Violent Confrontation in Peru

The Peruvian Amazon erupted in mass indigenous mobilizations in the spring of 2009. The catalyst was President Alan Garcia's refusal to address deep concerns about executive orders he issued the year before ostensibly to facilitate the U.S. – Peru free trade agreement. Following protests in August of 2008, the Peruvian Congress revoked one executive order that expedited the privatization of indigenous lands. But many remained even after a congressional commission deemed them unconstitutional. As the protest actions intensified in early 2009, military forces were deployed, a move that ratcheted up tensions. Amazon Watch worked to raise the profile of the conflict and encourage respect for indigenous rights. Among other actions, during the annual Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in late May we helped coordinate a protest led by Amazonian indigenous leaders from various neighboring countries and the delivery of a joint statement to the Peruvian mission to the UN. Ultimately, efforts for peaceful conflict resolution were unsuccessful, and the infamous deadly confrontation at Bagua occurred on June 5th (ironically, World Environment Day). This event left an indelible mark within the Peruvian indigenous movement – many leaders of which are fighting spurious legal charges to this day – and oriented Amazon Watch's work toward Peru for years thereafter.

2010 – Unforgettable Meeting of U'wa and Chumash Indigenous Leaders

A delegation of U'wa leaders to California – featuring legendary elder Berito Kuwaru'wa – included a keynote address at Amazon Watch's annual luncheon and a three-hour meeting with Avatar director James Cameron. The highlight for me, however, was a powerful exchange between the U'wa and their Chumash hosts in Malibu. The U'wa were invited to the Chumash Discovery Village overlooking the Channel Islands, where they ate posole and shared experiences between two different struggles for indigenous rights. Chumash leader Mati Waiya teared up when he said, "Don't stop fighting to defend your culture. We almost lost ours." I was left with the enduring impression that one of the most effective actions we can take is to support indigenous to indigenous experience sharing and alliance-building.

2011 – Sarayaku Victory at the Inter-American Court

To work with Sarayaku is always an enriching experience. To serve as the Amazon Watch representative as they achieved a landmark legal judgement before an international human rights tribunal was an honor of the highest order. Over eight years, they pushed their case through the Inter-American Commission in Washington, DC and finally to the Inter-American Court in Costa Rica. Though the judgment wasn't issued for months, the sense in the room was extremely favorable to Sarayaku's claims that the Ecuadorian government had violated their collective and individual rights in an ill-fated attempt to impose oil production in Sarayaku territory. This photo illustrates many of the individuals and institutions that deserve credit for the victory: Sarayaku leaders (José Gualinga was President at the time) and community members, Ecuadorian indigenous umbrella groups like CONAIE, the legal team including Mario Melo (then with Fundación Pachamama) and Viviana Krsticevic (CEJIL), and a constellation of other international supporters like Amnesty International.

2012 – Supporting Indigenous Resistance to the Belo Monster Dam

Though my geographic focus within Amazon Watch has always been Peru and Colombia, I've had the pleasure of chipping in on Brazil work from time to time. One emblematic campaign has been the life-or-death struggle to stop the Belo Monte dam, which, tragically, is now in the final stages of construction. Back in 2012, the fight was intense, as waged by indigenous peoples, local civil society collectives and international supporter groups like Amazon Watch. We took advantage of the Rio+20 conference to keep the spotlight on rainforests, rivers, and rights. I supported our dynamic Brazil team, at the time led by Maíra Irigaray and Christian Poirier, primarily helping connect the voice of indigenous warriors with international media. For example, we facilitated an interview between a New York Times journalist and Kayapo Chief Raoni. Following the conference, we provided strategic, financial, and communications support to a multi-ethnic indigenous mobilization at the Belo Monte construction site. From our offices in Washington, DC, I helped back up the Amazon Watch field presence by repackaging information and passing it along to journalists.

2013 – Achuar Protest Against Oil Drilling in Their Territories

Talisman Energy may have announced its departure from Achuar territory in 2012, but the oil threat remains. Through publicly-available documentation, we discovered that Block 64 had been transferred to Peruvian state-owned PetroPeru company and the government was continuing divide-and-conquer tactics. Under invitation from Achuar president Peas Peas Ayui, we traveled to the communities of Wisum and Wijint to present the latest information and help them transmit their response out to the world. Along with other media coverage, an article in The Guardian featured the key Achuar message that "Petroperu should not operate in Lot 64. As the owners of our territory, we are opposed to oil activities. We are informing the Peruvian state that the position of the Achuar people in the Pastaza region has not changed since the creation, without consultation, of Lot 64 in 1995. We will continue actively resisting any kind of oil operation on our ancestral territory which covers the large majority of the concession."

2014 – U'wa Lawyer Aura Tegría's U.S. Advocacy Visit

Do you remember the first time you did a live on-camera interview for an international news outlet? Were you nervous? Did you stumble over your words? The first time 24-year old U'wa lawyer Aura Tegría did it, she was poised, succinct, and totally on message. (You can watch it here, in Spanish.) I was honored to accompany her, offering the perspective of the international support for the U'wa. This moment was just one part of Aura's initial visit to the U.S., which included stops at the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. Regardless of the audience, Aura is entirely unintimidated, speaking with the authority of both her lived experience and the collective memory of the U'wa. With legal assistance from EarthRights International, Aura's visit played a key role in the U'wa case finally being admitted before the IACHR, after originally being submitted some fifteen years prior.

2015 – Bringing Sarayaku's Canoe of Life to the Paris Climate Summit

Seeing the ornate hand-made canoe from Sarayaku enter the waters of a Parisian canal was an unforgettable moment. It had been almost a year since our friends from Sarayaku charged Amazon Watch with helping them realize the vision of floating a special-made canoe from the Ecuadorian Amazon in Paris during the landmark UN climate summit. From the outset we knew it would be extremely challenging, but collectively decided to go all in. Huge props to Amazon Watch staff Kevin and Leo (from Ecuador) and Christian (in Paris) for shouldering the formidable logistical burdens. I chipped in by helping coordinate with other indigenous groups like Indigenous Environmental Network, which organized a whole indigenous flotilla inspired by the Sarayaku canoe, and working to get the canoe on the media radar screen, resulting in a profile on Democracy Now! Overall, the canoe served as a centerpiece for the Sarayaku delegation of ten community members, who introduced the world to their concept of Living Forest in numerous panels, fora, and media appearances. Ultimately, I felt our participation was less about a decision we made than the spirit of the Amazon manifesting itself in Paris through our actions in support of Sarayaku.

2016 – Delegation to U'wa territory in Colombia

Ironically, though Amazon Watch's oldest relationship is with Colombia's U'wa people, we had never actually visited their territory until last year. For years I was determined to ensure that AW founder Atossa Soltani – as perhaps the U'wa's longest-standing international ally over the course of two decades – had the opportunity to walk within U'wa lands. Prior attempts were frustrated by the realities of Colombia's civil war: we scuttled plans in 2014 when ELN insurgents staged an armed strike in that corner of the country. Fortunately, the current peace process provided an opening. In late November we attended their Summit in the Defense of Life, Territory, and Natural Resources, alongside other key U'wa allies like Mujer U'wa, EarthRights International, and the Colombia Human Rights Committee DC. It was a powerful moment to reflect on many years of struggle – including the untimely deaths of U'wa and international friends alike – and to reaffirm our long-term commitment to a mutual relationship of learning and solidarity.

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