“Green means breakfast, lunch and dinner these days,” laughs Thomas Cavanagh, three-time NOLS grad (SSR-5 ’93; BAJ ’90; WMI WFR ‘06), as he describes the liquid diet he has been on recently. As his laugh subsides, though, he gets a little more serious. “I try to steer clear of the word ‘green’ as it is a bit overused,” he says. “Green is not the recycling bin. It is having an awareness of the Earth and our impact on the Earth.” As the financial and technical manager at Amazon Watch, a nonprofit outreach and advocacy organization for the Amazon rainforest and its indigenous people, he strives to spread that awareness through his work.
|NOLS grad Thomas Cavanagh works full time to support the Amazon Watch mission: to work with indigenous and environmental organizations in the Amazon Basin to defend the environment and advance indigenous peopls' rights in the face of large scale industrial developement.
Photo: Kevin Koenig
Thomas’ role at Amazon Watch is one of financial and
logistical oversight, “as a glue for Amazon Watch campaigners, indigenous communities, legal teams and the press,” he says, as they monitor large-scale industrial development projects (e.g., oil and gas pipelines, power lines, and roads) in the many Amazonian countries. He describes the larger role of the organization, however, as pressuring for change in social and environmental policies in relationship to those projects. One of their main objectives, too, is to give voice and opportunity to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon to protect their own rights to the land.
“The indigenous communities think of us as partners,” says Thomas. “We don’t go in [to help] unless we have a partnership with the community first.” It is the role of Amazon Watch campaigners to build trust and strong relationships within these local communities and to alert them to issues that they may be affected by.
Based upon these relationships, Amazon Watch finds itself primarily in Peru and Ecuador, but has also been involved in campaigns in Colombia, Venezuela, and Bolivia. They have been in Ecuador for seven years helping to document a lawsuit against Chevron Texaco for the massive dumping of toxic waste into the region’s waterways that resulted in a spike in birth defects and illnesses within the local population. As recently as January 2007, the Colombian government and its state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, announced plans to perform seismic testing in the U’wa territory of the Colombian rainforest, another project Amazon Watch has eyes and ears on. They have also worked with other environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, both of which have a large presence in Brazil.
Atila Rego-Monteiro, program manager of the new NOLS Semester in the Amazon, confirms evidence of development and deforestation in some of the regions where NOLS operates in Brazil. Atila reports, “On our drive to the river section, we basically pass through the transition zone of savanna land that has been converted to large-scale agriculture. Then we pass through the area that is recently denuded rainforest where they leave standing only one type of tree in a whole hectare, the protected Brazil nut trees. We generally see active burning while en route to the put in.”
Atila’s impression, though, is that by witnessing firsthand such an immediate issue, the student experience was strengthened overall. “They saw the deforested part before being immersed in the rest of the rainforest,” he says. “But it added the transference aspect of this place where we have been as being a place that, although vast, is in danger of disappearing due to human activity. I think it adds an immediacy and sense of responsibility to the wilderness experience that we provide.”
Overall, the Amazon spans 1.2 billion acres (almost 2 million square miles) of South America and is shared physically by nine nations: Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. The need for global awareness, however, is made more urgent due to the incredible climate change effects the deforestation of the Amazon has on the rest of the world.
In a recent fact sheet published by Amazon Watch, Climate Change and the Amazon: Why Urgent Global Action is Needed, Dr. Philip Fearnside, an ecology research professor at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazon Research, said, “With every tree that falls, we increase the probability that the tipping point will arrive. If we do not act now, we will lose the Amazon forest that helps sustain living conditions throughout the world.”
Atila, too, says “many people in Mato Grosso, where we operate part of the Semester, blame divergent rain patterns and hotter temperatures on the deforestation that is obvious in that area.”
So development in, and the consequent deforestation of, the Amazon is very much a local and global issue. Many Amazonian governments are pressured to grow their economies, but the resulting development only fuels the larger controversy of preserving this natural resource. Thomas, Atila, and the Amazon Watch website all cite similar developments that are looming: soybeans as a major South American agricultural export that need cleared land on which to grow, a proposed dam in the middle of the Xingu reserve in Mato Grosso, the contamination of clean water sources and other waste issues that most immediately affect indigenous populations, and many other clashes between economy and environment.
“Behind it all are population pressures that, if social solutions aren’t found, will inevitably overwhelm environmental protection,” says Atila.
Thomas especially urges NOLS alumni to visit Amazon Watch (www.amazonwatch.org) to learn how to get involved with supporting campaigns. There is an e-mail list you can join to receive their monthly newsletter, Eye on the Amazon, and their site is rich with information about the development projects currently underway in the Amazon. Awareness, after all, is only the first step; consider this is a call to action.
Amazon Watch has three offices in the United States—San Francisco, CA; Malibu, CA; and Washington D.C. NOLS Grad Thomas Cavanagh’s wife, Atossa Soltani, is the founder and executive director of the organization. Both can be reached for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.