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Dawn on the Amazon

On finding hope & inspiration in an era of environmental devastation

Global carbon dioxide in atmosphere passes milestone level
Climate warming greenhouse gas reaches 400 parts per million for the first time in human history

– The Guardian, May 10, 2013

I’m in the middle of a five-week trip to the Peruvian Amazon, working with indigenous communities who have suffered from 40 years of contamination as a result of oil drilling on their lands. Digital Democracy is working directly with these communities to help them better use technology to share what is happening to their rivers and advocate for the necessary clean-up efforts.

This work is part of something much larger. Digital Democracy’s program, Remote Access, is, at its core, about renegotiating power structures, creating tools that allow historically oppressed, marginalized groups to tell their own stories about what is happening to them, stories of environmental and human rights abuses that all too often occur far away from the watchful eye of 24-hour-news-cycles and ubiquitous wi-fi connections.

The work here in Peru is specific and important. It’s about rivers I can name – the Pastaza, the Corientes, the Tigre – and the people who travel up and down them, documenting spills that have contaminated specific fields, water supplies and hunting grounds.

But oil drilling – whether in the Peruvian Amazon or elsewhere – is also of universal concern and consequence. On Thursday, May 9th, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – referred to as PPM (parts per million) exceeded 400  – a number that hasn’t been seen on earth for several million years. Meanwhile, Time, working closely with Google Earth, released a website with some of the best multi-media reporting I’ve ever seen. The TimeLapse project culls through the past three decades of high-res LandSat imagery to expose a powerful picture of how humans are changing the environment.

The situation is dire. To claim otherwise would be false. And yet, I want to get up every day and embrace life. The following two journal entries, handwritten over the course of the past week, represent my own internal struggle in the face of this global challenge.

Sunday May 5, 2013. 5:30am. Iquitos, Peru:

I see it so clearly.

Historic opportunities: The bottom-up work of the monitors finally being recognized. The need to keep pushing and pressuring for the full extent of the environmental damage to be recognized by the State. The role that Dd can play – further building the capacity of groups fighting – quite literally – for their lives. The key role of getting information from remote places to headquarters, to partners, to government. The work has already begun, we are here to strengthen it, amplify it exponentially.

Thinking of Aurelio’s powerful story on Friday. When he began, the work was dispiriting. Many of his own community members saw no choice but to work with oil companies. Now, resistance is growing – the communities are uniting. Just as it is in the great plains of North America, along the Keystone Pipeline, the Tar Sands of Canada.

And it is easy – all too easy – to be cynical and lament that, despite this resistance, business as usual is inevitable. That oil drilling will continue here, in the Western Amazon, in Western Canada, in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, in the Niger Delta, ad infinitum.

But to that I say: Things are only impossible until they are not.

There is no physical law binding oil companies to extract every last drop of crude from the earth. It is not a given like gravity or the turning of the earth around the sun.

No. Oil extraction in the Amazon, climate denial, oppression of indigenous people – these are strong forces, but they are not givens. They can change. The future is always built by people who believe in their vision, aided by those who wish to support their vision, and also by those who disagree but who do nothing because they believe in the false premise that they are powerless to stop it.

The work of Dd these past four years has taught me that seemingly impossible things can become possible. Studying history has taught me that nothing is inevitable, change can hang on the edge of a blade. The protestations – or acquiescence – of the marginalized masses can shift the balance, or lay down at the feet of the status quo.

Now is a time for rising up, for fighting back. The window of time is ever narrowing, as carbon emissions soar and the rainforests which store so much carbon – not to mention biological and cultural diversity – are being logged, clear cut, mined and drilled for oil. But there is growing recognition that things must change, as even The Economist acknowledges that oil companies’ reserves must not be drilled,* and more and more people rise up in direct action, nonviolent protest & acts of civil disobedience.

I have a part to play in all of this, and I have been building for it all my life. For Dd too, the successes we have built up to now have prepared us for this – a bigger challenge, a more ambitious task, a role we are perfectly suited to play.

This is the kind of struggle where it is worth going all in. For the sake of our partners, and their right to determine their own futures – a right that has been denied for too long to too many. For Digital Democracy, this is about alignment with something larger. Everywhere, rights are in need of defending. We are focused, for now, on developing the tools which stand the possibility to empower the largest number of people. We are focused on fortifying activists from marginalized groups with the capacity, skills and tools they need to fight for the impossible – and win. We may not get it right, but we are devoted to try our best in this endeavor. Why?

For the sake children being born, for people living on islands, for residents of New York City, for all people, everywhere. For the birds and mammals, fish and reptiles, insects, plants and trees of a world where, although species are threatened, ecosystems are still teeming with life. It is not too late, but it will take all our efforts to shift the momentum and “inevitability” of history, and the dawn of a new era of relationships – with ourselves, and the planet at large.

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

*Unburnable Fuel. Either governments are not serious about climate change or firms are overvalued. The Economist. May 4th, 2013.

Sunday May 12, 2013. 7am. Tarapoto, Peru:

I’m writing from the tropical hills of Tarapoto, a gateway to the vast network of rivers and smaller tributaries of the Upper Amazon. In the past week I’ve gone from the rainforest to the Peruvian capital and back to the rainforest, accompanying a delegation of indigenous leaders and community-based environmental monitors in their first meetings with Congress, the Prime Minister & President in Lima. These meetings won’t change everything, but they are a start – they represent a shift in Peruvian policy, an apology from the government for the environmental damage. And that is important.

473414_10151664671287704_1804573429_oFor the past week I haven’t been able to shake an image & the idea it represents – that of the dawn that Gregor & I witnessed last weekend in Iquitos. Morning’s first rays of light, shining over the Amazon River with the waning crescent moon overhead. It was an important moment to witness, but I think it is more than that. Dawn on the Amazon – it is a powerful metaphorical message.

Sunrise, the moment light light breaks the long dark of night. Sunrise, the promise of a new beginning. Sunrise, the promise of a new day.

For the past week I have been pondering this idea of sunrise in the context of working here in the Amazon, where decades of oil drilling have taken a massive toll on the communities for whom the rivers are a lifeline. And it is an honor to be here, thanks to the trust Gregor has built over the past decade, working directly with the communities who are documenting the impacts of oil contamination,* creating maps and reports, and using these to advocate for clean-up of existing spills – and a stop to further drilling. In this context, the sunrise on the Amazon represents this small window we have to change course – not just here in the Amazon, but throughout a world that is addicted to consumption of fossil fuels and other commodities, addictions that stand in direct competition to a healthy balance of life on planet Earth.

It is fitting to reflect on this today, Mother’s Day at home in the States & here in Peru. I’m thinking of my own mom, my grandmother, and my many friends who are new or soon-to-be parents, their babies, their toddlers, my own goddaughters. What does the future hold for them? We have more knowledge than ever before about precisely the impact of unsustainable consumption on the planet. Just Thursday, we crossed the 400 ppm threshold for carbon. I read the news and I think about the world these babies are inheriting. The prospect is daunting, almost overwhelmingly sad. Information alone can almost do the opposite of inspiring action – it can induce paralysis.

And that is why I am writing. To strengthen the resolve in my own heart to address this mighty challenge with action. To seek words that will forge alliances, to build community with others who value life on this earth. I’m writing to combat paralysis, because there is no den of denial strong or large enough to protect me and those I love from the consequences of climate change. Because as I watched dawn emerge over the mighty Amazon River I realized – it’s not over yet. It’s daunting, but it’s not done. Great hope and possibility exists even in the face of enormous challenges. And great happiness and fulfillment also lie in moving toward the type of life I want to live – one with less things but deeper connections. Less of everything fueled by oil, more by wind, sun and footpower. A more just and equitable world.

* Check out the important work of PUINAMUDT – Observatorio Petrolero de la Amazonía Norte

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