Malibu’s ‘Erin Brockovich of the Amazon’ makes legal history

Malibu resident Atossa Soltani at a rally for Amazon Watch, an organization she founded 15 years ago. The organization recently won a major legal victory against Chevron regarding damage in the Amazon. Caroline Bennett/Amazon Watch

Local resident Atossa Soltani is the founder of Amazon Watch, an organization that was behind a recent major environmental legal victory.

By Bibi Jordan / Special to The Malibu Times

The organization Amazon Watch, founded by Malibu resident Atossa Soltani, spearheaded a recent legal victory in which for the first time an American energy company has been found legally liable in a foreign court for environmental crimes committed abroad.

Since its launch 15 years ago, Amazon Watch has been an advocate for 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians in a lawsuit demanding that Chevron be held accountable for dumping 18 billion gallons of crude waste that left an environmental and public health catastrophe in the Amazon. Despite Chevron’s denial of all responsibility in a legal battle that has lasted for more than a decade and has been fought in three continents, an Ecuadorian court ruled in favor of the Amazonian communities early this year. Chevron was ordered to pay $9 billion to clean up the widespread oil contamination and another $9 billion in punitive damages. The $18 billion judgment against Chevron ranks second in environmental damage cases after the $20 billion fund established in the wake of BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as reported by Bloomberg News.

However, Chevron appealed to the Ecuador court’s ruling and won a temporary victory when a United States District Court’s injunction barred the plaintiffs from claiming the damages in the United States. But, in a recent ruling, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that this injunction be lifted.

“With this recent development, there is now hope that the Ecuadorians will receive the damages levied on Chevron for these massive crimes against the environment in the Amazon,” Soltani said.

This legal accomplishment marks a major change from Amazon Watch’s launch 15 years ago by one woman with a bullhorn. Well-informed about conservation programs after working as a campaign director for Rainforest Action Network, Soltani was determined to confront President Cardosa of Brazil about deforestation issues when he was in the U.S. to address the United Nations in 1996. As Cardosa was leaving, she managed to stop him and protest his plans to build roads through the Amazon. She said he listened for about 20 seconds before leaving in his limousine.

Soltani recalled that moment: “Turning around, I was confronted by about 30 journalists and cameras. ‘Who are you? Who are you with?’ they yelled. I took a deep breath and announced, ‘Amazon Watch!’ The next day, it was all over the headlines, and Amazon Watch was born.”

Since then Soltani, who serves as the organization’s executive director, has taken on everyone from oil company executives to Hollywood titans in her effort to protect the Amazon. For example, following the enormous success of the film “Avatar,” which depicted the forest of an imaginary planet being destroyed by resource-hungry corporations, Amazon Watch joined indigenous groups to lobby director James Cameron to focus on the “real Pandora.” They were referring to a controversial development project in the Brazilian Amazon, the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. Coined as the “Monster Dam,” it will be the third largest dam in the world if built, and it will be the gateway dam to more than 60 additional dams proposed in the Brazilian Amazon.

Soltani accompanied Cameron to Brazil where he met the Xingo tribe and experienced the forest the dam will destroy if it is constructed. The experience made such an impression on Cameron that he produced a special feature called, “A Message from Pandora,” about the battle to stop the Belo Monte Dam.

“Opposing Belo Monte will be a critical battle in the fight for the Amazon and for the planet,” Soltani said. “The Amazon is the global rain machine and lungs of the earth. Our future survival depends on the continued existence of the Amazon rainforest.”

Internationally renowned ecologist Dr. Philip Fearnside at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon in Manaus, Brazil explained that while large dams like Belo Monte are often promoted as clean renewable energy, this is a myth. In the tropics, vegetation decomposing under a large man-made reservoir acts like a methane factory, Fearnside said. As methane is 25 to 50 times more potent than CO2, it means emissions from large dams in the tropics like Belo Monte are on a par with those of a coal power plant and generate significant global warming gas emissions.

Soltani said at the current rate 50 percent of the Amazon could be lost or severely degraded in the next 10 years. With global deforestation contributing around 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, preventing devastation of the Amazon is more critical than ever.

“This coming year will be a time of deep transformation on our planet,” Soltani said. “Amazon Watch will be scaling up our work to further safeguard the rain forest.”

In spite of all these challenges, Soltani remains dedicated to Amazon Watch’s advocacy campaigns to advance indigenous rights and preserve the Amazon. Reflecting on the organization that started 15 years ago in Malibu, Soltani said, “I truly believe that our actions over the next four years are going to determine the course of history for the next 1,000 years. Amazon Watch is standing together with the indigenous communities who have been preserving the rain forest for thousands of years. Our savvy team of campaigners can operate in remote jungles, the halls of power, in Hollywood and in the streets to mount pressure on companies and get results. From providing training to our partners to hard-hitting campaigns, I’m proud of the way we’ve been able to leverage limited resources to have extraordinary impact.”