Amazon Defender Gone

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It was mentioned to me recently a story about people allegedly being forcefully kicked out of their homes in the interior of Brazil to make way for hydroelectric dam construction. While I have done stories like this in the past, the particular location was in an area I do not know well, but I felt it needed further examination.

"I will call Glenn and check on it,” I responded reflexively. “He will know what the deal is."

So on Wednesday afternoon I scribbled on a notepad on my desk, "CALL GLENN."

"Glenn” is Glenn Switkes, the Latin America director for International Rivers, a Northern California-based NGO that focus on protecting the world’s rivers.

Glenn is from the U.S. and lives in Sao Paulo, just 15 minutes away from where I live. He is one of the top experts on the issue of the building of hydroelectric dams in the Amazon.

I first met Glenn in 2008 during my coverage of the Xingu Encounter, where indigenous people were protesting against the building of a massive hydroelectric complex, called the Belo Monte, in the Brazilian Amazon they say will destroy their way of life as they know it. (The photo above is from the Xingu Encounter).

Glenn helped guide me through understanding all the complex issues of hydroelectricity and the effects on local populations as he saw them from his vast first hand experience.

Over the years, Glenn helped me reach my personal belief that the building of dams in the Amazon (the benefits and drawbacks alike) is one of the top ‘untold stories,’ from Brazil that needs more scrutiny.

One of my first blog postings on this site mentioned Glenn.

There is a growing movement made up mostly of poor, rural people and indigenous groups in Brazil to bring attention to the issue. Glenn is on the frontline, too, of that battle. In many ways, he was the frontline, representing the fight of the little guy versus the big money and big government powers.

Since 2008 I have met with Glenn on multiple occasions for coffee and exchanged dozens of emails with him. He has appeared live on Al Jazeera at least twice that I can remember to offer analysis, and whenever I need honest, straightforward thoughts on issues involving indigenous rights I call on Glenn.

"The Brazilian Government through its 'growth acceleration plan' is setting its sights on essentially making the Amazon investment grade. Bringing companies in to exploit the natural resources of the Amazon, be it hydroelectric dams or timber exploitation or cattle ranching. And indigenous people are clearly in harms way on many of these projects."

Glenn is part journalist: If you Google “Brazil and building and dams” at some point you will read that there are over 70 hydroelectric dams being planned in Brazil – a shocking number. Glenn was the one who came up with that number, from digging into the coffers of the Brazilian government documents to uncover what the government would probably rather not make public.

Glenn is part activist: The Xingu Encounter might not have happened without him. He had a hand in organizing the singer Sting’s vocal defense of indigenous rights.

And he is part academic: Three books about Amazon rivers on my shelf in my office are at least partially authored by him.

As a journalist, Glenn is a guy I can trust to always steer me straight. I respect him a great deal. I have rang Glenn from far flung corners of Brazil looking to get information while out on a story about the Amazon. "Glenn, these people are telling me this. How do you see it?" There are very few other people I trust enough to do this with on a regular basis. Less than 5 to be exact.

But, unfortunately and tragically, Glenn is gone.

In mid December Glenn went to a Sao Paulo hospital and got the shocking news he had lung cancer. A week later, on December 21, Glenn died. He was 58 years old and leaves behind in Sao Paulo a wife, Selman, any 7 year old son, Gabriel.

I just found out yesterday of Glenn’s passing. I was and still am in shock. Especially now as I look down at the note on my desk that reads "CALL GLENN."

The news has reverberated around the world and within Brazil between the many people Glenn worked with.

The movement Glenn was so instrumental fighting for has suffered a huge setback, right at a very moment as the Xingu River's Belo Monte dam project is in a critical phase of possibly finally be approved. (picture below of Xingu River)

Hundreds of thousands of indigenous people and local activists displaced by dam projects and others fighting against the Belo Monte dam project are without one of their strongest advocates today.

International Rivers will carry on, but I can’t even begin to imagine what a devastating blow this must be to their efforts.

Not to mention the countless journalists, like me, who leaned on Glenn in Brazil for help untangling this important story here he knew better than anyone.

International Rivers has a link on their web site with more information about Glenn.

Hopefully, wherever Glenn is right now he has a view of a free flowing river, on a peaceful Amazon evening with a cool breeze at sunset.

Rest in Peace, Glenn.