By Kian Moaledj, Center Spring Intern
For Atossa Soltani, the natural world presents an identity that transcends national imaginaries. “Paradise is right here on this Earth. This is the sacred, right here, in this time,” she says. An activist for Indigenous and environmental rights for over 30 years, Soltani is dedicated to protecting the Amazon’s biological and cultural diversity. She is the founder of Amazon Watch, a nonprofit organization committed to protecting the rainforest and advancing the rights of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin. The organization now campaigns for some of the most biodiverse regions in the world and recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Soltani spent her childhood in Iran and fondly recalls when her family would take trips to the Gilan and Mazandaran provinces to visit the last remaining remnants of Iran’s beautiful cloud forests. “The camping and picnicking trips were magical,” she says, and they had a profound impact on her love for forests. She also remembers the turbulent days leading up to the 1979 Revolution when student protests would periodically shut down her all-girl’s school for weeks at a time. Her parents thought it best for Soltani to continue her education in the US, and in 1978 she got her visa. She traveled to Ohio via New York to stay with her uncle until the rest of her family would also move a few years later. Quick to immerse herself in an English environment, she later attended the University of Akron and studied public policy management.
Soltani says her first year of college was very formative in that it was where she learned about the Gaia Hypothesis, which “set off a huge lightbulb in my mind,” she says. The Gaia Hypothesis essentially conveys the idea that all living and nonliving things interact with one another to maintain the health and wellbeing of the planet. In this way, she says, “earth is a living system, more like an organism than an inert body floating in space. This concept of Earth as a living system awakened me and it was a defining moment. I felt called to be a planetary citizen.” Ultimately, being a planetary citizen gave Soltani an identity that extended beyond the labels of Iranian, American, or Iranian American. To her, an Earth-informed philosophy felt truer than anything borne out of national or political boundaries.
“Our sense of belonging is to a particular land, and as a diaspora, we leave it. We’re always searching for home. For me, home became Earth itself; this re-defining is home not just as landscape, a human landscape, but envisioning the earth as a living landscape. That became an identity for me.”
Iran’s environmental history has also informed Soltani’s passion for conservationism. Historical accounts from ancient Iran describe a region covered in dense cedar forests. “To see that we’ve lost nature on such a grand scale–less than 3% of the original forests left–is hard to fathom,” she says. For all their marvels, the Persians exploited and mistreated their natural environment, and it has led to deforestation that persists in Western Asia to this day. “What we’ve learned from one of the most ancient civilizations on this planet is that their relationship with their living systems was broken. It led to further erosion of stability which became the root causes of historic conflicts. The more scarce life becomes, the more conflictual populations become.”
Soltani’s trajectory as an environmental activist has its roots in California. In Santa Monica, she worked to promote energy conservation and environmental programs for the city. She made her way up the ranks from being a policy analyst to becoming the City’s director of water conservation programs. “I got to really build programs and develop policy from a municipal perspective that protected the environment,” she says. But despite her success in public policy, Soltani’s true passion remained the Amazon. “In the back of my mind, I was always thinking about the Amazon, the rainforest and having dreams about it. I was kind of obsessive about the lungs of the earth and felt I had to do something to address the threats there.”
The word “Amazon,” says Soltani, is said to have its roots in ancient Persian that later entered the Greek lexicon (in Persian, ha-mazon means “warrior.” The Amazons were often linked with the Persians in Greek art, which suggests that there was a connection between the two cultures, or at least that the Greeks viewed them as similar. … Scythian fighting women have been suggested as the possible inspiration for the Greek Amazons). “Here I am thousands of years later,” says Soltani, “wondering what is the connection between what I do and who I am. It was so fascinating to learn that connection.” In 1990, she finally got the opportunity to travel to Brazil and immerse herself in the rainforest. “I got glimpses of what it would be like to make this my main preoccupation.”
Upon returning to California, she began volunteering for the Rainforest Action Network (RAN). Eventually, she convinced the director of the network to hire her full-time. Soltani was offered a three-month contract and a nominal salary as a lifeline. “I took it. I left my great city paying job with benefits and security and staff and budget and all that prestige, and I took a leap of faith to do rainforest work,” she says. “It felt like an empty-handed leap into the void–a total leap of faith. I was like okay, hopefully, this will work out because I’m feeling a call from Gaia to be of service and hopefully, Gaia will see my offer and cooperate. I’ll do my half and the universe will meet me halfway.”
Working at RAN was a meaningful experience; it gave her the opportunity to learn Portuguese and Spanish. “I knew I could do languages because I learned English really quickly,” she says. Feeling like she needed to do more, she took another leap of faith and founded Amazon Watch. “The genesis for Amazon Watch, now celebrating its 25th year, was rather improvised,” she says.
In 1996, Brazil’s former president Fernando Cardoso was invited to Stanford University to accept an award from the humanities department in the midst of a re-election campaign. Cardoso had recently issued a decree rolling back Indigenous land rights, and faxes relayed to Soltani while she was working at RAN indicated his plans to spend billions of dollars on export corridors in the Amazon. These corridors would allow invaluable resources to be extracted from the heart of the rainforest and shipped commercially.
Outside the auditorium Soltani stood until Cardoso left to join his motorcade. As he exited, Soltani got up on a plant, bullhorn in hand, and began exposing Cardoso by quoting from his speech and refuting his claims. Walking to his limousine, Cardoso got face-to-face with Soltani, and she confronted him directly. After Cardoso drove off, she found herself surrounded by reporters covering his speech. “I was having a press conference with 30 journalists asking why I was there,” she says. Since she wasn’t officially representing the network anymore, all she had to offer reporters was a clipping from Time Magazine detailing the destruction of the rainforest. “Then one journalist asked me my name and the name of my organization. I quickly replied, ‘I’m Atossa Soltani and I’m with… Amazon Watch.’ I just made it up on the spot.” The media attention attracted partners willing to help with her newfound project, and thus, Amazon Watch was born.
For 18 years, Soltani fostered relationships with tribal leaders in the fight against biodiversity loss and colonization. Their main goals were advancing Indigenous rights and protecting the rainforest, but she is quick to note that the organization “didn’t see them as separate. We saw them as interrelated. You can’t have Indigenous rights without addressing land rights and you can’t have forest protection without addressing Indigenous rights. They are one and the same goal.” Soltani and her collaborators decided early on that amplifying Indigenous voices would be central to their mission. “Some of the leaders we’re working with now, I knew their fathers! I think the most important thing that Amazon Watch has provided is trust with our local Indigenous partners. When they’re in trouble, they know we’re there for them.”
Today, Soltani continues her tireless work for the Amazon. While she remains President of the Board for Amazon Watch, her main project is the Sacred Headwaters Initiative, which seeks to “build a laboratory for future transition to a more ecological economy–to protect the headwaters of the Amazon Basin.” Partnering with 30 Indigenous nations to protect an area the size of Oregon in the most biodiverse part of the Amazon from deforestation and human rights abuses is at the heart of this initiative. “We know so little about this incredible library we’re burning down. It contains invaluable knowledge; life. Most pharmaceuticals come from plants. Who knows about those plants? Indigenous people!”
As Amazon Watch and the Sacred Headwaters Initiative celebrate their achievements in protecting forests and advancing Indigenous rights, Soltani looks back with satisfaction. These organizations have doubled in size and expanded their offices to new countries, becoming leading voices on Amazonian issues. “I’m very proud of our team and of what we’ve accomplished,” she says. “Our work is far from done. The Amazon region is a vital organ of our Earth. Forest destruction is pushing this ecosystem towards a tipping point of ecological collapse and that will have massive repercussions for our global climate. It is more urgent than ever to unite the World in protecting the Amazon rainforest.”
Soltani will be joining the Center for Iranian Diaspora studies on April 21st at 4:30 pm (online) for a conversation with other Iranian-American climate activists and leaders for Earth Day 2021. Use this link to register: tinyurl.com/SFSUEarthDay. It will also be recorded and available on our YouTube channel.