Glenn Ross Switkes (1951-2009)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Glenn in Patagonia
Glenn in Patagonia

International Rivers is mourning the loss of our Amazon program director Glenn Switkes, a dear friend, respected colleague, and a river warrior of unbreakable passion. Glenn died on December 21 in a São Paolo hospital of complications linked to lung cancer. He was 58.

Glenn was a man of rare integrity, great humor, and political savvy. He was a much-loved inspiration and teacher to river defenders, and an effective thorn in the side of river-wrecking politicians and bureaucrats. Heartfelt tributes to Glenn have been flowing in to International Rivers from activists throughout Brazil, Latin America and the world.

Glenn devoted most of the last two decades of his life to the cause of keeping the rivers of South America, especially in the Amazon, flowing free of dams and shipping channels.

Born in New York City to working-class parents, Glenn studied history at Columbia University and filmmaking at the University of California, Berkeley. While still a student he worked with Randy Hayes and Toby McLeod on his first film, the award-winning “Four Corners: A National Sacrifice Area?” The film shows the depredations of mining on the Native Americans and desert landscapes of the southwestern US.

Glenn first went to the Amazon on the urging of his Colombian first wife, Monti Aguirre. Inspired by the beauty of the Amazon, the culture and wisdom of its Indians, and horrified at the impacts of deforestation and dam-building, Glenn and Monti together made the award-winning documentary “Amazonia: Voices of the Rainforest.” The Washington Post described the film as “a subtle global warning . . . less about destruction than instruction. [It] allows many voices to be heard, not only the exploited and the exploiters but, more subtly and most eloquently, the Amazon forest itself: It appears both lushly rich and dirt ravaged.”

The film was sponsored by Rainforest Action Network. After its completion Glenn joined RAN as its Western Amazon oil campaigner.

Glenn joined International Rivers Network in 1994. Together with his second wife, Selma Barros de Oliveira, he soon moved to Mato Grosso, Brazil, to help put together a coalition to save the Paraguay-Paraná river system, and especially the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, from the threat of a huge channelization project. The multinational Ríos Vivos coalition was a textbook example of effective NGO strategizing and action. The Pantanal’s wildlife and traditional, tourist and ranching economies are still vibrant today thanks to the success of Glenn and Ríos Vivos in fighting off the “Hidrovía” waterway.

As the danger to the Pantanal receded, Glenn became involved in numerous struggles against dams and for the rights of dam-affected people, especially along the Tocantins and Tapajós rivers in the Brazilian Amazon; the Uruguay and Paraná basins in southern Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay; and in Chilean Patagonia.

In recent years, Glenn’s focus was on stopping the damming of two of the great Amazon rivers, the Madeira and Xingu. Cynical political maneuvering from the Brazilian government has meant that construction on the two Madeira dams has begun. The Xingu remains spared from the massive Belo Monte Dam, at least for now, in large part thanks to Glenn’s work with the Kayapó and other Xingu Indians, with national and local NGOs, and MAB, Brazil’s movement of people affected by dams. Glenn coordinated the production of two books exposing the high social and environmental costs and distorted justifications of the Madeira and Xingú dams.

Glenn had a rare capacity to work closely with and gain the respect and friendship of academics and policy wonks, as well as grassroots movements of peasants and fisherpeople, and Indian tribes. He was an expert on Brazilian energy and environment policy, and had a keen understanding of Brazilian politics, on both the government and civil society levels. His political analysis – and his sharp wit – can be seen through his excellent blog.

Glenn was filled with contradictions. A Brooklyn boy with a life-long passion for the New York Yankees, while an avid defender of wild places; a gentle peace-loving man who approached a good political fight with a twinkle in his eye. A man who could spot political bullshitting from a great distance, while, all who knew him would surely agree, being no stranger to circumlocution.

Among Glenn’s many loves beyond his family and the Amazon were brewing beer, his dogs, cooking and eating good food (especially Thai and Brazilian), film (especially Hitchcock), baseball and soccer, and music.  Glenn loved all music that had heart and soul, from early rock 'n' roll and doo-wop, through rock music, especially the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, and on to what seemed like all the music of the world. Glenn loved a party and enlivened many of them with his guitar playing and singing.

Glenn and baby Gabo
Glenn and baby Gabo

Glenn and Selma have a seven-year-old son, Gabriel. Gabo was Glenn's biggest joy, and in recent years the driving force behind his passionate defense of the environment. The first thing Glenn would do on visits back to our Berkeley office was to pull out the latest photos of Gabo.

Glenn was the soul of International Rivers. He leaves a gaping hole in our organization and in the international movement of river activists. We will miss his songs (often with mangled words) booming through our office during his visits to Berkeley, his irreverent humor, his boundless energy, his infectious and tumultuous personality. We will honor and celebrate his life with a renewed fighting spirit for the rivers of the Amazon and elsewhere – and a good party.

Like Selma and Gabriel, we deeply appreciate the love and support that we have received from Glenn’s many friends around the world.

Patrick McCully, on behalf of the entire staff and board of International Rivers

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Glenn's passing created an outpouring of support, please read the comments we have archived below and feel free to add your own.

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