The Sophie prize 2009 awarded to Marina Silva from Brazil

Marina Silva (photo), Senator and former Minister of the Environment, Brazil has been awarded The 12th annual Sophie Prize. The ceremony and performance will be held at Christiania Theatre in Oslo, Norway on June 17.

The Sophie Prize is an international award (US $ 100,000), for environment and sustainable development. The Prize is established to inspire people working towards a sustainable future. The annual prize was established in 1997 by the Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder and his wife Siri Dannevig.

This year’s Sophie Prize winner grew up in poverty in one of the world’s most isolated areas and was illiterate until her teens. She has since, as activist, senator and minister, been dedicated to securing the largest and richest ecosystem on earth: the Amazon rainforest. Her efforts and courage – and her achievements – are without comparison.

Marina Silva (51) was Minister of the Environment in Brazil from 2003 to 2008. During this period she reduced deforestation in the Amazon to historically low levels – by 60% from 2004 to 2007. Silva used drastic measures and clamped down on all illegal activity in the forest. Hundreds who did not obey the law were imprisoned. While protecting the rainforest, she also balanced the concerns of indigenous peoples’ traditional farming societies.

Brazil’s rainforest absorbs massive amounts of CO2. Rainforest conservation is crucial to limit the greenhouse effect and dramatic climate changes. Conservation of biodiversity and preservation of areas for local and indigenous peoples is also of great importance.

Marina Silva grew up as one of 12 siblings in a poor rubber tapper family in the province of Acre, Western Brazil. Totally dependent of the rubber plantation, the family practically lived as slaves. 16 years old (in 1974) she contracted hepatitis and was sent to Rio Branco for treatment. She was illiterate, but with a dream of studying and becoming a nun.

She worked as a maid, learned to read, was enrolled at a public school, stood for exams and started history studies. Along the way she was inspired by liberation theology and the ideas of the environmental activist Chico Mendes (murdered by cattle ranchers in 1988). She became politically active, and an ardent proponent of negotiation, non-violence, and innovative solutions. She saw many of her fellow activists murdered. Still, she did not give in, however, convinced that civilization must be based on sustainability.

In 1994 she was elected senator to Brazil’s national assembly, the first from a rubber tapper family. President Lula appointed her Minister of the Environment in 2003. She faced enormous challenges. The ministry was weak and isolated, and deforestation in the Amazon was accelerating. Vested economic interest, sometimes criminal, were fiercely opposed and willing to go far to stop conservation.

Despite this, Silva managed to forge alliances and to use laws and institutions to turn things around. Huge areas were conserved, more than 700 people were arrested for illegal activities in the forest, over 1.500 companies were closed down and equipment, properties and illegal timber were confiscated. These measures were effective. During Silva’s last three years in government, deforestation was reduced to the second lowest level in 20 years. As a result to this, the earth avoided emissions of 520 million tons of CO2, or ten times Norway’s annual emissions.

Another result of Marina Silva’s efforts is The Amazon Fund, established to prevent greenhouse gas emissions through rainforest conservation. The Fund is financed by national and international contributions.

Marina Silva resigned as Minister of the Environment, citing “the increasing resistance in central parts of government and the society”. The resistance became to massive after she made the government adopt a new set of measures to prevent the deforestation that was now increasing again. Silva continues her struggle from her place in the national assembly and still has great influence on environmental policy in Brazil.

Mahatma Gandhi said: “Never underestimate the individuals ability to change the world”. Marina Silva confirms Ghandi’s words.

Marina Silva is awarded the Sophie Prize based on her courage, her creativity and her ability to forge alliances, but first and foremost for her battle to conserve the Amazon rainforest. Her effort to secure a sustainable management of the earth we live on is an inspiration to us all.


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