At 16, when disease forced her to go to the city, rubber-tapper Marina Silva
was still illiterate. Twenty two years later, now a senator in the Brazilian congress,
she comes to the US to receive a prize for her work in preserving the environment.
The press release for the Goldman Environment Prize describes the 1996 winners as “heroes of the earth.” The
press release does not exaggerate.
This year the six people awarded the top environmental prize on the planet include a young Mexican who refused
to stop his “grass roots” activities in the forests of Chihuahua despite three attempts on his life by drug lords and
logging companies. Also included among the winners is an Ugandan journalist who used the front pages of his paper to
expose dangerous illegal mining and wildlife smuggling rings.
And very, very high among the “heroes of the earth” is Marina Silva. At 38, Silva is the first
seringueira ever elected to the Brazilian Federal Senate. In Brasília, and throughout the rest of the country, she is known as a dedicated
fighter for the Amazonian rain forest and its traditional people.
In San Francisco recently to collect her share of the Goldman Prize which include a $75,000 check, the
dark-eyed, fragile-looking Silva spoke, eloquently about the misconceptions that still persist about her home territory.
“Amazônia is not an empty space that needs to be occupied. It
has been occupied by traditional people, doing
different activities, for thousands of years.”
Silva’s large, impoverished family which lived in Rio Branco, Acre, were among these people. By 11 she was
hunting, fishing and rubber tapping. Unschooled and illiterate, she had formal knowledge in only one area — she knew
just enough arithmetic to keep rubber buyers from cheating her family.
At 16, the still illiterate girl caught hepatitis and went to the city, alone, for treatment. Working as a maid by day,
she attended classes by night. In three years she had raced through elementary school, junior high school and high
school in record time. At 20, with a bachelor’s degree in history she was deeply involved in the student movement
fighting the military dictatorship.
But true commitment came in the early 1980’s when she returned to Acre and began working with rubber-tapper
leader, Chico Mendes.
Today, there is an almost mythic ring to the struggle of the
seringueiros against the cattle ranchers who
were destroying the forest, and destabilizing their communities. In those days it was more immediate, more dangerous.
With everything on their side, including government subsidies, the powerful ranchers demanded more and
more pasture land, using any means of persuasion they could. Rural violence escalated. The local economy plunged.
Clearly, something had to do to turn the situation around.
The “something” were the empates, huge but peaceful demonstrations by
seringueiros which literally stopped ranch hands in their tracks and convinced them to end their destruction of the forest. Even today, the
empates are considered a prime example of grass roots’ resistance to environmental assault.
But not everyone was persuaded by Mendes’ peaceful beliefs. In 1988 he was murdered by rancher Darcy Alves.
“When they killed Chico, they thought they would kill the movement,” said Silva, who had a price on her head
during much of this period. “But the movement is now bigger and stronger than ever.”
Proof. One of Mendes’ dreams was to create sustainable extractive reserves in the rain forest where useful
products such as rubber and nuts could be removed without destroying the forest. Largely through Silva’s continuing
activities, Acre today has extractive reserves covering two million hectares of forest, managed by the traditional
communities that inhabit them.
Another proof of progress. In 1994, Silva — impoverished rubber tapper, illiterate teen-ager, worker-activist,
traditional outsider — became an insider, the first
seringueira ever elected to the Brazilian Federal Senate, a person in a
powerful position to represent the rain forest and the rights of the people who live there.
Just as, earlier, the sweep of cattle-owners into the
Amazon was an obvious invasion of the territory, more recently a more
subtle invasion has also been going on. It is one in which researchers
and laboratories take the genetic resources of a region for their own
profit no matter what the cost to the community or, for that matter, to
the country as a whole.
One of Silva’s main pieces of legislation has been a law to limit access to genetic resources and give traditional
people a voice in their control. But even with improvements, Silva has mixed feelings about the progress being made
towards improving life in Amazônia.
“Yes, the Cardoso government has many good people in it, with good experience, concerned about social and
agrarian reforms. But mostly the government is concerned about economic stabilization, fighting inflation. Until the
ment is willing to invest in education, job programs, health care and agrarian reform, until the government is
willing to commit real resources, unrest will continue, people will go on dying, like the 20 killed recently in
demonstrations in Pará.”
But Silva still hopes to see a better world, one in which we will finally learn “not to sacrifice the treasure of
millennia for the profits of a decade.”
Says she, “St. Thomas said to see is to believe. I think we must invert that. To see, first we must believe!”