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From maid to minister
Al Jazeera speaks to Marina Silva about her fight to save Brazil's rainforests.
Last Modified: 08 Apr 2008 07:07 GMT
Marina Silva was unable to read or write until she was 17-years-old


When Marina Silva was 16, she was illiterate. She lived in the small and isolated Brazilian Amazon state of Acre, and worked as a maid and seamstress to support her siblings. Her mother and two sisters died when she was 14, and Silva herself was suffering a life threatening illness, with which she still battles today.

So how, then, did Marina Silva rise to become the Brazilian minister of environment and share the UN's highest environmental prize with the likes of Al Gore, former US vice-president and Noble Peace Prize winner?

The story of Marina Silva is well known in Brazil.

It is a remarkable rise for a woman who now is considered by many in the environmental movement as an unlikely "trailblazer".

Many politicians around the world are born into wealth, and Brazil is no exception.

But Maria Silva had no such luck.

Silva was born deep inside the Brazilian Amazon. Her father worked as a rubber tapper, extracting liquid from trees that is then a main ingredient of rubber.

Life was tough, her two sisters died six months before her mother, Silva's brother passed away when he was just seven days old.

Silva did not grow up wanting to be a famous politician, her dream was more simple.

Literal ambition

"When I was growing up ... people that worked in the government belonged to traditional families, families that owned some kind of property,"Silva told Al Jazeera in at her home in the capital Brasilia.

Critics say Silva's policies are taking
jobs away from workers in the Amazon
"I was the daughter of a man who worked in a semi-slavery regime, so it was unimaginable to think of having a public job. My dream was to become literate."

Silva watched her father read and was left with a feeling of amazement.

"My father knew how to read and I was fascinated when I saw him looking at a piece of paper and then speaking about what that paper said.

"My dream was to learn how to read and to become a nun and to be able to help others as a teacher, to take care of others."

To fulfill that dream Silva moved to Rio Branco, the state capital.

"When I got to Rio Branco, I started to take literacy classes in a programme for young people and adults," she said.

"I learned how to read and write in 15 days."

Political activist

Silva was then able to work her way into university, where she graduated with a degree in history. She briefly became a teacher, before meeting Chico Mendes, a famous Brazilian environmental and labour rights activist.

Shortly after meeting Mendes, Silva decided to dedicate her life to saving the Amazon rainforest.

She became the youngest woman ever elected to the Brazilian senate, where she distinguished herself as someone who fought at all costs for environmental rights.

Six years ago Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, the president, himself famous for working as a shoe shine boy as a child, named Silva as the head of the ministry of environment.

It is a position which oversees the Amazon, the world's largest forest.

Silva immediately confronted powerful logging, agriculture and corporate interests responsible for deforestation – a task few of her predecessors had dared take on.

"I cannot see my life separated from my fight," Silva said.

"I cannot see my fight isolated. I see it as an effort of many people inside and outside Brazil  in the defence of the Amazon."

Silva suffered early set-backs. During her first year almost 600,000 miles of illegal highways were discovered in the middle of the Amazon.

But Silva fought on, and was eventually was credited for slowing the pace of deforestation by holding law breakers accountable at all costs, while also setting up inventive projects for sustainable development in indigenous communities.

"The Amazon forest lost 17 per cent of its vegetation in the last 400 years but the majority of this deforestation was done in the past 30 or 40 years," she said.

"That is why it is necessary to change the course of the process of development that has been happening in the region and take it into a new direction. Reduce the level of deforestation, and make a change in the model of development that has been implemented.

"We need to bring a new paradigm where the standing forest is more valuable and viable than cutting the forest for other economic activities. That is possible."

Fight for the Amazon 

The United Nations has granted Silva the Champions of the Earth Prize, the highest environmental honour bestowed by the UN.

She shared the award with Al Gore and Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan.
 

This is a confrontation between the legitimate interests of the present generation and the legitimate rights of future generations"
But Silva was recently reminded that hers is a never ending fight.

A recent report by the federal government indicated in the past six months Amazon deforestation has risen.

In response, Silva helped plan an ambitious and controversial federal operation to shut down the most blatant violators of the law.

However, the move resulted in thousands of poor Brazilians who rely on the logging industry for their only source of income being left without a job, especially in heavily deforested states like Para and Mato Grosso.

Critics say the environmental restrictions initiated by Silva are hampering Brazil’s economic progress and that under Silva, the ministry has been too slow to process permits for development projects in the Amazon.

Silva said: "This is a confrontation between the legitimate interests of the present generation and the legitimate rights of future generations,"

"That is why this fight for the environment is very complex. It is easier to fight for the interests of those who are here and it is more challenging to fight for the interests of those who are not born yet, who will be born in 10, 20, 100 or 1,000 years.

"That is the reason why the environmental cause is complex and at the same time it gives it legitimacy that cannot be denied, she said.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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