Speech by the chair of the board of the Sophie Prize, Nina Drange

Sophie Prize Ceremony June 17th 2009.

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Friends

On behalf of the board of the Sophie Foundation I would like to start by congratulating Marina Silva with a well-deserved prize. I cannot imagine a more worthy winner.

Marina Silva has throughout her entire life and work been dedicated to securing the largest and richest ecosystem on earth: the Amazon rainforest. Through brave resistance, clever forming of alliances, tremendous integrity and with a big heart she has managed to address the perhaps biggest challenges faced by our generation: Global warming and the loss of biodiversity.

The Sophie Prize is awarded to an individual or an organization that, in a pioneering or creative way, has pointed to alternatives to the present development and put such alternatives into practice. There can be no doubt that Marina Silva is such an individual.

Trough the 1980’s she worked at the grass-root level fighting powerful resistance against preservation of the Amazon. In 1994 she was elected senator to Brazil’s national assembly as the first from a rubber tapper family and the youngest woman ever. 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 interests, 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 fight the deforestation. Huge areas were conserved under her leadership, more than 700 people were arrested and over 1 500 companies were closed down for illegal activities in the forest. All policies were, however, inspired by the rights to continuity of the way of life of traditional communities in the Amazon region and its importance for the conservation of its forests.

These measures were effective. During Marina Silva’s last three years in government, deforestation was reduced to the second lowest level in 20 years. The fact that she decided to leave government when experiencing that her policies where being counteracted, is also a sign of remarkable integrity. It seems that in itself power is not important to Marina Silva. What is important to her is what she can accomplish with it.

Besides being hotspots of biodiversity, rainforests are also important for the global climate. Global warming is not just about carbon emissions from fossil fuels. The reduction of the earth’s capacity to take emitted carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions out of the atmosphere plays an important role. Deforestation and forest degradation account for almost 20 percent of the world’s emission of greenhouse gases which in turn cause global warming. We have known this for a long time. I remember writing an essay about it at school – I was 12, and my research taught me that scientists gave us 10 years to reverse the trend and start a new and more sustainable development path. 20 years later, my son – now 12 years old - writes essays that reflect that we may be too late.

Because the language has changed. World leaders will meet in Copenhagen in December at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. One big issue at this meeting is how we best can adapt to the facts of climate change. Nobody says anymore that we have 10 years left. We don’t. Even with a massive reduction in CO2 emissions in the years to come, we will still experience changes in the global climate. 

This doesn’t mean we should give up. But it means that it is extremely urgent that the policy makers meeting in Copenhagen all turn to Marina Silva to see that what may seem impossible is actually just a matter of taking the right decisions. Never has there been a greater chance to get things right – or a greater danger if our leaders fail.

Do we have the right to destroy the living conditions of generations to come? Marina Silva has with her life and work answered this question: Not only do we not have this right – we have an obligation to ensure that our children and grandchildren inherit an earth where biodiversity, living conditions and prosperity are at least as good as the ones we inherited. We know what is happening – how climate change is affecting our planet and all who live on it, especially the poor. We know what needs to be done, yet we are paralysed. How will we explain this to our children and grandchildren when they ask “How could you?”. Let us aim for a exclamation mark rather than a question mark – “They did it!”

This is why the board of the Sophie foundation has awarded the Sophie Prize to Marina Silva – she has trough her struggle and accomplishments showed us that it is possible for an individual to change the world. “She did it!” Let us look to Marina as an example of how to act with principles and with urgency on the greatest challenge of our time.