Land rights activist wins Wangari Maathai Forest Champions Award

20 December 2017

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — An activist who has improved land use rights for thousands of people in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil  has won the 2017 Wangari Maathai Forest Champions Award.

Maria Margarida Ribeiro da Silva, a resident of the Verde para Sempre Extractive Reserve in Brazil’s northern state of Pará, received the award at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany for her lifetime achievements in promoting community forest management and strengthening the role of women regardless of personal risk. Among many accomplishments, she helped establish the Nossa Senhora do Perpétuo Socorro do Rio Arimum (Our Lady of Perpetual Help of the River Arimum) Agro-extractivist Cooperative.

Verde para Sempre, which in Portuguese means “green forever,” is a 1.3 million hectare area protected by the government, which allows sustainable, traditional extractive use of the land, including, hunting, fishing and harvesting wild plants.

“Ms. Ribeiro da Silva’s extraordinary commitment to community forest management makes her a deserving winner of the Wangari Maathai Award,” said Hiroto Mitsugi, assistant director-general of forestry at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

“Through her unrelenting efforts to strengthen the technical and organizational capacities of local communities she has ensured the sustainable management of forests by local communities to their own benefit.”

The $20,000 award, named for Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) who spent a lifetime promoting environmental conservation and equal rights for women through a grassroots “Green Belt Movement,” was presented on Wednesday by Brazilian indigenous leader Marcos Terena on behalf of the Collaborative Partnership on Forests.

A staunch believer that women are agents of change, Ribeiro da Silva worked with the Community and Family Forest Management group and as councillor in the nearby municipality of Porto de Moz in efforts to ensure the creation of the cooperative.

“There are no limits to women’s actions whether in the forest or the city,” said Ribeiro da Silva, whose work led to threats from logging companies extracting trees from the Verde para Sempre Reserve illegally. “I feel overwhelmed and thrilled at this incredible honor.”

In Porto de Moz she participated in forest harvesting activities, and in 2006, two years after the reserve was established, she took the local campaign national, speaking with representatives of environmental agencies in Brasilia. This led to the approval of a community forest management plan for the region, which ultimately allowed residents of conservation units to extract and trade timber.

Local communities in the area, now administered by the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, are largely reliant on livestock, fishing and subsistence farming for their livelihoods.

Her work in favor of community empowerment was recognized in 2016 when the cooperative that Ribeiro da Silva helped to organize received Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certification. The first batch of FSC-certified timber was sold in August 2017. The initiative has since provided a model for six other organizations to establish certification and sustainably aware collectives.

Her voice is widely respected in national and international conversations about Community and Family Forest Management (MFCF) in the Amazon, proving it is a valid means of protecting natural ecosystems. She has contributed to establishing regulations for the community forest sector, state and federal public policies.

She convinced government officials that sustainable forest management must extend beyond simply measuring the amount of extracted timber to keep it in check. Now, use and collective management of resources raised from forest production is included in criteria for defining forest management by communities.

Ribeiro da Silva is also a mentor and teacher. She has played an important role in the Roberto Marinho Foundation “Florestabilidade” public school program, which offers online lessons on the collective and sustainable use of forests and their global importance. She also taught capacity building through “Formar Florestal”, which benefited Amazonian people living in areas affected by natural resource depletion and territorial disputes.

Currently, Ribeiro da Silva is a member of a group of 14 community organizations representing 2,500 families from 11 territories, including conservation units and rural settlements in Pará.

“This award is a recognition not only of my achievements, but it is a recognition for the work of the communities that fight continuously for the access to public policies that guarantee their rights,” Ribeiro da Silva said. “I hope that this award will help to guarantee the continuity of support the Amazonian communities in their work to protect the forests for future generations.”

Read acceptance speech here.