Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2008

Marina Silva and Cristina Narbona Ruiz

Marina Silva and Cristina Narbona Ruiz couldn't be more different — or more alike. Silva is an indigenous Brazilian born poor in the rain forest; she only learned to read at age 14. Narbona Ruiz grew up in Italy as the daughter of Spanish journalists in exile from the repressions of the Franco era. Silva spent her early career building a trade-union movement among the rain forest's rubber tappers alongside the activist Chico Mendes; Narbona Ruiz climbed the political ladder within Spain's Socialist Party. But once the two rose to become Environment Ministers in their respective countries, they both spoke out with a passion that proved too disturbing for the governments that appointed them.

From an early age, Silva saw the damage that reckless business interests were doing to Brazil's ecosystem. As a child, instead of going to school, she worked in the forest tapping rubber from the trees to help support her 10 brothers and sisters. She watched as the bulldozers came for her trees, clearing land for roads that would connect the rain forest with the rest of Brazil. It wasn't just the trees that were devastated — so were the lives of many Brazilians who depended on the rain forest. Together with Mendes, she fought deforestation at the grassroots level by mobilizing the unions of rubber tappers. She later moved into the political mainstream, becoming the first rubber tapper in Brazil's Senate in 1994. When populist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva came to power in 2002, Silva was the obvious choice for Environment Minister. The outsider was in.

Narbona Ruiz was never really an outsider; before moving into politics she taught economics at the University of Seville. But like Silva, Narbona Ruiz dared to take on powerful interests — in her case, the construction industry that has paved over much of the country's Mediterranean coastline. When she became Environment Minister in 2004, she pressed on with policies that have made Spain a leader in renewable energy. But Narbona Ruiz's truly heroic moment came when she implemented a plan to limit construction on the coastline in an attempt to return Spain's beaches to something more natural. Narbona Ruiz was lauded by environmentalists, but gained powerful business enemies; when a new Socialist cabinet was formed in 2008, she found herself out of a job.

Silva's fate was similar. After six acrimonious years as Brazil's Environment Minister, fighting a losing battle against industrial and political leaders eager to develop the Amazon at any cost, Silva resigned in protest in May. Greens mourned, but Silva isn't done fighting for the environment — she still serves in the Senate. Neither is Narbona Ruiz, who is now Spain's ambassador to the OECD. Both women were victims of the short-term vagaries of politics, but they remain lasting symbols of courage in the longer war for the environment. Though they couldn't have started life more differently, Silva and Narbona Ruiz have come to embrace the same role: embattled defenders of the earth.