Born in the Brazilian Amazon, Marina Silva spent her childhood making rubber, hunting and fishing to help her father support their large family. At 16 illness brought her to the city. Although she had been illiterate, she soon earned a university degree. She went on to found the independent trade union movement with rubber tapper leader Chico Mendes in the state of Acre.
In the early 1980s Silva became, with Mendes, one of the architects of the empates - peaceful demonstrations by forest-dwelling rubber tappers against wanton deforestation and the expulsion of forest communities from their traditional holdings. During this time Acre was experiencing a dramatic increase in deforestation as well as the invasion of indigenous lands and areas occupied by rubber tappers.
The major mobilizing tactic of the rubber tapping unions, the empates became famous as an example of grassroots resistance to wholesale environmental destruction. Silva led and participated in dozens of these demonstrations which resulted in the protection of both thousands of hectares of tropical forest and the livelihoods of hundreds of rubber tapping families. This movement also led to the idea of establishing sustainable extractive reserves in the rainforest. Undaunted by Mendes' assassination in 1988, Silva continued to push for their creation.
Today Acre's sustainable extractive reserves encompass two million hectares of forest managed by the traditional communities that inhabit them.
Severe health problems, including contamination with heavy metals, have caused Silva to be hospitalized for long periods of time. Fragile health has not stopped her. In 1994 she was the first rubber tapper ever elected to Brazil's federal senate. As a native Amazonian and a populist senator, Silva has built support for environmental protection of the reserves as well as for social justice and sustainable development in the Amazon region.