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Sophia Rabliauskas and five others were awarded a $125,000 US prize honouring grassroots environmentalists. ((Eric Risberg/Associated Press))

Awoman from Manitoba who has been fightingto preserve one of the world's last stretchesof untouched boreal forestis one of six international activists to win a major environmental award, handed outSunday in San Francisco.

Sophia Rabliauskas of the 1,200-member Poplar River First Nation receivedthis year's Goldman Environmental Prize for trying to get permanent protection against development on landabout 600 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

The recognition "means a lot," Rabliauskas told CBC News. "Not only I, but the whole community … has worked tirelessly to protect the boreal forest."

She and her community persuaded the Manitoba government to protect810,000 hectaresof their traditional lands, at least until 2009. And they havealso developed a land management plan for the government, which requires approval, she said.

They're also working with other First Nations in Manitobaand Ontario to safeguard an even larger section of the forestas a UNESCO World Heritage site.

"The forest holds the knowledge, the wisdom, and we as people have to take that responsibility to look after it," Rabliauskas, 47,told CBC News.

The Ojibwayhave called Poplar Riverhome for thousands of years, but thepast century or so has been difficult; they'vesuffered poverty, addiction and abuse.

Rabliauskas andthe elders believe returning to the forest is the key to a healthier future. "To preserve the land means preserving our people," she said.

Canada's boreal region is home to more than 90 per cent of the country's remaining large virgin forestlands. It coversnearly six million square kilometres, comprising 58 per cent of Canada's land mass.

Broad green belt

The regionforms a broad green belt across the centre of the country, stretching from Newfoundland to the Yukon, andis one of the largest unfragmented eco-systems on the planet.

Most of Canada's forests north of the 49th parallel can be classified as boreal. Environmentalists fearCanada's boreal forests could be the next major target of the world's pulp and paper industry.

At present, less than 10 per cent of Canada's boreal region is strictly protected from development, and there is no consistent application of sustainable resource development practices, according tothe Ottawa-basedgroup the Canadian Boreal Initiative.

The winners of the environmental prize are selected from different regions of the world and each received $125,000 U.S. from the Goldman Foundation.

Other recipientsinclude Tsetsge Munkhbayar of Mongolia; Julio Palacios of Peru; Willie Corduff of Ireland; Hammerskjoeld Simwinga of Zambia and Orri Vigfusson of Iceland.

Only three other Canadians have won the award, including Matthew Coon Come, who led the Quebec Cree battle against hydro dam development in northern Quebec.