Since the 1970s, Brazil has been known as a hot spot for environmental degradation. Between government policies that led to the massive destruction of its Amazonian forests; improper mining techniques that have tainted water supplies; and high emissions in its main cities, the largest country in South America has long been a major concern for environmental activists everywhere.
Under the influence of a woman named Marina Silva, all that has changed. As Brazil’s environment minister from 2003 to 2008, the country once thought to be among the worst environmental offenders in the world turned a corner.
Today Brazil is a country that powers its cars with energy-saving ethanol, relies heavily on hydroelectric- and wind-produced energy, and legislates to protect the land rights of indigenous communities. In 2009, it soared to second place in National Geographic’s Greendex survey, which ranks countries by environmentally sustainable consumption patterns.
But Brazil’s environmental gains may not be long-lasting. Experts predict that by 2014 Brazil will be the fifth-largest economy in the world, ahead of France and Britain. It’s these economic ambitions that threaten the country’s environmental footprint. In 2008, Marina Silva stepped down from her post at the Ministry of the Environment to return to her previous position in the Senate, citing a “growing resistance” within the Brazilian government to protecting environmental interests as her reasoning. When Silva announced her decision, there was a collective cry of worry from Brazilian environmental supporters and the international community alike. Sergio Leitao, the director of public policy for Greenpeace in Brazil, even said, “It’s time to start praying.”
There are alarming signs that he may be right.
In February, President Lula da Silva approved a controversial hydroelectric dam in the heart of the Amazon rainforest that will flood nearly 200 square miles of land and displace an estimated 30,000 indigenous residents. And in late 2009, Brazil discovered unprecedented oil reserves off its coast that it plans to privatize and bring ashore to finance its economic and social development—a move that threatens to lessen its reliance on renewable energies and increase greenhouse gas emissions.
Now, as Marina Silva watches Brazil’s environmental excellence wane, she is hoping to protect the forests she grew up in from the highest seat of power. She’s running for president in this year’s October elections; if she wins, she’ll not only be Brazil’s first woman president, she’ll also be the country’s first Afro-Brazilian leader. And she just may be the country’s greatest hope for maintaining its environmental record.
Following the River Toward Justice
Marina Silva in her own words.
As told to Natalie Hoare
I was born in the state of Acre, in the western part of the Amazon. My parents were rubber tappers, but my mother passed away when I was 14 after giving birth to 11 children. We were completely isolated, as rubber tappers are scattered throughout the forest. Our nearest neighbor was around two hours away and it took two and a half days to get to the state capital following the river. Today there’s a road, but back then, we had to go the long way around, on foot.
At 15, I was taken ill with hepatitis, and at that time, there were no doctors or healthcare in the forest. I didn’t know how to read or write until I left home at 16 and a half. I asked my dad if I could go to the city to get proper treatment and to study, because at that time, I had a dream—I wanted to be a nun—but you can’t be a nun unless you’re literate.
In September 1975, I went to the city to find a doctor, a school, and a church. I stayed at a cousin’s home and started a literacy program for adults. I had already learnt mathematics with my father in the rubber plantations because when we sold the latex on behalf of all of the owners, we had to discount 17% of the weight to account for the moisture content. Because most people were illiterate, they used to take 30% or even 40% off. My father taught me how to work it out so that I could do it accurately and not be ripped off.
It took me about 15 days to learn to read. The teachers were amazed. Within the next four years, I managed to complete the equivalent of primary and secondary schools, and by 1979, I was ready to go to university. I had also spent two years and eight months in a nunnery. But then I met Chico Mendes, a rubber tapper turned environmental activist, and discovered liberation theology [a school of thought in Christianity that aims to bring justice to the poor and oppressed], and saw what was happening to my people. I had a strong desire to participate in the struggle for the ideals that they were putting forward and decided to leave the nunnery.
My entrance into politics wasn’t a snap decision. After graduating in 1984 from the Federal University of Acre with a teaching degree in history, I began to teach and get more involved in politics: lobbying with Mendes on behalf of grassroots communities and teachers unions; fighting for water, electricity, and sewage treatment in remote communities; and leading peaceful demonstrations with Mendes to warn against deforestation and the expulsion of forest communities from their traditional locations.
In December 1988, Mendes was killed. He had led a successful campaign to prevent an area of forest earmarked for protection from being turned over to a cattle ranch. This made the rancher furious, and a few days later, he sent his son to murder Mendes. Mendes was a very close personal friend and had a big influence on my political thinking.
I served as environment minister from 2003 until May 2008. When I started the job, the rate of deforestation was growing very quickly, and I knew that there was no way of reversing that process without involving the rest of the government, so we created a cross-ministry initiative, the Amazon Region Protected Areas program, which also involved several international conservation organizations.
By cooperating, we succeeded in reducing deforestation over three consecutive years, reaching a 57% reduction. And within the environment ministry, we created 24 million hectares of protected areas, designated 10 million hectares of land for indigenous populations, seized about 30,000 illegal properties and around one million cubic meters of illegally logged wood, and arrested 700 environmental criminals—illegal loggers and so on—125 of whom were actually employees of environmental bodies.
I realized I could no longer create the right political conditions to sustain the initiatives at the same sort of pace, so I asked to resign. It was a very difficult decision but I could not stay if the measures I had set up would be removed.
I believe that all the world’s leaders are facing a great challenge that will continue for centuries, whether we want it to or not: how to develop with protection and how to protect development. In the case of Brazil, our greatest challenge is to protect the forest, because its destruction is responsible for three quarters of carbon dioxide emissions in Brazil. In the case of developed countries, the challenge is how to change the energy matrix and decarbonize their economies.
To be effective, you must be a political environmentalist and not a politician who is also an environmentalist. In the environment ministry, you cannot make decisions thinking only about the upcoming elections and gaining popularity—you have to think about future generations.
In Brazil, everyone has equal potential. What they lack is opportunities. In my case, the opportunity was education.
—This piece was produced in collaboration with Geographical Magazine.