Marina Silva, Guardian of the Amazon Rainforest

Behind her sober appearance and her discreet personality, hides a 65-year-old woman with a dazzling trajectory. From illiteracy to militancy, to the Ministry of the Environment, Marina Silva has become an emblematic figure of the environmental struggle in Brazil.

After four devastating years for the Amazon under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, the new Minister of the Environment declared on Friday January 24 that the environmental situation in her country was “much worse” than she imagined. Proof, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon set a record for a month of February. Renowned for her courage and tenacity, Marina Silva has given herself a mission: to save the largest tropical forest in the world.

>> To read also: Deforestation, drought … The Amazon close to “an irreversible tipping point”

From misery to the political scene

Born in 1958 in a remote village inAmazon from the state of Acre (bordering Peru and Bolivia), Marina Osmarina da Silva grew up in a poor family of eleven children, eight of whom survived poverty and malaria. From the age of 10, she worked alongside her father in the rubber tree farms. Her destiny changes when she falls seriously ill at 16 years old. She is sent to Rio Branco, the capital of Acre, to be treated in a Catholic convent. It was during this time that she learned to read and write. If religious life did not convince the young girl, she discovered liberation theology, a left-wing Catholic movement famous for its fight against poverty and human rights violations.

Ten years later, she obtained her first university degree, after having worked as a cleaning lady to pay for her studies. In 1985, she participated in the creation of the first union of state workers and joined the Workers’ Party of the famous Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. She cut her teeth in politics alongside the activist and defender of the Amazon rainforest Chico Mendes. At 36, she becomes the youngest federal senator in the country’s history.

In 2003, President Lula da Silva appointed her Minister of the Environment. His presence in government is bringing about a change in the politics surrounding the Amazon. There deforestation, then considered necessary for the economic development of the country, is gradually perceived as an activity that destroys resources. But the good agreement with the president does not last. In 2008, the environmentalist left her mentor, accusing him of not supporting her enough in her fight. She joined the Green Party in 2009 and ran for president the following year. This is the surprise of the election: despite very limited means and weak media coverage, it attracts nearly 20 % of votes – or 19 million voters.

The Brazilian Obama

After failing to create her own party, she became socialist Eduardo Campos’ running mate for the 2014 presidential election. In August, after his death in a plane crash, she was nominated as a candidate in his place. Black woman from a poor background, Marina Silva disrupts the electoral campaign. Embodying change, it wants to break with the traditional parties that have ruled the country for 20 years. In the voting intentions, the environmental defender is neck and neck with President Dilma Roussef who is running for a second term. “I don’t want Dilma’s defeat, I don’t want Aécio’s defeat [Neves, candidat social-démocrate, NDLR]“, declared Marina Silva during a fiery speech in front of her supporters, a few days before the first round. “What I want is victory for Brazil!”

Dilma Rousseff and Marina Silva during a televised presidential debate in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday October 2, 2014. © Felipe Dana, AP

Some want to see Marina Silva as the “new Lula”. others, “an Obama from Brazil“. If she wins the hearts of many voters, Marina Silva faces several contradictions. Having joined the ranks of evangelical Protestants, some fear the interference of religion in her politics. This mother of four children is socially conservative refusing, for example, the legalization of drugs, homosexual marriage and abortion, while stating that he was in favor of a referendum on the latter subject. Positions that are too vague according to his opponents. “What is my opponent’s problem?” , asks Dilma Rousseff in an interview. “I never know what she’s thinking! Because she’s thinking something one day and something else the next.” The socialist does not reach the second round, winning 21 % voicesbehind Dilma Rousseff and Aécio Neves.

Return to government 15 years later

Marina Silva is again a presidential candidate in 2018, where she achieves her worst score, obtaining 1% of the vote. After four years of populist presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, deforestation increases by 75%. A month before the presidential election of 2022 and faced with the threat of the ex-president not to recognize the result of the ballot box, Marina Silva puts her dispute with Lula aside. In exchange for her support, she obtains a series of promises in the event of victory, such as the creation of a national climate security authority. After a tight ballot, Lula is narrowly elected. Marina Silva returns to the Ministry of the Environment, 15 years after her resignation.

Fifteen years after resigning from Lula’s government, Marina Silva shows him her support for the presidential election of 2022. © Andre Penner, AP

The stakes are high for the woman politician: the rise of intensive agriculture, mining, oil extraction… The Amazon needs to be healed after years of abuse. His strategy: seek support from the international community. And Marina Silva is not waiting. A little over a month after her appointment, she indulges in a frank embrace with French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna visits Brazil. The Brazilian minister has something to smile about: her French counterpart has just told her that Paris and the European Union are planning to contribute to the Amazon Fund (O Fundo Amazônia). Administered by Brazil and supported mainly by Norway and Germany, this fund was reactivated by Marina Silva the day she took office, after having been frozen since 2019 under Jair Bolsonaro.

>> To read also: After the defeat of Jair Bolsonaro, a page will turn for the Amazon forest

During this meeting, Marina Silva promises that the resources contribute to minimizing the tragedy experienced by the Yanomami. This indigenous community suffers from malnutrition and infectious diseases due to the increase in illegal gold mining activities on their land. Marina Silva signs in the World of February 18 a platform to call for international solidarity. “Seeing children of the Yanomami people in a situation of famine is the demonstration that this is a premeditated genocide”, she proclaims alongside a collective of political and intellectual personalities. At 65, nothing seems to stop Marina Silva from saving her native region.

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