Marina Silva: leading Brazil’s green revolution

After a convincing third place in her first time standing for the Brazilian presidency, environmentalist Marina Silva offers hope for a sustainable future in Brazil

When Brazil’s green party, Partido Verde, confirmed Marina Silva’s presidential candidacy last May, a new phase in the country’s future and that of green movements everywhere was set in motion. It was an announcement that many had been hoping for and was celebrated by environmentalists across the globe.

Marina’s campaign focused on the importance of conserving Brazil’s rainforest, which as a massive carbon sink, is at the forefront in the worldwide effort to combat climate change, and because of its importance for indigenous populations. She would later describe her candidacy as part of, “the quiet, unstoppable, but inevitable green revolution.”

Marina was raised in the far western corner of the Brazilian Amazon, in the state of Acre. One of eleven children in her family, she grew up in a rubber tapping community at a time when her region saw its worst period of deforestation to date. It was the challenges her people experienced then and the destruction of the forest that she saw with her own eyes, that later inspired her to join forces with famous activist Chico Mendes, to lead peaceful blockades against logging companies and set up the country’s first workers union.

“She is a fighter,” says Nilson Mendes, cousin of Chico. “Like Chico she understands the needs of the environment – something other politicians fail to realise” Marina is such an inspiring figure to the sustainability and workers movements of the country, Nilson believes, because, “her story is our story and the story of the forest. With Marina, Brazil has an opportunity to do something different in politics and we must take it with both hands.”

Along with Chico Mendes, Marina was a founding member of Brazil’s workers party and served as environment minister in former president Lula da Silva’s cabinet between 2003 and 2008. Brazil is used to politicians promising tougher action on crimes against the environment, but Marina is among the first to take necessary action. One of her greatest political successes to date has been the creation of the Legal Action Plan for Control of Deforestation in the Amazon. This legislation caused the rate of deforestation in the Amazon to fall 57% in just three years. Her advocacy has since lead to unprecedented levels of forest protection, resulting in the designation of 340 thousand km² of legally preserved land.

However, Marina resigned from the worker’s party in 2008 over disagreements on energy infrastructure plans. The party moved forward with the planning for extensive developments in the Amazon basin, most notably approving numerous hydroelectric power plants, which environmental and human rights groups say will cause extensive flooding of huge areas of forest and severe depletion of biodiversity in the area while displacing many indigenous groups.

Before the first round of elections in 2010, Marina had positioned herself within the top three candidates. The other two were socialist and former Sao Paulo mayor, Jose Serra of Partido Popular Socialista, and favourite, Dilma Rouseff of Partido dos Trabalhadores, Brazil’s workers party, who emerged as the country’s first female president.

As first round election results flooded in, it quickly became apparent that the election was like no other in the country’s history. Marina amassed just below 20% of the overall vote and forced the election into a second round. Despite not making it further, as a green party candidate and with it being her first time in the running, she had made history.

Leaving office with an exceptionally high public approval rating of 87%, previous president, Lula da Silva, has been credited for Brazil’s booming economy, record employment levels and substantial growth in secondary and higher education attendance. One of his most favoured moves was the introduction of Bolsa Família, a type of family tax credit that improved the way of life of the poor.

With a tough act to follow, both Serra and Rouseff remained focused on building upon Lula’s legacy, whereas Marina had a strong commitment to offering something different. “My focus is not simply based on perpetuating the present,” she said at the time, “but on preparing for the future.”

It is this viewpoint that Marina continues to hold, believing that how Brazil chooses to handle its resources in coming years will determine the geopolitical future of the country for coming generations. “We do not simply have to choose between the environment and growth,” she claims, “instead the two are reconcilable.” She frequently advocates the need to change Brazil’s model of development and says other politicians do not have the vision necessary to risk public opinion and make the necessary changes.

But by focusing her message on Brazil’s future, Marina has attracted the attention of the younger generations. Douglas Gomes da Silva, a 23-year-old from Sao Paulo, believes Marina could be the answer his generation needs from politics. “She has ideas that today are not so represented in the mainstream,” Douglas says, “but they affect my future. Marina is still committed to a strong economy but she sees the need to balance an effective economy with an effective ecosystem.”

At a time when an increasing number of Brazilians are relocating to the cities in search of work, Marina believes that opening the door to renewables will open the door to job opportunities: “In a time where we must move away from fossil fuels, solar and wind power represent a viable solution, not only for the needs of the planet, but a solution that can uphold our surging economy.”

Although she was not successful at becoming president this time, Marina’s minor success has shaken the politics of Brazil. Her supporters note that it took Lula four attempts before he took office, with only a fraction of a percentage of the public vote at his first attempt. Marina will continue her environmental work until her next chance at convincing the electorate of a more sustainable future.

Alberto Junior of WWF in Brazil, remains convinced that she is the country’s much needed future leader. “The impact of her campaign and success has the potential to outlast this next presidential term and she will continue to retain what each politician longs for: the devotion of the younger generations.”