She Grew up in the Amazon, and Now She’s Fighting For Its Life

Brazilian politician Marina Silva talks with Earthjustice about the importance of addressing climate change in the wake of the 2019 Amazon rainforest wildfires.

Brazilian politician Marina Silva has called for her country to move rapidly toward clean energy.
Brazilian politician Marina Silva has called for her country to move rapidly toward clean energy. (Molly Crabapple for Earthjustice)

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The Amazon rainforest is one of our planet’s most important defenses against the climate crisis. Now it has a defender of its own in Brazil’s national government: Marina Silva, a leader of deforestation protests who is the country’s new environmental minister.

Record-breaking fires in the Amazon in 2019 reduced over 17 million acres of the rainforest to ashes. As the so-called “lungs of the world” burned, Silva emerged as the main dissenting voice of her country’s lax environmental policies.

Silva won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 1996 for helping to organize rubber tappers, who make their living by harvesting latex from trees, to rally against deforestation. She previously served as minister of the environment in the Brazilian federal government between 2003 and 2008, and has continued to champion environmental justice in Brazil since then.

In an interview with Earthjustice in 2020, Silva talked about the role of youth in mitigating the climate crisis, how to face deniers’ positions in the face of global warming, and why Brazil needs a total transition to clean energy.

You spent your childhood producing rubber, hunting, and fishing to help support your family. How has this experience shaped the way you see Brazil and the world today?

I extracted latex with my father, I worked as a farmer with my mother, and I did all of that since I was 6. We had everything, from materials to build our houses to chestnut and rubber crops. That experience made me develop a feeling of respect for the forests because it represents our economy, our identity, and it is a place where we had fun.

I also noticed the dynamics between the cities and the forest. In the city, the information travels faster, whereas people in the rainforest have a lot of time to process information, and their surrounding places are two hours away from one another. Living in those two worlds helps me to see my country broadly. The Brazil of the forests is what sustains an entire country. Brazil is an agricultural power because it is a rainforest power. This country has learned to handle differences between the city and the forest in spite of prejudice against Indians, Afro-Brazilians, and other people who live different lifestyles.

How would you deal with Amazon’s fires in a way that ensures justice for those most affected?

When I was minister of the environment, we faced the problem of deforestation and wildfires in a structural way, instead of handling it superficially. We had a blueprint that contained three guidelines. First, combat deforestation and illegal practices. Second, end illegal land occupation and fight crime. Third, establish territorial planning to help demarcate indigenous territories and create conservation units.

With these guidelines, we managed to reduce deforestation by two-thirds within a 10-year span. As the economy grows, it is possible to control deforestation and work hard so that there is no sense of impunity for those who exert violence against other local communities whose properties and public lands are taken away. During my management, we created 24 million hectares of conservation and doubled the extractive reserves for traditional populations. Those are ways of ensuring social justice with environmental protection.

What is Brazil’s path toward clean energy, especially when it relies heavily on oil and meat exports?

Brazil has great potential to produce wind, biomass, and solar energy. Brazil is a country that could combine sustainable hydropower with clean renewable sources. Nevertheless, being a country that has large oil extractions places us in a bind. Now, science is saying that the urgency of the environmental crisis demands the use of development of clean sources.

It is important to replace fossil fuel energy, not only in Brazil but throughout the entire world. In the case of Brazil, we have a great advantage because we have 45 percent clean energy and we have the potential to be a low-carbon economy. The problem here is that the government of President Jair Bolsonaro does not encourage the generation of clean energy, and it does not encourage low-carbon agriculture.

Can you talk about the meaning of being the first rubber tapper ever elected to the Brazilian Senate?

It means a great compromise with my origins and the stories of traditional communities such as indigenous people, rubber tappers, and anglers, among others. These populations are treated unfairly because they are victims of violence, prejudice and abandonment by public policy. I was born in a community that had more than 300 families and each had up to 10 children. Of all those minors, I was the only person who could attend university. Therefore, for me, it is a degree of responsibility and struggle so that those opportunities are not exceptions but rules for all Brazilians.

We need a historical commitment to end injustice, prejudice and violence, as well as to ensure territories and identities to these communities. They can also provide great ideas to confront the climate crisis problem.

Young people have taken an important role in raising awareness about climate change. Have you worked with young Brazilians to raise awareness among the population?

When I was minister of the environment, we prioritized our agenda around young people. We held conferences as part of a process within both public and private schools, based on the material produced with a suitable pedagogy for children and adolescents ages 10 to 15, and those conferences were held every two years throughout the country. We involved more than 11 million teenagers for five and a half years. I am currently not holding any public office, but I have prioritized the debate and dialogue with the youth in schools and universities. At that time, we worked on issues such as water resources and climate change. That generated a network committed to protecting the environment.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro continues to deny the effects of climate change and deems the efforts a “commercial game.” Are you hoping that environmental policy will somehow improve in your country?

There is an increasing need to tackle the environmental crisis. Different U.S.-based research centers and global economic forums support studies on climate change and other environmental risks the planet is experiencing. However, stances from [U.S. President Donald] Trump, Bolsonaro and other climate deniers are disrupting the progress of the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement. But there is a part of society, especially business and science, that wants to achieve something despite Bolsonaro’s views.

After the Amazon rainforest fires, you said, “We have to get over brinksmanship, because caring for the environment has no political ideology.” How can we overcome it?

We have a big challenge because figures like Trump and Bolsonaro do not care about facts and, unfortunately, that is a serious problem. The only way to deal with that is for people to be aware of their responsibility as voters. They must assume a political role to refrain those people from leading the destiny of the planet. That has a big burden. At the same time, we need to reduce fossil consumption, and the countries that have a stake in the Amazon rainforest must protect it. Unfortunately, a group of unscrupulous people is sacrificing these resources in order to earn more profits and remain in power.

Can you tell us something Americans do not know about Brazil that they should?

Even though we have different cultures and nationalities, and have sovereignty over our territories, we are all human beings and can relate to each other while making different decisions. Some people think that Brazil does not have a great diversity, but we are a people with political, cultural, and social unity. Brazil is home to more than 200 ethnic groups that speak more than 120 languages, and that is important to emphasize.

Originally published on February 18, 2020. Updated to reflect the news of Silva's appointment as environmental minister.

Based in New York, Robert is the Public Affairs and Communications strategist for Latino Engagement and Outreach. He has more than a decade of experience working for mainstream media outlets, U.S. Hispanic and Latino news channels, and think tanks.