Marina Silva: Brazil’s last great Environment Minister?

. Dec 02, 2019
Marina Silva: Brazil's last great Environment Minister? Marina Silva. Photo: Ettore Chiereguini

Marina Silva has become a much-maligned figure of Brazilian politics. Dismissed as a perennial presidential also-ran—having put herself forward for the country’s highest office three times and lost on every attempt—it is easy to forget the vast importance of her contribution to Brazil’s environmental policies, especially during her time as the Environment Minister (2003–2008) under the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Her story is incredible, perhaps going some way toward explaining why the international press has been so fond of her. Born in the rural northern state of Rio Branco, she worked with her father tapping rubber in the rainforest until she was 15, when she was diagnosed with hepatitis. Throughout her teenage years, the young Marina would suffer from a number of health issues picked up in the field, such as mercury poisoning and leishmaniasis.

At 16, she learned to read and write, and then embarked on completing a History degree at the University of Acre. In the mid-1980s, Ms. Silva joined the Workers’ Party and engaged in environmental activism work alongside her colleague and friend, Chico Mendes. In the same year Mr. Mendes was assassinated, she was elected councilor of Rio Branco, eventually making her way to the Senate in 1994—where she became the youngest senator in Brazil’s history up until that point. 

She spoke to The Brazilian Report about her legacy, Brazil’s environmental policy, and her frustrated attempts at becoming president. Read the highlights from the interview below.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

</p> <h4>When confronted with the consolidated deforestation numbers for 2018-2019, President Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the <a href="">increase in forest destruction</a> by claiming it was worse during your time as Environment Minister. And sure enough, 2004 was the second-highest level of deforestation since these measurements began. How did it get so high, and what did you do to combat it?</h4> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>I took over the Environment Ministry with deforestation on an upward curve since 2001. For you to have an idea, the increase from 2001 to 2002 was 19 percent; from 2002 to 2003, it was 17 percent. Then, from 2003 to 2004, when I began my administration, the increase went down to 9 percent. So you see that even though we hadn&#8217;t yet fully implemented our plan, even so, the increase already began slowing down.&nbsp;</p><p>So what&#8217;s the difference between me and the current administration? They also took over with an upward curve [in deforestation] dating back to 2012, but we put together a plan to reduce deforestation, to make it fall. And once our plan was put in place in June 2004, by 2005 we already saw a reduction of 31.7 percent. By the end of my administration, we had cut deforestation by 74.8 percent.</p><p>We created the Deter (a real-time system to monitor deforestation rates), we put companies involved in deforesting practices on a &#8220;gray list&#8221; so that they would not receive any state contracts, and we began holding the entire production chain liable.</p><p>We created 24 million hectares of conservation areas, we held 25 large-scale inspection operations, putting 625 people in jail. We closed thousands of illegal properties. Deforestation fell every year up until 2012, which saw the lowest level of deforestation since records began.</p></blockquote> <h4>And then what happened? Numbers have been rising ever since …</h4> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>Well, then [former President] Dilma [Rousseff] began putting the handbrake on the deforestation plan, taking it away from the Chief of Staff—which had given the plan a level of prestige and importance initially. Then we saw deforestation rise again.</p><p>But now, with Mr. Bolsonaro and [Environment Minister Ricardo] Salles, it&#8217;s different. They have taken a set of measures to <a href=""><em>increase</em></a> deforestation, not to curb it. We were able to reduce deforestation while the economy was growing three to four percent a year. They have been able to increase deforestation while the country is almost in recession.</p></blockquote> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/659590"></div><script src=""></script> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>We had three ministries working together, we never let our guard down to deforestation, there was no impunity. And what did Mr. Bolsonaro do? He came in saying he would do away with the &#8220;industry&#8221; of [environmental] fines, that he would do away with the Environment Ministry, he takes the Brazilian Forest Service and transfers it to the Agriculture Ministry, says he won&#8217;t demarcate any more indigenous lands, and that he will allow mining on those territories …</p><p>It&#8217;s worth noting, actually, that this is the first time Brazil has had an anti-environmentalist as its Environment minister. Even during the military dictatorship, there were environmentalists and geographers in charge of the department.&nbsp;</p><p>All of these signals, as well as the weakening of [the Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency] Ibama, this causes deforestation to increase. It&#8217;s easy to sail a ship when the current is in your favor, difficult is going against the current, which is what I did, lowering deforestation while the economy was growing.</p></blockquote> <h4>This reduction in deforestation, is that what you are most proud of from your time as Environment Minister?</h4> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>I got a lot of joy out of seeing that it was possible, with republican public policies, for a country to grow economically yet still avoid the destruction of its forests and biodiversity, and avoid the genocide of its indigenous peoples.</p><p>Of course, this wasn&#8217;t all down to me. I know that I held some level of political leadership dating back to when I was 17, but I had an excellent team. There were no political appointments there, only highly qualified professionals. When I took over the ministry, the first thing I asked President Lula was for freedom to appoint my team. And it was by working together with the scientific community, with civil society organizations, with social movements, and other ministries, that we were able to achieve these results. It was a demonstration that we could lead by example.</p><p>But now, this joy has turned into a profound sadness. It&#8217;s all going in the opposite direction, Brazil has lost its respect in the international community. Brazil is now a big part of the problem.</p></blockquote> <h4>You left your position as Environment Minister in 2008, and abandoned the Workers&#8217; Party in the process. Why did you make that choice?</h4> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>I left the government because of the deforestation plan. At the time, Ivo Cassol, the governor of Rondônia, was doing what the president is doing now, and questioning the veracity of our deforestation data. Unlike Ricardo Salles, we confronted him and proved that our information was correct. Even so, governors began putting pressure on President Lula, and the administration began suspending some of the measures to criminalize deforestation. These were important to reducing the destruction of the forest. I wasn&#8217;t going to hang around as a piece of decoration, so I left.</p><p>The government then appointed an environmentalist [Carlos Minc] to replace me, and continued our anti-deforestation plan. The continuation was a political move, as it was deemed important for it to continue, even in the hands of another minister.</p></blockquote> <h4>You&#8217;ve run for president three times now, never making it to a runoff. What went wrong? What was the biggest mistake made by your campaign?</h4> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p>In 2014, I ended up stepping into the place of the late Eduardo Campos [who died in an air tragedy during the campaign] and I almost managed to get elected. But, as Operation Car Wash hadn&#8217;t broken by that point, I was still under the impression that I was involved in a dispute in the same terms as 2010, which was an election of different projects of power, with large and powerful parties, incoherent alliances, but that was it. I was unable to notice that there would be electoral fraud and corruption. I think that was a mistake, I wasn&#8217;t in a normal democratic dispute, I was in a dispute with a criminal force, that funded its campaign with BRL 500 million declared, and another BRL 500 million undeclared.</p><p>There was a structure of fake news in place to discredit me, I think it was the first in the world, this fake news wave began here in Brazil [during the 2014 election].</p><p>Now, I think that from that moment on there was another mistake. We were unable to mold this socio-environmental platform into a believable project of power. I thought we would be able to marry the economic side, the social aspect of distributing wealth, along with sustainability. This was a mistake, an unintentional one, of course.

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Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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