Marina Silva, the Brazilian former Minister for the Environment for Lula’s government, environmental activist and Goldman Prize winner, is raising her voice to challenge the policies of the current Brazilian government that have led to an 83% increase in forest fires in the Amazon since last year.
Silva, who was elected as a senator in 1994 for the state of Acre, already had a long history of environmental activism when she entered into the political sphere. She was born into a humble family who were descendants of African slaves and Portuguese immigrants near the city of Rio Branco on the border between Brazil and Bolivia.
Her family faced many difficulties, such as the death of Silva’s mother when she was only 14 years old, and the subsequent deaths of her two younger brothers. When Silva was 16 years old, she became seriously ill with hepatitis and she left her home for the city of Rio Branco where she would be treated and where she would later also learn to read and write, in preparation for becoming a nun.
At the age of 17, she saw a poster in her local church advertising courses in rural trade union leadership, she signed up, and it was there that she met the famous environmental activist and ecologist, Chico Mendes, who would change her life forever.
From then on, she abandoned her ambitions to become a nun and became an advocate for the rainforest, working alongside Mendes until he was murdered in 1988 by landowners who saw his activism as a threat to their economic activity.
Now, Silva advocates against the environmental policies of Bolsonaro’s government in Brazil, in Latin America and around the world. Her voice is increasingly relevant given the current forest fires in the Amazon that have been devastating the region over the past two weeks: “the fires in the Amazon are a crime against humanity” says Silva, “the Brazilian government is undoing all the environmental policies that previously existed”.
When she was the Minister for the Environment during Lula’s government, she managed to reduce deforestation by 80% in her own words, so she’s well aware of the important role that public policies play in dealing with climate change and preserving the Amazon rainforest.
“When I became Minister for the Environment in 2013, deforestation was very common, so we created a Plan for Deforestation Prevention in the Amazon region”. The idea, she explains, was to bring together different ministries to create a comprehensive plan of action that dealt with the issue quickly and effectively.
Caring for the environment has no political ideology. It’s not left-wing nor is it right-wing
“We joined together the Ministry of Agricultural Development, with the Ministry of Technology and the Ministry of Defence to create a deforestation detection system in real time”. She also toughened punishments for those who were illegally deforesting, and demarcated territories that were at risk. “We created 24 millions of hectares of conservation areas, we applied 4 billion in fines, and we sent lots of illegal loggers to prison”. Due to these actions, Silva drastically reduced deforestation rates whilst she was Minister for the Environment.
Brazil, like many other Latin American countries, has been deeply divided and politically polarised between the left and right, and Silva is also critical of how these political forces have co-opted environmental issues in their political agendas, adding confusion and fostering disengagement.
“Some of the more traditional sectors of the left in Brazil, in this context of polarisation, began to create a discourse that defending the environment was exclusively a left-wing issue”, and consequently, many people didn’t want to become involved. “But we have to overcome this discourse, because caring for the environment has no political ideology. It’s not left-wing nor is it right-wing".
Many challenges lie ahead in Brazil to defend the rainforest and create a culture of political mobilisation among citizens, given that the left has been discredited by several corruption scandals, and the right has overtly authoritarian tendencies. However, people must take to the streets to defend the Amazon rainforest if they really want things to change.
The last point that Silva emphasises: “Now more than ever we need sustainable development, and not the kind of development that we’re seeing right now. That means, a country that is environmentally sustainable, politically democratic, and socially developed”.
If we can’t combat this overall confusion and the crisis of values we’re currently suffering from in Latin America, this sustainable development will become increasingly difficult to achieve.