“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.”
- Marina Silva, 2019
Maria Osmarina Marina Silva Vaz de Lima (1958- ) has played an important role in launching a popular dialogue around environmental issues among the Brazilian public, and in helping to spur a popular discourse of sustainability in politics there. As a major power in Southern and Latin America, and as the home of a great portion of the Amazon rainforest, Marina has long seen the potential for Brazil to act as a leader in both regional and global conservation efforts. Her life accomplishments demonstrate that public servants have been, and will continue to be, essential for the global fight against climate change.
Born to rubber tree tappers in Acre, one of the poorest states in the Amazon, Marina was immediately acquainted with both the complexity of the forest’s ecosystem, and with the difficulties of living in an area that the Brazilian government had largely left behind. Her childhood was massively challenging and traumatic. Not only did Silva herself suffer from repeated bouts of insect-spreading diseases such as malaria, but she was orphaned by the time she was sixteen.
Moving out of the forest after the deaths of her parents and siblings, Silva relocated to the capital of Acre, Rio Branco, with the intention of becoming a nun. However, an advertisement for a course on rural trade union leadership would impel Marina to change her plans. Through attending this course, Marina met influential activists - notably the famous conservationist Chico Mendes - who would teach her about the injustices that practices like rubber tapping reaped on both workers and the environment. Through this experience, Marina would be catapulted into both her university studies in history, and into her role as a co-founder of the rubber tapper’s Central Workers Union.
During the 1980s, Marina’s work with the Central Workers Union would center on the creation of extractive reserves. Extractive reserves are large areas of land that are owned by the federal government of Brazil, but which are used and administered by local indigenous populations. This land ownership arrangement lends indigneous peoples a greater deal of autonomy and sovereignty over their ancestral homelands by allowing them to legally fight back against rampant land speculation. As a result, wealthy individuals and corporations that were invested in the rainforest’s raw materials, became enraged. Marina would see what these privileged groups were capable of, as they organized the assassination of Mendes in 1988.
Throughout this decade, Marina was simultaneously focused on integrating herself into more formal political channels. She joined the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT) shortly after its founding in 1980, and this connection would help her to ascend to a senate seat in 1994. Despite being the youngest woman to ever occupy this position, Marina was extremely vocal about issues facing the Amazon, and about the fact that indigenous peoples were the first to feel the negative impacts of climate change and extractivism on the forest.
Demonstrating herself to be a brave advocate of the natural world, Marina was appointed to the Ministership of Environment in 2003, under the presidential administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. This allowed her to push for sweeping legislation to protect the Amazon in a way that no previous administration had done. Tellingly, it has been reported that, from 2004 to 2007, deforestation in Brazil decreased by over 50%. This achievement led the United Nations Environmental Programme to award Marina one of their prestigious Champions of the Earth awards in 2007.
Despite these successes, Marina was confronted with intra-party tensions that proved difficult to navigate throughout the early 2000s. Members of this leftist party were plagued by a paradox that many states face: how does a poor or developing country support itself and necessary social programs, without engaging in extractionist practices? If rubber tapping, logging, and so on, are the only means by which a country can develop its economy and give back to its population, how can the country also be committed to conservation policies? While Marina felt that the contradictory nature of these needs could be resolved through “green developmentalism,” others in the party argued that lifting citizens out of poverty had to be handled prior to enacting sweeping environmental protections. This split eventually led Marina to renounce her government position in 2008, and to leave the Workers’ Party altogether in 2009.
Shortly thereafter, Marina joined the Green Party. With the party’s backing, she continued to promote the idea that Brazil could develop through becoming a leader in environmental technologies and strategies, rather than through extractivism. This agenda was popular enough for her to run a viable campaign as the Green’s presidential candidate in 2010. Although she was not victorious, the campaign allowed her to bring further attention to the issues facing the Amazon and to start creating more environmentally-based alliances across the Brazilian political spectrum. For instance, Marina developed ties with the country’s popular corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement.
In recent years, Marina has remained very visible in Brazilian media. As the eyes of the international community turned toward the country during the unprecedented 2019 Amazonian fires, she was vocal in blaming the pro-corporate policies of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro.
To this day, Marina preaches a holistic vision of climate action. She explains that “violence, climate change and the loss of biodiversity are processes that feed one another. The violence that kills the indigenous happens because of economic activities that generate carbon emissions and loss of biodiversity.” Seeing these various forms of injustices as interdependent, she has been integral to warning the international community about the dangers that come with harming our planet.
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