Marina Silva will never forget the day the bulldozers rolled up on her family’s doorstep. It was the beginning of the 1970s and in the isolated Amazon community of Bagaco, where she was born, Silva, then about 12, looked on curiously as work began on a major highway to link the Brazilian rainforest with the rest of the country. Shortly afterwards, her relatives began to die. First two younger sisters, then her uncle and finally her cousin: all victims of a malaria epidemic imported by the road builders.
“I don’t know if I was conscious that the road was bringing all that, but it made me write on my own flesh the consequences of what it meant to mess around with nature without giving the slightest attention to the need to look after it,” she remembers.
Fast-forward to January 2003. Following the historic election of Brazil’s first working-class president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Silva was named environment minister, thrusting this former rubber tapper on to the front line of Brazil’s battle against deforestation — and of the fight against climate change.
On May 13, however, the fairytale came to an abrupt end. After just over five years as environment minister, Silva resigned. In her short resignation letter, she cited “the growing resistance found by our team in important sectors of the government and society.”
“It’s time to start praying [for the rainforest],” said Sergio Leitao, director of public policy for Greenpeace in Brazil, claiming the government had “now made it clear that the idea of development at any cost is what will win out.”
A week after her resignation, a weary-looking Silva, 50, is unable to pinpoint a single cause for her decision. She is officially between jobs (she will return to her seat in the senate at the end of the month), but in her apartment in Brasilia, surrounded by half a dozen giant, multicolored orchids sent by well-wishers, she looks as busy as ever. She is careful not to name names but leaves little doubt as to why she abandoned the government of Lula, a longtime friend and ally from Brazil’s Workers Party.
“I realized that I was no longer in a position to stabilize what had already been achieved and to carry on expanding these achievements,” she says. Seven days after resigning, she has still not seen the president, whom she has known for 30 years.
Silva’s resignation is the story of a conflict between two Brazils. In one corner are the farmers, businessmen and ordinary Brazilians who see the country’s natural resources as a route to economic success. In the other are the environmental activists, indigenous groups and concerned spectators who believe that Brazil’s march to economic greatness will mean the continued devastation of its rainforest. Silva attempted to tread a path between the two, trumpeting sustainable development. This, she said, would provide better living conditions for the 25 million people in the Amazon region without obliterating the rainforest.
But walking this tightrope was never going to be simple, even for the notoriously resilient Silva, who frequently cites Nelson Mandela as one of her inspirations.
Maria Osmarina da Silva was born in 1958 in a community of rubber tappers called Seringal Bagaco, deep in the western state of Acre. The nickname Marina stuck immediately. One of 11 children (three later died), she was orphaned at 16 and moved to the state capital, where she received a Catholic education and worked as a household maid.