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Marina Silva, an intrepid activist to save the Brazilian rainforest

Marina Silva, an intrepid activist to save the Brazilian rainforest

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Marina Silva hails from such a remote part of Brazil that even Brazilians say it’s not real. O Acre não existe – Acre does not exist – is the bon mot, a playful allusion to the isolation of the muggy Amazon state, which quite a few have struggled to find on a map.

But it was this densely forested part of Brazil clinging to the nation’s northwestern border that made Marina (as she’s commonly known) an environmentalist. It was here that her lifelong commitment to green began, culminating in her appointment to one of the most consequential jobs in the world.

This week, the 64-year-old daughter of impoverished rubber tappers was sworn in for another term as Brazil’s environment minister under the new leftist government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. During her first term from 2003 to 2008, Marina was celebrated for her unwavering dedication to forest communities and her almost fanatical focus on reducing deforestation, even though her methods angered powerful agricultural interests. Today she faces the same mission, but with much greater urgency.

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has increased significantly in recent years. It is estimated that an area the size of 3,000 football fields is razed to the ground every day, dramatically undermining the rainforest’s role as a carbon sink for global emissions. Parts of the biome – which spans nine Latin American nations – are now emitting more carbon than they absorb.

“Things have changed and the picture is much worse than it was in 2003,” Marina told the FT last year. “The [previous] The Bolsonaro government has not only been weakened [environment] Management, not only has it cut budgets, it has also strengthened sectors that are harmful to indigenous people and given a great deal of economic power to the most backward elements in agribusiness.”

Growing up in rural Acre, Marina witnessed firsthand the devastation that comes with deforestation. When a crew of bulldozers arrived at age 14 to build a highway near her hamlet, they brought with them an epidemic of measles and malaria. Soon two of her younger sisters were dead. Then a cousin and an uncle. Her mother died months later.

“I know what it’s like to starve. I had to share an egg with seven other siblings, with some flour, salt and chopped onions. I remember asking my mom and dad, ‘Don’t you want to eat?’ And my mother replied: “We are not hungry”. And a child believed that,” she recalls.

After contracting hepatitis, the adolescent Marina moved to the state capital, Rio Branco, where nuns taught her to read and write. She worked as a maid, funded her education, and studied history at a local university. There she met Chico Mendes, an environmentalist and rubber tapper who was later murdered by ranchers, and began her career as a green activist.

Long before protecting the Amazon became a platform that could reliably win votes, Marina parried her passion for the environment in politics, winning local elections and becoming the then youngest-ever federal senator at 36. When Lula formed his first government there in 2003, there was only one choice for the environment secretary.

“The fight against deforestation is something very personal for Marina. She is a religious person and being a minister and implementing a strong environmental policy is more than a job for her, it is a vocation,” said Raoni Rajão of the Federal University of Minas Gerais.

Short and slight, Marina appears almost frail after a lifetime of rainforest diseases, including five bouts of malaria, three of hepatitis, one of leishmaniasis, and a dose of mercury contamination. But her determination wins out as soon as she speaks. “She gets huge in a fight. She becomes huge when she walks into a room and speaks her mind and doesn’t let powerful men intimidate her,” said Human Rights Watch’s Maria Laura Canineu.

Her first term as minister was widely hailed as an achievement, as Marina reduced deforestation in the Amazon by up to 70 percent. Her administrative and financial initiatives included the new management of public forests, the establishment of a forest service and a biodiversity institute, and several funds for the conservation of the Amazon.

However, her unyielding nature offended agricultural and mining interests, who complained that she was impeding development by refusing to issue environmental licenses. Tensions with Lula grew. While Marina called deforestation a “cancer,” the President referred to it as “a knot that may or may not be malignant.”

Frustrated, she left the government in 2008 before running for the presidency three times without success. Now she’s back. She joined Lula’s campaign last year on the condition that he tighten his environmental pledges. Pledges to achieve “net-zero deforestation” – meaning that forest losses could be offset by other measures – are now simply “zero deforestation”.

Despite Lula’s unwavering support, Marina faces an enormous challenge. The myriad criminal enterprises of the Amazon have become more entrenched, savvy, and technologically advanced. It also takes over an enforcement apparatus that has been undermined by budget cuts.

But her determination remains relentless. “The destruction of the Amazon is destroying the planet,” she once said, “and if I don’t care because I need to make a profit on the next soybean harvest or timber shipment, I’ve broken the social bond. That’s what this is about.”

bryan.harris@ft.com

michael.pooler@ft.com

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