Daughter of the Amazon
As Brazil threatens to reverse years of environmental gains in favor of economic growth, presidential candidate Marina Silva promises to put the Earth back on the agenda.
Since the 1970s, Brazil has been known as a hot spot for environmental degradation. Between government policies that led to the massive destruction of its Amazonian forests; improper mining techniques that have tainted water supplies; and high emissions in its main cities, the largest country in South America has long been a major concern for environmental activists everywhere.
Under the influence of a woman named Marina Silva, all that has changed. As Brazil’s environment minister from 2003 to 2008, the country once thought to be among the worst environmental offenders in the world turned a corner.
Today Brazil is a country that powers its cars with energy-saving ethanol, relies heavily on hydroelectric- and wind-produced energy, and legislates to protect the land rights of indigenous communities. In 2009, it soared to second place in National Geographic’s Greendex survey, which ranks countries by environmentally sustainable consumption patterns.
But Brazil’s environmental gains may not be long-lasting. Experts predict that by 2014 Brazil will be the fifth-largest economy in the world, ahead of France and Britain. It’s these economic ambitions that threaten the country’s environmental footprint. In 2008, Marina Silva stepped down from her post at the Ministry of the Environment to return to her previous position in the Senate, citing a “growing resistance” within the Brazilian government to protecting environmental interests as her reasoning. When Silva announced her decision, there was a collective cry of worry from Brazilian environmental supporters and the international community alike. Sergio Leitao, the director of public policy for Greenpeace in Brazil, even said, “It’s time to start praying.”
There are alarming signs that he may be right.
In February, President Lula da Silva approved a controversial hydroelectric dam in the heart of the Amazon rainforest that will flood nearly 200 square miles of land and displace an estimated 30,000 indigenous residents. And in late 2009, Brazil discovered unprecedented oil reserves off its coast that it plans to privatize and bring ashore to finance its economic and social development—a move that threatens to lessen its reliance on renewable energies and increase greenhouse gas emissions.
Now, as Marina Silva watches Brazil’s environmental excellence wane, she is hoping to protect the forests she grew up in from the highest seat of power. She’s running for president in this year’s October elections; if she wins, she’ll not only be Brazil’s first woman president, she’ll also be the country’s first Afro-Brazilian leader. And she just may be the country’s greatest hope for maintaining its environmental record. . . .