After perhaps one of the most significant political campaigns that would decide the fate of the Amazon rainforest and, therefore, the entire stability of the Earth’s climate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was sworn in on January 1st, 2023, as Brazil’s President. He defeated the incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, who wanted to pull the country out of the Paris Climate Agreement, dismantle the environment ministry, and reduce the extent of protected areas.
Now, with Lula’s cabinet in place, they intend to put action to their words of defending and restoring the ecosystem known as “the lungs of the planet.” Leading this mission as the new Minister of the Environment and Climate Change is Marina Silva. An icon of environmentalism worldwide, she has dedicated her life to fighting deforestation and the climate crisis.
Humble roots growing up on a rubber plantation
Born Maria Osmarina da Silva in a small village on the western edge of Brazil, she was one of eleven children. Her community worked on a Bagaço rubber tree plantation as rubber tappers, harvesting latex by slicing grooves into the tree’s bark.
Growing up so close to the rainforest, Marina — as she is known globally — witnessed the devastation of deforestation firsthand. When construction began on a new highway near her village, the bulldozing crew brought an epidemic of diseases.
She survived five malaria cases, metal poisoning, and bouts of hepatitis. However, she lost her two younger sisters, uncle, cousin, and eventually her mother. Orphaned at age 16, Marina moved to the city of Rio Branco to undergo hepatitis treatment and pursue her studies.
Empowered by education became an activist
Taken in by nuns, she received her education at the covenant, becoming the first person in her family to learn to read and write. After, Marina began work as a maid, funding her education.
She received her undergraduate degree in history from the Federal University of Acre. Empowered with her studies, Marina became politically active, advocating for people and nature.
Standing up for the rainforest and its people
Working with Francisco Alves Mendes Filho, better known as Chico Mendes, Marina led demonstrations against deforestation and the removal of Indigenous and forest communities from their homelands.
They stood up for local rubber tappers, creating Acre’s first workers’ union in 1984, the Unified Workers’ Central of Acre.
Mendes was a rubber tapper, trade union leader, and environmentalist. He fought to preserve the Amazon and for the human rights of Brazilian agricultural laborers and Indigenous Peoples. In December 1988, he was assassinated by a rancher.
Facing danger as an environmentalist
Violence against environmental activists continues today worldwide. Global Witness reports that more than 1,700 people have been killed in the past decade while trying to prevent mining, oil drilling, or logging on their lands. Brazil and Colombia have seen the highest number of deaths.
Despite the dangers, Marina forged ahead. In 1988, she was elected as councilor of Rio Branco and, six years later, became the first rubber tapper ever elected to the Federal Senate.
Success protecting nature in office
As a senator for the state of Acre, Marina built support for the environmental protection of the reserves and sustainable development in the Amazon region. Her work caught the attention of Lula as he ran for president for the first time.
In January 2003, Marina Silva was appointed Environment Minister. Her administration established new management of public forests, created a forest service and a biodiversity institute, and several funds for nature, including the largest international effort to preserve the rainforest, the Amazon Fund.
Under her leadership, deforestation decreased by 59% from 2004 to 2007.
Unyielding resolve and worldwide recognition
Marina has won numerous awards from the US and international organizations for her environmental activism. In 1996, she won the Goldman Environmental Prize for helping establish a two-million-hectare reserve managed by Indigenous communities. The United Nations Environment Program named her one of the Champions of the Earth in 2007.
In 2008 Marina resigned as her unyielding resolve created tensions with agricultural and mining interests and, ultimately, with Lula. She ran for president in 2010, 2014, and 2018.
Leading the battle against climate change
Now, Marina and Lula are back together on the promise that he would strengthen his environmental stances. One condition of Marina’s was that he would stop his “net zero deforestation” pledges — meaning forest loss could be offset by other measures — and commit to complete “zero deforestation.”
Their joint effort to protect the Amazon includes the larger goal of mitigating the climate crisis worldwide. Lula updated Marina’s title of Minister of the Environment to Minister of the Environment and Climate Change.
From a rubber plantation deep in the Amazon to Brazil’s highest cabinet, Marina Silva’s work is a testament to the power of activism. Protests lead to policy change, standing up for historically disenfranchised groups leads to their rights, and defending nature is a step toward saving Earth.
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