A Brazilian Woman's Battle for the Environment

By Samphier, Tony | Contemporary Review, April 1995 | Go to article overview

A Brazilian Woman's Battle for the Environment


Samphier, Tony, Contemporary Review


Home-grown Amazon leader, Marina Silva, is branching out in Brazilian politics. The new location for her lifelong fight for the forest is the urban jungle of the capital, Brasilia.

'When I fly over the Amazon, I love to look at the green carpet of trees, criss-crossed by rivers', says Marina, as she is known to friends and the public alike. 'I feel a great sense of pain when I then see an area of deforestation'.

From her new seat in the Brazilian Senate, Marina is ideally placed to speak up for the Amazon's fragile biosphere. True to her roots, she represents the southern Amazon state of Acre, where she has struggled, both personally and politically, since childhood.

Marina Silva is no ordinary eco-politician. Her political home is Brazil's party of radical reform, the Workers Party of former trade unionist Luiz Inacio 'Lula' da Silva. For Marina and the generation of activists who painstakingly built the Workers Party in full view of the neo-liberal trenches dug deep in Latin America, environmental justice and social solidarity go hand in hand.

Although she valued the Amazon from an early age for what she calls its 'beauty and richness of life', Marina is not sentimentally green. A simple reference to her favourite meal shows that she puts people and their basic needs first. 'I hope the ecologists will forgive me', she says, 'but in the rubber tapper settlement where I lived as a child, wild game was very important for survival. I still haven't forgotten the flavour of a good farofa de paca (local meat dish)'.

A history graduate and former student activist, Marina did not learn her political lessons in a lecture hall. It was trade unionism which brought Marina face-to-face with the challenge of balancing the Amazon's delicate economic and environmental book.

Alongside her close friend, rubber tappers union leader Chico Mendes, assassinated in 1988, Marina literally sat her toughest political examination. Against the muscle and machinery of the big developers, Marina and Mendes organized the empates - human barriers to resist destructive tree-felling. In dangerous conditions, these non-violent direct action campaigns saved thousands of acres of forest and inspired environmentalists the world over.

'I remember the empates with great emotion', recalls Marina, 'especially those organized by Chico Mendes in the Cachoeira rubber tapper settlement'. Born in Cachoeira, Mendes was killed for campaigning to make his birthplace a reserve for the extraction of rubber.

With trade unionists and environmentalists still the target of intimidation and violence in the disorderly Amazon frontier, non-violence is an important link in Marina's political armoury. In common with Workers Party leader Lula, her biggest hero is Gandhi. 'I have a great admiration for people who struggle in the way he did; both active and pacifist', she says. After years of intense, and sometimes painful, activism, Marina is still an idealist at heart. 'They say I am a fighter', she explains. 'I agree, but I think that in myself, the fight comes after the dream'.

Reluctant to become a traditional machine politician, Marina brings sensitivity and ordinariness to the elitism and corruption of Brazilian public life. 'I always try to be discreet', she says. 'But, in fact, it's more than this, I am shy'. She likes nothing more than relaxing at home with her children and, given the opportunity, curling up on the sofa with her favourite contemporary literary companion, Alice Walker's The Colour Purple.

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