An environmentalist's calculated push toward Brazil's presidency

An environmentalist's calculated push toward Brazil's presidency

RIO DE JANEIRO - In March 2003, three months into her tenure as Brazil's environment minister, Marina Silva gathered a half-dozen aides at the modernist ministry building in Brasilia, the capital.

She told them the new government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was about to embark on a pharaonic infrastructure project for Brazil's arid Northeast.

The project, a still-ongoing effort to reroute water from one of Brazil's biggest rivers, had previously been opposed by environmentalists, including Silva herself.

Rather than explain how she would thwart the plan, however, the former activist said she would work to make it as sustainable as possible.

"I was shocked," says Marijane Lisboa, a former Greenpeace director and Silva's secretary of environmental quality then. "Instead of fighting, she was merely trying to mitigate."

Lisboa would not be the last person surprised by Silva, a former rubber tapper and maid and now a frontrunner in Brazil's presidential election race.

Once considered a leftist radical, the pioneer of Amazon conservation and icon of the global environmental movement has over the years marched steadily to the political centre.

A 56-year-old-mother of four and evangelical Christian, Silva barely trails President Dilma Rousseff in forecasts for an expected runoff three weeks after a first round of voting on Sunday.

She is buoyed by discontent over corruption, political horse-trading, a stagnant economy and poor public services that last year sparked mass protests across Brazil.

But Silva is also a pragmatic, calculating and deal-making politician who defies efforts by rivals to cast her as inexperienced, or worse, erratic.

After moving across three parties in recent years, Silva now represents the second-tier Brazilian Socialist Party and vows to expand popular social welfare programs even as she slashes government spending.

She would pursue renewable energy programs, like biomass and solar power, but promises to keep developing the "one-time harvest" of offshore oil.

"Why does one activity have to come at the expense of another?" she said during a recent interview with Reuters in Rio de Janeiro. "A strong economy is diversified."

Silva's shift outrages some militant former followers and former colleagues in the ruling Workers' Party.

But it attracts disparate others - fellow evangelicals, São Paulo financiers, youth sick of the status quo.

If elected, her biggest struggle could be weaving the sundry strands of support into a manageable harness for Brazil's rambunctious multi-party democracy.


In interviews, more than a dozen of those who know Silva describe a thoughtful politician firm enough to lead but pliant enough to bend when an opposing argument prevails. They say her five years as minister, and political comeback since a high-profile resignation in 2008, show her ability to set priorities, pursue goals and compromise.

"Call her anything but dumb," says Roberto Rodrigues, a former agriculture minister who clashed with Silva in the Lula administration over genetically modified crops and forestry laws. "She knows a militant cannot be president."

Silva's remarkable rise from illness and illiteracy in the rainforest to the Senate and beyond is already political lore. But her evolution from activist to possible president still puzzles many who thought her incapable of the give-and-take needed at the highest levels of politics.

In 2002, Brazilians elected Lula, a fiery former union leader. After naming a market-friendly finance minister, who soothed fears the president would be fiscally reckless, Lula made Silva his second cabinet appointment, garnering praise from conservationists worldwide.

Upon taking office in January 2003, Silva told department heads to plot priorities for the four-year term. The previous administration, of centrist Fernando Henrique Cardoso, had been too busy taming Brazil's volatile economy to pay much attention to environmental issues.

Silva held big meetings and fielded proposals for waste policies, watershed management and parkland.

But she had one overriding concern: soaring deforestation. Loggers and ranchers were pushing so quickly into the Amazon that an area the size of Belgium was being destroyed annually.

Silva proposed setting targets for curbing the rate of deforestation. She told a committee to map out a plan to reach them and rebuffed aides who suggested such targets could doom her politically if unmet.

"I'll deserve political failure if we don't reach them," she said, recalls former forestry secretary João Paulo Capobianco, still one of her closest advisors. "Whatever we do in other areas, deforestation is the measure by which we will be judged."

Some aides complained she paid little mind to anything else.

When it came to rerouting the São Francisco river, she offered sparse resistance, settling for a commitment that long-polluted parts of the river be cleaned up during the project. "If it was outside the Amazon, it was not a priority," says Gilney Viana, secretary for sustainable development then.

Soon, political conflicts intruded on her agenda.

Big meetings gave way to individual discussions with aides able to help her negotiate with the rest of the administration. "She spent more time courting Lula and other ministers than running the ministry," recalls one aide, who asked not to be identified because of continued ties to the government.

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