*This interview is part of our Grassroots Newsmaker series, which puts a spotlight on people who work within their communities to take up causes such as land rights, reproductive health, environmental protection and labour rights, often at huge risk to their own personal safety, in countries where human rights are threatened. Stay tuned for more next week via #grassrootsnewsmakers*
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Marina Silva was 16, she remembers taking a canoe along Brazil’s Amazon to distribute food to indigenous farmers who had been kicked off their ancestral lands by big landowners.
It was Silva’s first experience of land conflict, sparking a passion for political activism and an eventual campaign to defend the rights of indigenous people and the environment.
Silva, now 55, hasn’t looked back.
“I was just a skinny young girl then studying in a convent,” Silva told Thomson Reuters Foundation during a recent visit to Bogota. “But that experience changed my world. It opened my eyes to the social problems in Brazil. That’s when I realised that any individual can do lots of things.”
Since then Silva has charged forth, breaking records along the way.
One of eleven siblings, Silva grew up in a rubber tapper family in a destitute rural community in Acre state in Brazil’s western Amazon basin.
Illiterate until the age of 16, Silva worked as a maid, then went to university and became a union activist, under the guidance of Chico Mendes, the environmental activist murdered by ranchers in 1998 for his campaign to protect the Amazon.
Silva became the first rubber tapper elected to Brazil's senate in 1994. At 36, she was also the country’s youngest senator ever elected.
She rose to become environment minister under the previous government of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. She then ran as presidential candidate for Brazil’s Green Party in 2010, securing more than 20 million votes, the largest vote obtained by a Green candidate anywhere in the world – but lost to the current president, Dilma Rousseff.
Silva has now joined Brazil’s Socialist Party, whose sights are set on the country’s presidential elections next year. While Eduardo Campos is expected to be the Socialist Party's presidential candidate, Silva could possibly be his running mate.
Whatever her role in the Socialist Party turns out to be, there’s little doubt that Silva will use her political clout and popularity as a proven Amazon activist to criticise current environment policies and continue her campaign to protect the environment.
DEFORESTATION ON THE RISE
To fight deforestation in the Amazon, when Silva was environment minister, she introduced an initiative that is credited for reducing deforestation in Brazil by almost 60 percent from 2004 to 2007.
However, the Rousseff government has reversed that reduction, she says, with “predatory” development that has taken place worldwide over the past decade.
“The Amazon gives us rain and consequently all the water in this region. It’s like killing the chicken that lays the golden egg,” Silva said.
She spearheaded laws that created new protected areas against encroaching ranchers and soya producers, clamped down on illegal logging, and fined and prosecuted the landowners who conspired with corrupt government officials to build illegally in the Amazon, while confiscating their property.
However, after years of decline, recent figures based on Brazilian government data gathered by satellite imagery show the country’s rate of deforestation has increased by 28 percent between August 2012 and July 2013. The total land cleared during the period reached 5,843 square km (2,256 square miles) - an area more than twice the size of Luxembourg.
“All past governments, some more than others, managed to make progress in the environmental area. This is the first government in 20 years that didn’t achieve anything at all and can’t even maintain the progress made in previous administrations. This government is promoting a reversal in Brazil’s environmental agenda, and that is very worrisome,” Silva said.
She blames the reversal mainly on the Rousseff government, particularly since the reform of the forest code last year. The reform to the law, Silva says, pardons farmers and squatters who illegally occupy and exploit protected government land. It also paves the way for massive infrastructure projects in the Amazon, such as a planned hydroelectric complex with seven power plants on the Tapajos river, one of the Amazon’s biggest tributaries.
BRAZIL'S INDIANS UNDER THREAT
Silva said one proposed bill, supported by the Rousseff government, would transfer the power to create Indian reservations from the federal government to Brazil’s Congress, which would threaten the rights and survival of many indigenous Amazon tribes.
“At the same time, there’s a debate to change the mining code, and a government proposed bill that ignores the environmental impact of that industry. These are very serious setbacks,” she said.
Taking aim at the recent U.N.-led climate talks in Poland and the few targets reached at last year’s Rio+20 U.N. conference on development, Silva said world leaders and policymakers show a “complete lack of commitment” to tackle climate change and make sustainable development a top priority.
“At Rio+20 we had proof that the emergency situation that the planet is experiencing because of climate change wasn’t treated at the same priority level as the global economic crisis,” Silva said.
“Over the past 20 years, little by little, the big economic and political interests have overshadowed science in the debate about climate change.”