This Woman Could Become One of the World’s Most Influential Environmentalists

Marina Silva could bring a green outlook to the top of Brazilian politics, but she’ll need an upset election victory to do it.

Fellows 2014

By Jason Plautz

October 03, 2014

Also published by National Journal

Even for a politician who bills herself an outsider, Marina Silva's résumé is stacked with curiosities. She grew up in a poor, rural part of Brazil and says she taught herself to read at age 16. She's a devout evangelical in a predominantly Catholic country. And she's a former environment minister who has run as a Green Party candidate.

Brazilian presidential candidate Marina Silva. Photo: Mario Tama / Getty Images

But for all her oddities, Silva has a shot at becoming president of the world's fifth-largest country.

On Sunday, Brazil will hold the first round of its presidential election. Silva is running second in the polls behind behind incumbent Dilma Rousseff, but neither candidate appears likely to win a majority of all votes. If nobody does, the top two candidates will face off in a runoff three weeks later.

Silva's no lock to win—and her support has ebbed since a peak last month—but that she's in the running at all marks a rapid rise, given that in the beginning of August she was just a vice-presidential candidate on a ticket polling in the single digits. When the lead candidate, Eduardo Campos, was killed in a plane crash, Silva took the top spot and has elevated the prospects of the Socialist Party she now represents.

To say that a President Silva would mark a change for Brazil would be an understatement. She'd be the first black citizen to win the presidency, as well as the first evangelical president in the country with the world's largest Catholic population. And she'd mark the end of 12 years of rule by the incumbent center-left Worker's Party.

A Silva victory would also have global ramifications, particularly for the environment.

She'd be one of the few world leaders with an environmental background, and she'd be applying it to a nation that is among the world's most important climate actors. As well as being a large and rapidly growing economy, Brazil is also home to the Amazon, the world's largest rain forest, whose vegetation serves as a massive sink for carbon emissions—human and otherwise.

While serving as environment minister under former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (no relation), Marina Silva took on powerful agro-business and industrial groups to protect the Amazon. Having grown up in a family of rubber tappers (one of the native industries dependent on the forest's survival), she made protection of the Amazon and support for the native population a priority, promoting sustainable development aimed at allowing economic growth without jeopardizing the forest.

Since resigning in 2008, she has left Lula's Worker's Party and ran a surprisingly productive presidential campaign on a Green Party ticket—netting nearly 20 percent of the vote in 2010—and made an attempt to start a Rede Sustainabilidade, or sustainability movement, to launch a presidential run this term.

That effort failed, but Silva stayed in the 2014 election mix by becoming the vice-presidential nominee for Eduardo Campos's presidential bid on the Socialist Party ticket. A tragedy put her closer to the top when Campos died in a plane crash in August, leaving Silva to take over the top of the ticket. And her past popularity pushed her up the polls, creating a more serious challenge to Rousseff than Campos had been.

But even if Silva were to pull off the upset, it's unclear that her deep-green past would translate to a deep-green presidency. She's vowed to promote renewables and keep protecting the forests, but has also said that she'd explore the offshore oil reserves to take advantage of the economic opportunity. And the realities of Brazilian politics could move her further away from a truly sustainable administration.

"Marina has a much clearer environmental program than anyone else. But that doesn't mean [it] will be implemented," André Villas-Bôas, executive secretary of the environmental group Instituto Socioambiental, said through a translator. "In Brazil, when a person gets elected their programs can be thrown in the wastebasket."

Indeed, plenty of horse trading is required to secure votes, either when an election goes to a runoff or simply to pass legislation through Congress. That means Silva will have to deal away some platform priorities or offer up key ministerial positions to nontraditional allies—what Villas-Bôas called the "realidade duro," the "hard reality" of campaigning. It's unclear whether environmental programs will end up on the trading block should Silva need to recruit supporters.

Some are already saying that Silva has moved away from her roots as an environmental activist, making concessions while in the Lula administration on issues like water resources and infrastructure. As she seeks support in the presidential election, she hasn't played up her green track record, and the fact that she's switched between three parties indicates more political cunning than policy dedication.

"I'm not sure if I see Marina as an environmental candidate," said Angela Alonso, a professor at Universidade de São Paulo who has studied Brazil's environmental movement. "She hasn't really been presenting herself in that fashion, but she has not really been presenting herself in any fashion where one issue is the main one. It seems to me she's more concentrated on presenting herself as an alternative to [the major parties] than as an environmentalist."

In fact, she's lost some key environmental supporters in the country, including no less than the daughter of activist Chico Mendes, the face of Brazil's environmental activists. Although some in Mendes's family, including his widow, are backing Silva, his oldest daughter, Angela Maria Mendes, criticized a "lack of concreteness" in Silva's platform.

A bulk of Silva's messaging and popularity has been built on her personal story—poor and rural residents identify with her and say that her background will give her a unique perspective. There's also a clamoring for political change after years of corruption and dissatisfaction with public spending over the Olympics and World Cup—last year's protests are still fresh in the public's mind.

Indeed, one of Silva's defining moments—one that her supporters frequently bring up—came after Rousseff said that Silva might dismantle the social-welfare protections that the Worker's Party had put in place. In response, Silva gave a televised speech in which she recalled her parents serving her and her seven siblings "an egg and a bit of flour and salt, and some chopped onion." Her parents wouldn't eat, saying they weren't hungry, Silva said.

"And a child believed that. But afterwards, I understood that for yet another day, they had nothing to eat," she said, showing the crowd that she understands the realities of poverty (The Economist has a video of the speech in Portuguese with an English translation here).

A Question of Faith

There's another aspect of Silva's résumé that stands out and makes her ascending campaign more intriguing: She's a member of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God Church in a historically dominant Catholic country. (She was raised Catholic, but converted to the pentecostal church after a series of illnesses.) It's seen as a sign of the growing power of evangelicals, whose numbers have boomed as the population of practicing Catholics shrinks.

A 2012 survey by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics reported that evangelicals grew from 7 percent of the population to 22 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the percentage of Catholics dropped from 74 percent to 65 percent.

That makes her a unique bridge between two growing social movements in Brazil—the environmental community and the evangelical movement. The movements are not traditional allies—indeed, many environmentalists here also work heavily on liberal social issues—but the philosophical bonds of protecting the Earth are strengthening.

Outside of an Assemblies of God service in Sao Paulo last month, several parishioners said they'd be supporting her saying she holds their beliefs at heart and will protect the poor. She's seen nationally as a potential symbol of legitimacy for the church, even though a more traditional evangelical candidate—Pastor Everaldo Pereira—is also on the ballot.

But even here, Silva may be losing some credibility. She said she supported gay marriage, only to reverse her position a day later (the reversal even prompted actor and environmentalist Mark Ruffalo to withdraw an unofficial endorsement). The Assemblies of God church does not officially endorse her, although several evangelical ministers—notably the megastar pastor Silas Malafaia—are promoting her campaign during sermons and to their parishioners.

And in the northeastern rural state of Paraiaba, evangelical pastor John Medcraft said that the combination of Silva's faith and social work meant that she'd have the right values if elected.

"I'll vote for Marina because she was an environmental minister and a good one," he said. "And now we're also faced with the possibility of a genuine evangelical president in this country."

Jason Plautz reported on religion in Brazil as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).