How this politician could help save the planet

Marina Silva could become the first environmentalist to lead a major world economy. But what would it look like?

Topics: GlobalPost, Brazil, election, Marina Silva, environmentalist, , , ,

How this politician could help save the planetMarina Silva (Credit: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino)
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global Post When Brazilian presidential candidate Eduardo Campos’ plane went down near Sao Paulo this month, one of the most improbable consequences may have been to thrust the Amazon center stage in the race.

Yet that’s what is happening now that Campos’ running mate, environmentalist Marina Silva, has taken his place on the ballot for the October vote.

Silva, who learned to read and write only at age 16 after growing up in poverty on a remote jungle plantation, has a certain appeal with disgruntled voters. She even won praise from Greenpeace during her five years as environment minister.

Now a poll predicts 56-year-old Silva will squeeze into the second round of voting and narrowly beat President Dilma Rousseff. It is the first time that Rousseff, 66, has been behind in the polls.

This could make Silva the first environmentalist to lead a major world economy. And what happens to the environment in Brazil, home to the planet’s great green lungs, matters on a global scale.

It would also make her the first Afro-Brazilian president, in a country with a huge black population.

Some believe Silva’s lead won’t last. But David Fleischer, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Brasilia, says that’s “just a hypothesis.” He points to how strongly she was polling in 2013 — until a court ruled in October she had insufficient signatures to register as a candidate for her new party. Then she joined Campos’ Brazilian Socialist Party ticket.

“Before she was ruled out as a candidate in her own right she was receiving 27 or 28 percent, and was looking like she would really rival Dilma. She has a real shot now,” Fleischer says.

What would it mean for Brazil’s environmental policies?

Stop the dams

Green groups generally give Dilma Rousseff low scores. But nothing riles them quite like the multibillion-dollar mega-dams that she has pushed in the Amazon, flooding millions of acres of rain forest, displacing indigenous communities, and even causing a spike in carbon emissions.

As former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s environment minister, Marina Silva opposed the dams. But if elected president, with broader responsibilities, freezing the hydroelectric projects would be a huge decision.

“It would be very difficult, even if she is elected, to reverse that,” Fleischer says. “Brazil needs electricity and you would not want to be blamed, as [former Brazil President Fernando Henrique] Cardoso was, for causing blackouts.”

You Might Also Like

But Sergio Abranches, a Rio-based environmental journalist and analyst, disagrees. “Yes, it is a very tough decision,” he says. “But there is a simple way to solve the problem which is to close them. These dams are all in the red and she just needs to stop giving the consortia more money. Remember, there is a huge majority who reject the dams.”

Prioritize the Amazon

As environment minister, Silva launched several programs that slowed deforestation in the world’s largest tropical rain forest. They included the Sustainable Amazon Plan and the Plan to Prevent and Control Deforestation in the Amazon.

She also increased resources for enforcement of environmental laws routinely flouted in remote corners of the jungle. The resulting plunge in deforestation rates even outstripped the simultaneous drop in commodity prices, whose highs some analysts had pinpointed as a major driver of the destruction.

But that changed once Rousseff — who as energy minister had frequently battled with Silva’s Environment Ministry — took office as president in 2011. “During Dilma’s presidency all that effectively stopped,” Abranches says. The result has been that the deforestation rates have spiked again.

That may not all be Rousseff’s fault. The president actually fought hard to stop congress from relaxing the forest code. But were Silva to take her place, she could be expected to attempt to roll back those changes.

Restore economic growth

Silva has maintained Campos’ conventional market-friendly economic approach, includingcommitments to fiscal discipline, low inflation and not to interfere with the floating exchange rate.

That may disappoint some of her supporters on the left but, with a bit of luck, it might also restore the growth that’s stalled under Rousseff. Brazil’s economy will expand by just 1.4 percent this year, the United Nations says, down from 2.5 percent in 2013.

If Silva is able to get the economy moving again that could give her more room to maneuver on the environment. On the one hand, she would have greater tax revenues to spend on enforcing safeguards in the Amazon and elsewhere.

On the other, a stronger manufacturing sector could make Brazil less reliant on exporting commodities such as timber, beef and soybeans that have helped fuel deforestation.

Make nice with agribusiness

As environment minister, one of Silva’s biggest political enemies was agribusiness, which fought tooth and nail against her attempts to limit agricultural expansion in the rainforest.

“The agribusiness caucus in congress will continue to be very large and powerful,” Fleischer says. “She may decide not to put too many chips down on that battle.”

Yet others see a rare opportunity for Silva to make nice with the sector — and help the environment at the same time. Abranches insists: “There is a path to build a bridge to agribusiness.”

Step one, he says, would be to rebuild the country’s ethanol industry by using bagasse, the waste from the country’s vast sugar plantations, and branches and leaves from eucalyptus trees used for timber to make affordable clean fuel.

Currently, 60 percent of Brazilian cars are equipped to run on ethanol. Yet just 3 percent of them actually do, because subsidies for gasoline, intended to counter inflation, make it cheaper than ethanol.

Government support for Brazil’s long-suffering biodiesel and biotech sectors, including developing crops to cope with climate change, would be two other ways Silva could win over agribusiness and minimize opposition to her cherished Amazonian policies.

Green the campaign

Even if Silva doesn’t win in October, her mere presence in the presidential race — and her powerful green messaging — could positively influence Brazil’s environmental policies.

Few doubt her credentials. Her introduction to green campaigning was with legendary Amazonian activist Chico Mendes, who was murdered in 1988.

But what about her two main rivals? Rousseff and Aecio Neves, a centrist senator, may feel the need to beef up their own green commitments on everything from energy efficiency to the Amazon.

Not everyone is sure that there will. “They will increase lip service to the environment,” says Paulo Barreto, a researcher at the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment. “I would not bet on Dilma doing anything differently. She just doesn’t connect with the environment.”

But unless Silva’s poll numbers deflate quickly, Neves and Rousseff will be forced to take action. Fleischer says: “Like [union leader-turned-president] Lula, her personal story, of working her way up from extremely humble beginnings, appeals to most Brazilians. They feel she is one of them.”

By contrast, Neves is a scion of a powerful political clan, while Rousseff’s father was a Bulgarian political exile and successful businessman.

Silva’s main rivals may have little choice but to suddenly reveal their inner tree huggers.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...