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Brazil’s new environmental future under Lula: Q&A with Marina Silva

Marina Silva.

Marina Silva.

  • Considered for Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment, environmentalist Marina Silva says in an interview with Mongabay that the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva means a new cycle of prosperity for the country, “when it will be possible to make the transition to a new development model that is capable of fighting inequality with democracy and sustainability.”
  • “Part of the agribusiness sector is realizing that this practice by Bolsonaro is bad for business,” the congresswoman-elect said about the possibility of reconciling the environmental agenda and the demands of agribusiness.
  • Silva stressed that the current challenges are much greater than those faced when she was a member of Lula’s first administration in 2003: “We are not going to become sustainable in the blink of an eye. It’s a transition.”

As a Black Amazonian woman, former environment minister and just-elected congresswoman, Marina Silva is one of the most complex and fascinating figures in current Brazilian politics. As the daughter of rubber tappers who learned how to read and write at 16, her strength and intellectual consistency contrast with her fragile physique — the result of a series of illnesses that affected her throughout her life, such as malaria, mercury contamination and leishmaniasis.

Those were not obstacles in her history of achievements in politics and the international scene. In the 2022 elections, Silva reconciled with the party of President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in whose administration she had served as minister of the environment from 2003 to 2008. The environmentalist was one of the leading names on the broad front that defeated President Jair Bolsonaro in the second round of votes, held Oct. 30, by a margin of only 1.8%. In exchange for her support, Marina Silva included a series of environmental commitments in Lula’s government plan.

Her successful career in politics is the result of a background that started with her life among Indigenous and riverine peoples and continued through dialogue with European intellectuals when she graduated in history and specialized in psychopedagogy and psychoanalytic theory. With an ascending political career that began at age 30, when she was elected councilor in the municipality of Rio Branco, in the state of Acre, Silva played a crucial role in the environmental field when she took over as environment minister for the Lula administration, in 2003.

During that period, she implemented some of the most important measures to protect Brazilian biomes and was a global player in the creation of protected areas and the fight against deforestation in the Amazon.

In 2008, Marina left the ministry because she could no longer find support for her environmental policies in an agenda focused on large infrastructure projects, which would dictate the course of the administration in the following years. She stayed another three years in Brasília to finish her term as senator — from which she had been licensed to serve as minister — until 2011.

Since then, she has taken an independent path. She founded her own party — Rede Sustentabilidade (the Sustainability Network) — and lost three presidential elections (2011, 2014 and 2018). Her rapprochement with the Workers’ Party (PT) after 14 years of estrangement took place on Sept. 12, when Lula signed the environmental commitment suggested by Silva.

The most important points on the agenda include zero tolerance toward deforestation, adoption of a transversal environmental policy that will pervade all areas of the administration — which Marina had demanded since she was a member of the Lula administration and had never been met — and an infrastructure plan focused on sustainable development.

A strong name to take over the position of environment minister in 2023, Congresswoman Silva prefers not to comment on the matter in order not to “create some kind of embarrassment” for the newly elected president. However, she speaks about the future of Brazilian environmental policy with the consistency of someone who is up to the challenge of rebuilding an agenda dismantled during the four years of the Bolsonaro administration.

On Nov. 1, two days after the election, Silva spoke to Mongabay for an hour about the Amazon, politics and foreign relations in the environmental field. Read excerpts from the conversation, edited for clarity.

Mongabay: What does Lula’s victory mean for the future of the planet if we consider that Brazil is one of the five largest emitters of polluting gases and that agribusiness is the top driver of emissions in the country?

Marina Silva: It means a chance for Brazil to make our rightful contribution in the context of the global environmental crisis that we are experiencing, especially in terms of reducing biodiversity loss and tackling climate change. From the point of view of this contribution, it means that Brazil needs to do its homework, to lead by example, to make the transition to a new development model that is capable of fighting inequality with democracy and sustainability. It’s a new cycle of prosperity. It will not happen overnight, but we can set the main pillars for this path, for this new path or this new way of walking.

Mongabay: Last Sunday we left behind a government that increased deforestation in the Amazon by more than 70% in one term, and we are now returning to a government that managed to reduce that deforestation by more than 70% in eight years. Can we repeat the formula from Lula’s first era?

Marina Silva: I don’t think it’s about repeating. The current situation is much more serious. It’s about addressing the deconstruction of public policies for environmental management, monitoring and enforcement agencies, which is incomparably stronger than before. And we’ll have to do what I said in the document that President Lula committed to on the day we regrouped politically and programmatically — because our personal bond had never been broken. In the proposals I presented, it says, “Updated recovery of the lost socio-environmental agenda.” It’s not a repetition of what it used to be. It’s based on many successful actions that will continue to be implemented but taking on a new dimension.

For example, allocating 57 million hectares [140.8 million acres] of forested areas for Indigenous lands and full protection or sustainable-use conservation units. It’s a very powerful tool for creating a green wall to protect the Amazon. We also have the policy focused on a new economy in the Amazon, with investments in this new economy, in the bioeconomy. That’s a paradigm shift. The idea of ​​infrastructure for sustainable development is a rethink of large projects in the Amazon in the light of the new gains we have now, especially in the agenda based on generating energy from the sun, wind or biomass, because that energy is already cheaper than hydroelectricity itself.

Marina Silva and Lula in a meeting with local leaders during a walk through Grande Belo Horizonte (MG) in Oct. 202, during the presidential campaign. Photo by Ricardo Stuckert/Fotos Públicas.

Mongabay: We know that this path toward reconstructing Brazil’s environmental policies is a long one, but some immediate measures can and must be taken to start reversing the current situation. What measures do you see as the most urgent? Resuming the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (PPCDAm)? The Amazon Fund?

Marina Silva: The document [prepared and delivered by Silva to Lula] sets out the main strategic pillars and guidelines for this change. The PPCDAm will have to be updated and resumed. It’s got to be updated because of what I said: there is a reality that has changed. Today you have public policies that worked out but were abandoned. [The PPCDAm was created in 2004 and abandoned at the beginning of the Bolsonaro administration.] At that moment we had a reality that was serious. Deforestation reached 27,000 square kilometers [10,400 square miles] in 2004 — the second-largest figure in Brazil’s history.

And the policy was designed and implemented, and we reduced deforestation by 83% for almost a decade. Now, this policy worked, but it was abandoned just as environmental governance itself was dismantled. IBAMA [the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources], ICMBio [the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation], the [National] Institute for Space Research were undermined, the Brazilian Forest Service was excluded from the Ministry of the Environment, legislation was changed to make it permissive toward environmental crimes and disrespect for Indigenous communities.

Land-grabbing, deforestation, fires, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, illegal mining, all kinds of violations, they are out of control to a much higher degree than they used to be [until 2018]. So this update will be necessary, as well as adding new measures. For example, the Federal Police’s intelligence work, which put more than 725 people in jail and led us to seize 1 million cubic meters [35 million cubic feet] of timber, to cancel around 35,000 property registrations resulting from land-grabbing and to dismantle nearly 2,000 criminal companies operating in the Amazon, will now be harder.

We imploded 86 clandestine airstrips. Now they are 1,264. There is lack of control on our borders. During the Lula administration, we combined creating conservation units with creating Indigenous lands, combating illegal practices and supporting sustainable initiatives. All this work will have to be expanded. But IBAMA’s operations and inspections must rely on intelligence support from the Federal Police and the army in what might be its function.

In the case of the operations that we conducted, I remember Operation Curupira, which was the largest one ever carried out to combat environmental crimes, perhaps in the world. It involved 480 Federal Police officers, when the state of Mato Grosso accounted for almost 80% of deforestation in the Amazon. In the following months, we had a 92% drop in deforestation in Mato Grosso. That work lasted 22 months. We’ll have to reestablish and expand DIREC, which is the Federal Police department that fights environmental crimes, and support from COTER, which is an army department that provided us with logistical support.

Marina Silva in a motorcade in Rio de Janeiro in 2010. Photo by Thays Cabette (CC BY 2.0).

Mongabay: We know that this path to reconstruction is a long one. But which are the three or four most urgent measures that have to be taken or started on Jan. 1, in your opinion?

Marina Silva: First of all, you have to think about reestablishing the teams. There’s disruption in environmental governance, where technical staff were replaced with political and military staff who don’t understand the environmental agenda and don’t have the technical skills to carry out inspections, issue notices of violation, conduct licensing processes or manage conservation units. They even tried to interfere in monitoring procedures.

Reestablishing the teams, reestablishing the budgets for ICMBio and IBAMA, bringing the Forest Service and the National Water Agency back to the Ministry of the Environment. We have to put a stop to what is happening in Congress so that the package of destruction does not continue. The federal government has many tools to act on its own. Now, if the legislation is changed, it becomes frozen in some aspects. So, we have to halt these measures on environmental licensing, land-grabbing, demarcation of Indigenous lands, mining on Indigenous lands, in addition to stopping the “poison bills.” And of course, to resume the practice of transparent action.

Mongabay: We have two months ahead of us under Bolsonaro, with several anti-environmental agendas in the pipeline, which will suffer strong pressure from the ruralist caucus to be voted. What are the main risks you see in this period? And what do you think can be done to stop these votes?

Marina Silva: Well, I hope Congress doesn’t take steps toward implementing bills that will be totally incompatible with the environmental policies being outlined by the new Brazilian administration for the next four years. And these bills did not advance under the Bolsonaro administration when it was stable, much less now that its expiration date is set. I hope that both the president of the Chamber of Deputies and the president of the Senate, who have power over the procedures for these bills, use their powers to prevent any kind of adventurism when discussing them.

Common sense tells us that this shouldn’t be done on a whim. [Chamber of Deputies] President [Arthur] Lira’s attitude of immediately recognizing President Lula’s victory [before President Jair Bolsonaro did] signals that perhaps he won’t precipitate any procedure that should not be precipitated. [Senate] President [Rodrigo] Pacheco had already been helping to prevent, in his own way, these bills from moving forward. My fear has more to do with what can happen on Indigenous territories, and lots of vigilance will be needed by the judiciary, the Prosecution Service and the authorities to make sure Indigenous peoples are protected, to make sure that public lands are not invaded and that there will be no institutional revenge during the time interval we have ahead of us.

Mongabay: Over the past few years, we’ve also had setbacks in terms of global commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Is it still possible to keep those promises?

Marina Silva: Our target was to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030, over 2010. Not only have we failed to take the measures that would achieve this goal, but we will also have an increase of 12%. So Brazil has to try to increase the commitments at this COP [the 27th U.N. Climate Conference, which is taking place Nov. 6-18 in Egypt] so we can address this reduction deficit, which is huge.

In the case of Brazil, our biggest drivers are deforestation and land use. About 70% of our emissions come from deforestation and land use, and the deforestation vector has the highest emission potential. In the case of agriculture, for example, we have methane emission, which is incomparably stronger than CO2. And it is short-term — 12 years more or less [in the atmosphere]. So this global commitment to reduce methane plays an important role, even in meeting the CO2 target, which is long-term, something around 100 years.

The more you speak about reducing methane, the more you are creating a “comfort space” [to reduce emissions in the longer term]. In the case of Brazil, there is a commitment to reduce methane, but the percentage and how it will be done has yet to be established. There is research and technology for us to achieve that. And a segment of Brazilian agriculture wants to do it. And another one does not. The one that doesn’t want it will have to adjust.

We can’t treat agribusiness as if it were homogeneous. It’s not. Part of it is reactionary, has denialist views, wants to go back to the early 20th century, and then another part is at the forefront of this debate. And there is about 70%-80% who keep watching one side and the other. They are a swing group. If the gravitational force is on the side of those who want to go back to the early 20th century, that’s where they’ll possibly go.

But if you create a virtuous space and give scale to the good things we already have, these people are not willing to destroy it. That’s why one of the proposals in that document that President Lula supported is that we should use the Harvest Plan [a federal government program that grants credit to small and medium-sized farmers to pay for inputs, purchase equipment and other things] as the basis for the transition to low-carbon agriculture. This is how we will be able to reduce CO2 emissions in a sustainable way, in which you will have investments that lead to agriculture based on the technologies already developed by Embrapa [a state-owned agricultural research corporation], so that large producers can continue to produce without having to cut down the forest and still fix carbon.

Marina Silva and Lula at a press conference in São Paulo, in September 2022. Photo by Ricardo Stuckert/Fotos Públicas.

Mongabay: Do you think the future government will find a way to reconcile environmental protection with the interests of agribusiness? How can it be done, in your opinion?

Marina Silva: I say that there is a way to integrate environment and economy. Some agribusiness segments cannot prevail to the detriment of the strategic interests of the sector itself and the country. We haven’t closed the agreement with Mercosur [South American economic bloc] yet — which is important for Brazil and the European Union — because of these segments. They can’t hijack Brazil’s economic, social and environmental interests.

That’s why dialogue and mediation will be necessary. Because it’s a transition. No one is going to create low-carbon agriculture at the snap of a finger just as you can’t make the American, Chinese and European energy mix clean at the snap of a finger. There is a transition space. The important thing is to have a virtuous trajectory for this transition. And the Harvest Plan is the basis for that. When you have a government with stable policies, which are not seasonal, there is a tendency to adjust.

So much so that this was already happening when I served as minister of the environment. Unfortunately, when we started having discontinuities, we went back to difficult terrain. Because if you are making an investment, using technology, skilled labor, research support — all that has a cost. Will you compete with those who are doing it based on lower standards? You’d create imbalance. If everyone is on the same track, then you have a common standard that applies to everyone. And this is something that has to be reflected not only in the Harvest Plan, but the banks must also demand environmental counterpart contributions to grant their loans. Borrowers must also face the financial sector’s commitments to climate issues.

Mongabay: While important names for the defense of the environment, such as you and Indigenous leader Sônia Guajajara, were elected for Congress, the more conservative caucus grew both in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Will this new makeup directly result in a weaker commitment by Congress to defend the environment? What should the action be like in different spaces to prevent these lawmakers from undermining the potential advances proposed by the government?

Indeed, there were two things that need to be examined. We’ve lost some people who were very important for the socio-environmental agenda, such as Vivi Reis [PSOL], Rodrigo Agostinho [PSDB], Alessandro Molon [PSB], Joenia Wapichana [REDE], and who were not reelected. And at the same time, there was the so-called “secret budget” — the Brazilian government funds used in Congress to give political support to the deputies and senators who support the government, who had about R$50 billion [$9.6 billion] for their campaigns. So the ruralist caucus has increased significantly.

But even with this increase, many new deputies were elected who are sensitive to the environmental agenda. You have to look at the context. We’ll be in a context where there is a federal government aligned with the sustainability agenda and the fight against deforestation, that wants to achieve zero deforestation, that seeks to fulfill its climate and biodiversity commitments. We are going to have a mobilized civil society, a very active and mobilized scientific community, an international agenda that is increasingly focused on taxing carbon-intensive products. This context will resonate in Congress.

It’s not the executive that interferes in Congress, but the context itself. When you bring society together, the changes in the federal government, the international scenario, Brazil can’t be left out. I think part of the agribusiness sector is realizing that this practice by Bolsonaro and so-called Bolsonarism is bad for business. Not having closed the agreement with Mercosur is bad for business. Losing investments is bad for business, having contracts canceled is bad for business. People are starting to realize that there is a virtuous path. It’s what I call competition on the high path. Anyone who wants to continue competing on the low path — that of illegality, violence, environmental destruction, lack of commitment to climate issues and preservation of biodiversity — will be left out. We have room to advance toward this competition on the high path, which is the virtuous path, integrating into global supply chains. In the same context or based on the same standard. And people are realizing that.

Mongabay: You have served as environment minister in the Lula administration and you resigned, you left the Workers’ Party (PT) after a series of political disagreements, especially because the developmentalist views of that administration opposed your environmental policies. After so many years, do you think PT’s environmental policies will be different from now on?

I think that if we treat them as PT’s policies, we might not be grasping what happened in these elections. I’d say that the administration’s policies may become the country’s policies. And that is what President Lula signaled when he made that commitment.

And it was this president who said that climate change is a top priority. It was this president who said he wants zero deforestation. It was this president who said he would put an end to illegal mining. It was this president who said he wants to create a new cycle of prosperity in the sustainability agenda. Then they will no longer be PT’s policies. I think we’ve had some gain during all these years. They will be the policies of Brazil, and the policies of Brazil supported by the president’s party as well.

Marina Silva during the interview with Mongabay.

Mongabay: Protection and enforcement agencies such as IBAMA, ICMBio and Funai have been systematically dismantled and also discredited in the last four years by a very destructive discourse. How can we resume the work of those agencies?

We need an agenda for rebuilding the budget, rebuilding the teams, having plans and strategies that are different now from our previous approaches. It’s about resuming management and enforcement, monitoring — which are the primary tasks of environmental agencies — and they must have the autonomy they need.

Now, not even Bolsonaro could destroy IBAMA’s credibility. IBAMA is a brand. What he did was an authoritarian, intimidating suspension of an institution that has also learned something.

Part [of government agencies and society] will keep resisting as hard as they can but the other half will keep empowering. And there has to be dialogue, even with that part that resists, because mediations must be made.

Mongabay: What are these mediations?

Marina Silva: We are not going to become sustainable in the blink of an eye. It’s a transition. Now, I can’t transition in a high-impact venture. There is even a logic, which is: let’s have an executive order saying that this is in the public interest, so there are no environmental regulations. I’ve never seen anything more contradictory and absurd than that, because if it’s in the public interest, if the government is doing it, then it must lead by example.

When I was appointed to the Ministry of the Environment, we had this resolution. You don’t have to keep trying to occupy the international scene in any way possible. No! Let’s do our homework. And by doing its homework, Brazil took on this role, right? And the whole world is very interested in its return.

I think we can have a virtuous circle of agendas that are no longer based on the logic of negative externality. Externalities have to be increasingly positive, and we will necessarily have to cooperate on health and climate. But they cannot be solved in isolation; they can only be solved under multilateralism.

That’s why it was very important for the Biden administration to make the move it made, to sustain its move, to have achieved a very tight majority in Congress to continue with its measures. And the UK, even with a government that was conservative but not denialist, makes its contribution to the climate agenda. The European Union has always led this agenda, and unfortunately, it’s having a hard time now due to the war going on in Ukraine. But this agenda will have to be resumed because there is a planetary war going on. Carbon missiles and atomic bombs are being dropped into the atmosphere. This energy crisis that is the result of the war in Ukraine is going to make things harder at the COP negotiations, I believe.

Mongabay: How do you believe the transitional government should behave at this COP? What signs should it send to other countries?

Marina Silva: I have no authority to speak on behalf of the government, but judging for President Lula’s discourse, for what is in the program, for everything I feel about the work as a whole, the actors who are not only in the government but also in society, for the scientific community, for the businesspeople who have already understood the importance of the agenda, this transition team should be proactive and make it clear that Brazil is returning to climate multilateralism with full strength. We’ll have challenges at this COP27, such as increasing commitments, ambitions, facing the issue of mitigation and, above all, adaptation, because we are already living under the effects of climate change.

We’ll have to work on the issue of funding. Brazil is an upper-middle-income country that made a commitment [at COP13 in 2007] in Bali that it would also contribute resources [to fund adaptation and mitigation in low-income countries]. Brazil doesn’t need money to be able to do its homework, like lower-middle-income and low-income countries do.

We need cooperation. Technical cooperation, scientific cooperation, partnerships, even for our sustainable products to have access to markets.

We even need financial support, such as Norway’s, but we won’t condition doing our homework on that support. We are an upper-middle-income country, so we must insist in increasing funds for the climate transition and for helping low-income and lower-middle-income countries. For the original populations of the whole world, who are responsible for 80% of the protected areas on the planet, who receive very little money for this relevant social, cultural, civilizing, scientific service they provide.

And we must face the complex problem of losses and damages. Some highly vulnerable countries are already experiencing the losses and damages of climate change but haven’t contributed to global warming and are victims of what the big emitters have produced. They have to receive historical reparations. I know it’s complex because there are many problems [in the world] and there is fear in developed countries: “Well, we are going to create a precedent of historical reparation for everything that has happened…” They think it’s unfeasible.

And I came up with an idea, talking to Professor Eduardo Viola [from Getúlio Vargas Foundation], who is a great partner. Perhaps one way to think about the idea of ​​reparation is to consider those losses and damages that are effectively active. Climate change is active. What happened with slavery is terrible. We need to deactivate the consequences, the structures that kept Black people in Brazil in a situation of economic and social debasement in every way. This is an agenda that we need to build. But nobody wants to enslave us again at a global level. So it’s not something that’s active. Climate change has caused historical damage and is active right now.

What we won’t do is use Bolsonaro’s blackmailing logic. That logic of going to the COPs to blackmail rich countries, to say that we will only take care of our forests and our Native peoples if they pay us to do so. I don’t need someone to pay me to take care — to use a metaphor here — of my child. I want to take care of my child and I have the means to take care of my child. Now, of course, if I don’t have the means, I’m going to need help. But in the case of Brazil, this blackmail is perverse, because it’s an excuse not to do it.

Mongabay: There has been some recent suggestions about the possibility of you taking over as environment minister. If you were invited, would you consider it?

I’m very happy to have given a programmatic and political contribution to this movement that we have just seen, where the environmental issue, the climate issue, was placed at the highest level of the political dispute by President Lula’s campaign, which places Brazil at the same level of the UK, Europe, the US, Japan, Canada. Brazil is part of this historical context. It’s up to the president-elect to choose the minister. And I think, at this point, the last thing its allies should do is create some kind of embarrassment. He’s got the policies. He knows the challenge, the magnitude of the challenge, and he will make his choices based on what he thinks is best for the government.

This story was first published here on Mongabay Brasil on Nov. 7, 2022.

 

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CORRECTION (8/22/2022): A previous version of this article stated that 1 million cubic meters were equivalent to 3.5 million cubic feet of timber. The correct number is actually 35 million cubic feet. The post has now been corrected.