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Meet the New Guardian of the Amazon

Marina Silva, Brazil’s environment minister, has brought down deforestation rates before. Can she do it again?

A woman in a beige jacket at the center of a small group. Her hair is pulled pack and she is wearing a necklace. Behind her, a green flag waves.
Marina Silva at an election rally in 2018. She has returned to office as Brazil’s environment minister, a post she held from 2003 to 2008.Credit...Gabriela Portilho for The New York Times

There was a lot of talk about deforestation and biodiversity at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week. One of the leaders at the gathering with huge responsibility in that area, and a huge task ahead of her, was Marina Silva, Brazil’s new environment minister.

This week, I want to introduce you to Silva, 64, because of the enormous importance of her job.

She’s served as environment minister before, from 2003 to 2008, and put in place policies and protections that ultimately reduced the rate of deforestation by 80 percent. Now, back in office under Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, there’s enormous hope that she can repeat that feat.

Born in the Amazon to a family of rubber tappers, Silva, who is generally known in Brazil by her given name, was directly affected by many of the problems that plague people in the forest. Loved ones died of malaria after a new road brought deforestation and diseases to the her area. There were few basic services available, so she only learned how to read when she was 16. Her mentor, the environmentalist and trade union leader Chico Mendes, was murdered for his activism.

Silva’s first run as minister ended when she quit after facing what she called resistance from important political interests. For years, she distanced herself from Lula and only recently opted to support him again.

This time, the job will be harder. She acknowledges that the forest is in a much more precarious state than when she first took office almost two decades ago. The previous president, Jair Bolsonaro, undid many of the measures she helped to put in place to protect the Amazon. Deforestation rates rose sharply.

She has a long to-do list, which starts with strengthening Brazil’s environmental protection agencies and getting the Amazon Fund, an initiative funded by foreign partners to fight deforestation, running again.

I talked to her recently about how she’s feeling about the task ahead. These are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Manuela: You said yourself that the challenge is enormous. The whole world seems to be looking at you as the person who can save the Amazon, a crucial tool in the fight against climate change and the biodiversity crisis. How do you carry this weight?

Marina: First of all, this weight will never be one person’s alone. It’s a collective job, but the biggest leader coordinating it is president Lula. He took this agenda on himself, the climate agenda, of ridding Indigenous lands of illegal mining, of getting to 2030 with zero deforestation.

Manuela: A lot has changed in the Amazon since you left the ministry. Bolsonaro supporters there have even shot at the police to oppose the election result. How will you handle these new challenges?

Marina: There was also, back then, great resistance. Let’s not forget that sister Dorothy in Terra do Meio region was murdered as a reaction to us creating protected areas there. There was a lot of tension. It’s incomparably bigger now, but there is a comparative advantage. We had to build the structures, which led to positive results, from nothing. Now, we won’t start from nothing. We have a legacy that will be updated.

Manuela: What can we expect in terms of global cooperation for the Amazon rainforest forest?

Marina: We have high hopes that philanthropic organizations can help the Amazon Fund to get resources. We already have a few philanthropic organizations that help fund government agencies. Now, at COP27, the Moore Foundation said it was interested in a partnership. We talked to the Bezos Foundations, the DiCaprio Foundation. There are also governments that are very, let’s say, eager to broaden their cooperation with Brazil on several fronts.

Manuela: What gives you hope about the future of the forest?

Marina: I think what gives me hope is that a significant part of the Brazilian population decided to vote for a government platform that defends democracy, is committed to protecting the forest, Indigenous people and fighting climate change, while also curbing inequality. We know that what we are doing is something that’s very difficult, but it’s exactly the size of the challenge that makes our commitment grow.

Related: Claudia Andujar fled the Holocaust when she was 13. As a photographer, she found a second chance to protect a people, the Yanomami, from extermination in the Amazon.

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Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward. Read past editions of the newsletter here.

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