The NI Interview
Tony Samphier talks to the woman who has emerged from a new generation of
eco-conscious politicians in Brazil to be dubbed an ‘Amazon legend’.
‘When I fly over the Amazon by plane I love to look at the green carpet of forest, criss-crossed by rivers,’ says Marina Silva, who took her seat in the Brazilian Senate last January after an unexpected election win in the Amazon state of Acre. The national daily Jornal do Brasil described it as a ‘victory of the dream over circumstance’.
‘I feel a great sense of pain when I see an area of deforestation,’ she says. She fears that Amazonia will ‘end up with the same devastation as in Europe and the United States’. But she is not interested in saving the forest for its own sake alone. From an early age she learned its value: people depend on it for food, work and pleasure. So her prescription relies as much on the sustainable use of its resources as on conservation.
A reference to her favourite meal underlines the point: ‘I hope the ecologists will forgive me,’ she says, ‘but in the rubber-tapper settlement where I lived as a child, game was very important. I still haven’t forgotten the flavour of a good farofa de paca (a large forest rodent, roasted with cassava).’
Whereas many political careers in Brazil are the product of wealth and privilege, Silva’s rise to prominence stems from a struggle for life itself. ‘My mother had 11 children, but 3 died when they were young,’ she explains. ‘Of the survivors I was the eldest. So from a young age I helped to look after my six sisters and one brother.’
There was no school where her family lived. Silva worked in the fields and in extracting rubber until she was 16. She suffered hunger, sometimes going without food for 24 hours at a time. At 14 she was still illiterate. A year later her mother died. ‘I had to acquire some knowledge to help my father,’ she says. ‘Simple mathematics at first, in order to calculate the weight of rubber.’
The experience whetted Silva’s appetite for education. Then, at 16, she contracted hepatitis. Ironically this helped her to realize her dream. ‘I was unable to do the heavy rubber-tapping work,’ she says. ‘I asked my father if I could move to the city because I wanted to study.’ In just three years she completed and passed all the necessary exams to enter university.
When rubber-tappers’ union president Chico Mendes helped found the Workers Party (PT) and decided to be an election candidate in Acre she joined him. They worked together in the trade-union movement and set up a congress in Acre. His assassination in 1988 was a personal tragedy for her.
‘We had many years of companionship which cannot be easily summarized,’ says Silva. ‘But what I have clearest in my mind is Chico himself – his way of being, his style of leadership. He knew how to listen and let everyone else speak, and only later would he make up his own mind. This is a very important lesson he left me.’
For both of them the biggest test came with the empates, the human-barrier campaigns against tree-felling which saved thousands of hectares of forest. ‘I remember them with great emotion,’ she says, ‘especially those organized by Chico Mendes in the Cachoeira rubber-tapper settlement’.
Though trade unionists and environmentalists are often the target of intimidation and violence in Brazil, non-violence is an important part of Silva’s political armour: ‘I have a great admiration for people who struggle in the way Gandhi did: at once activist and pacifist.’ As a local councillor in Rio Branco, the capital of Acre, she had to fight tooth and nail to get local conservatives to declare an official day of remembrance for Mendes. In the end she won.
‘They say I am a fighter,’ she says. ‘I agree, but I think that, in myself, the fight comes after the dream.’
Her current political success reflects the way environmental and social activists of her generation in Brazil have chosen to fight within the PT rather than the small Green Party. In their view the Greens deal with parks and flowers while the PT grapples with the socio-environmental crisis.
‘I identify with people who want a party of proposals, of dialogue with other parties and with civil society,’ says Silva – a coded message that she has moved away from the far-left politics of her youth. ‘The PT was the logical option,’ she concludes.
Today, already described as an ‘Amazon legend’ by the Brazilian press, Silva is a force to be reckoned with in the battle for the life and soul of the Amazon – the slash-and-burn developers and big landowners versus those who need the forest for their survival.
Tony Samphier is freelance journalist.
This interview is courtesy of Gemini News
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995