Green activist Marina Silva is to return as Brazil’s environment minister, with the task of implementing the new leftwing government’s pledge to eliminate deforestation in the Amazon rainforest by the end of the decade.
Silva’s appointment was confirmed on Thursday by incoming president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, as he seeks to follow through on his promise to end the destruction of the forest that took place under the rule of his defeated rightwing rival Jair Bolsonaro.
Silva, a life-long environmentalist born to a family of poor rubber tappers in the Amazonian state of Acre, occupied the same post for more than five years during Lula’s first stint in office from 2003 to 2010, earning international plaudits for championing ecological causes.
But she also provoked the ire of powerful farming interests before she resigned in frustration in 2008 after losing important political battles in her fight to preserve the Amazon.
In an interview days before Lula’s narrow victory over Bolsonaro in October, Silva told the Financial Times that the leading agricultural nation could expand output without levelling more trees.
“There is no need to deforest anymore,” she said. “We have to face the challenge of increasing production through productivity gains based on technology.”
The 64-year-old Silva re-enters government at a critical moment for the world’s largest rainforest. Scientists have warned that the ecosystem, which is a natural buffer against climate change due to its ability to absorb carbon dioxide, is approaching a “tipping point” when it becomes hotter and drier with less ability to store C02.
Far-right nationalist Bolsonaro is accused by campaigners of giving the green light to loggers, miners and cattle ranchers behind illegal tree fellings and fires during his four-year presidency that ends on December 31. Rights groups also say invasions on indigenous lands have increased.
More than 11,500 sq km — an area about the size of Qatar — were razed in the Brazilian Amazon between August 1 2021 and July 31 2022, according to data from the country’s national space research agency.
Although an 11.3 per cent drop from the 15-year peak hit in 2021, it was the second-highest level since 2009. During Bolsonaro’s time in office, average annual deforestation in the Amazon has been roughly 60 per cent greater than in the preceding four years.
Environmentalists hope that Silva, a former union activist who was illiterate until aged 16, can repeat her past success in curbing devastation. “Marina will have to bring back what worked in the past, but looking ahead [also recognise] that the environmental challenges faced by the Amazon are more urgent and complex now than when she was in office years ago,” said Leandro Ramos, campaign director for Greenpeace Brazil.
A significant reduction in forest clearances during Lula’s first year in office may also prove tricky, given the official data will include the final five months of Bolsonaro’s mandate.
Among the top priorities for Silva, who was recently elected a federal lawmaker for São Paulo state, will be rebuilding environmental inspection and enforcement agencies that have suffered funding cuts under the current administration.
Erika Berenguer, a senior research associate at the University of Oxford and Lancaster University, said Silva would inherit a “completely weakened” ministry. “Things have changed in the past 15 to 20 years,” she added. “There’s now an increased penetration of organised crime in the Amazon.”
The appointment completes a political reconciliation between Silva and Lula, of whose Workers’ party, or PT, she was once a longstanding member.
Silva’s departure as environment chief in 2008 followed clashes with fellow cabinet members. She had unsuccessfully opposed the planting of genetically modified crops and plans for major infrastructure developments in the Amazon. Silva quit the PT in 2009, later launching three failed bids for the presidency.
Lula’s inauguration on January 1 in Brasília will take place against heightened security concerns, following the arrest last weekend of a man whom police said planted a bomb on a fuel truck near the city’s airport.