From the age of 10, Marina Silva would wake up before dawn to prepare food for her father, so that he could set off through the dense jungle before the heat of the tropical sun made it impossible for him to keep working. In Silva’s community of rubber tappers in Brazil’s northwestern state of Acre, survival depended on the collection of natural latex that bleeds like sap from the Amazon’s seringueira tree.
Today, the vice-presidential candidate and former minister of environment draws upon her past experiences in Acre as a model of sustainable living, promoting a government policy of cooperation with forest-dwellers to develop Brazil.
“Gone is the logic of doing for the people,” Silva said last week during the 66th annual meeting of the Sociedade Brasileira para o Progresso da Ciência (Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science–SBPC). “It is [a logic of] doing with the people…a new vision for the development of Brazil…that takes into account sustainability in all of its dimensions: economic, social, environmental, cultural, political, even aesthetic.”
Silva presented her new vision at the conference, held at her alma mater, the Universidade Federal do Acre (Federal University of Acre–UFAC), in the state capital of Rio Branco. The meeting in the oft-forgotten state of Acre united some 5,400 national and international policymakers, rubber tappers, subsistence farmers, student activists, and individuals from over a dozen Indigenous ethnicities.The theme of the five-day SBPC summit, “Science and Technology in an Amazon with No Borders,” was fitting for Acre’s shared borders with Peru and Bolivia and its location in the heart of the Amazon. The roughly 2.7 million-square-mile river basin spans nine nations including Brazil, where it sprawls over nine Brazilian states. Many of the lectures, roundtables, and seminars discussed the importance of looking past the geopolitical boundaries that divide Amazonia.
Silva’s championing of “bottom-up” development was reflected during small classroom discussions, post-event Q&A sessions, and impromptu meetings around the UFAC campus. Impassioned Peruvian and Brazilian Indigenous community members spoke out against the construction of the Inambari dam in the Peruvian Amazon; residents of Rio Branco voiced concern about the effects of planned oil and gas exploration in Acre; and ecologist Marlúcia Bonifácio Martins asserted that “Amazonia is not something that can just be solved with a pen and a desk in Brasília.”
These moments, along with Silva’s presence at the conference—held for the first time ever in Acre—highlighted this remote Amazonian state’s roots in social and environmental activism. It was in Acre that Silva gained experience together with union members, Indigenous leaders, and environmentalists, fighting to give a voice to those whose way of life requires a sustainable relationship between humans and the environment.
In her youth, Silva was an activist alongside local union leader Chico Mendes, whose campaign on behalf of rubber tappers, and subsequent assassination in 1988, made international news. The late Mendes was the driving force behind the government’s creation of extractive reserves, tracts of federally protected land that incentivize local producers to continue the conservation of the forest. The legacies of leaders like Mendes and Silva still pervade the innovative policy solutions, discourse, and attitude of Acre’s government and citizens.
It was appropriate, then, that the issues of sustainable extraction and Indigenous livelihoods were given special focus at this year’s SBPC meeting in Acre. Attendees discussed how to promote activities such as production of castanha (Brazil nut), natural rubber, and açaí berries. Indigenous leaders held workshops on the arduous training process of becoming a pajé (healer) and how Indigenous knowledge can contribute to Western scientific research.
Panelists also addressed threats to these traditional ways of life—from expanded cattle ranching to new highways and dams.
Marina Silva is no stranger to these kinds of projects. When she resigned as minister of environment in 2008 to protest the government’s plans to build new hydroelectric dams and roads in the Amazon, a director of Greenpeace said, “Brazil is losing the only voice in the government that spoke out for the environment.”
Brazil’s October elections will determine if that voice will return to the Brazilian government. Silva is running-mate to presidential candidate Eduardo Campos, who is currently polling third behind Aécio Neves and frontrunner President Dilma Rousseff.