By Fabiano Maisonnave
Brazil´s President-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced Thursday that Amazon activist Marina Silva will be the country´s next minister of environment. The announcement indicates the new administration will prioritize cracking down on illegal deforestation in the forest even if it means running afoul of powerful agribusiness interests.
Both attended the recent U.N. climate conference in Egypt, where Lula promised cheering crowds “zero deforestation” in the Amazon, the world's largest rainforest and a key to fighting climate change, by 2030. “There will be no climate security if the Amazon isn't protected,” he said.
His choice of Silva underscores that commitment — but the contentious pick may undermine his prospects for governability, given many agribusiness players and associated lawmakers resent her. The resentment stems from her time as environment minister during most of Lula's last presidency, from 2003 to 2010.
Lula also named Sonia Guajajara as Brazil’s first minister of Indigenous peoples, and Carlos Fávaro, a soybean producer, as agriculture minister.
Silva was born in the Amazon and worked as a rubber tapper as an adolescent. As environment minister she oversaw the creation of dozens of conservation areas and a sophisticated strategy against deforestation with major operations against environmental criminals and new satellite surveillance. She also helped design the largest international effort to preserve the rainforest, the mostly Norway-backed Amazon Fund. Deforestation dropped dramatically.
But Lula and Silva fell out as he began catering to farmers during his second term and Silva resigned in 2008.
Lula appears to have convinced her that he has changed tack, and she joined his campaign after he embraced her proposals for preservation. In her own appearance at the U.N. summit, Silva said Lula’s administration would protect forests and lead the way in fighting climate change.
“Brazil will return to the protagonist role it previously had when it comes to climate, to biodiversity,” Silva told reporters at the summit.
That would be a sharp turnabout from Bolsonaro, who pushed for development in the Amazon and whose environment minister resigned after national police began investigating whether he was aiding the export of illegally cut timber.
Bolsonaro froze the creation of protected areas, weakened environmental agencies and placed forest management under control of the agriculture ministry. He also championed agribusiness, which opposes the creation of protected areas such as Indigenous territories and pushes for the legalization of land grabbing. Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon reached a 15-year high in the year ending in July 2021, though the devastation slowed somewhat in the following 12 months.
In Egypt, Lula said his administration would prosecute all crimes in the forest, from illegal logging to mining. He also said he would press rich countries to make good on promises to help developing nations adapt to climate change. And he pledged to work with other nations home to large tropical forests — the Congo and Indonesia — in what could be coordinated negotiating positions on forest management and biodiversity protection.
As environment minister, Silva would be charged with carrying out much of that agenda.
Silva is also likely to face resistance from Congress, where the farm caucus next year will account for more than one-third of the Lower House and Senate.
Two lawmakers allied with Lula who come from the nation’s agriculture sector told The Associated Press they disagree with Silva’s nomination given the conflict of her prior tenure. They spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisals.
Others were more hopeful. Neri Geller, a lawmaker of the agribusiness caucus who acted as a bridge to Lula during the campaign, said things had changed since Silva's departure in 2008.
“At the time, Marina Silva was perhaps a little too extremist, but people from the agro sector also had some extremists," he said, also citing a strengthened legal framework around environmental protection. “I think she matured and we matured. We can make progress on important agenda items for the sector while preserving (the environment) at the same time."
Silva and Brazil stand to benefit from a rejuvenated Amazon Fund, which took a hit in 2019 when Norway and Germany froze new cash transfers after Bolsonaro excluded state governments and civil society from decision-making. The Norwegian Embassy in Brazil praised “the clear signals” from Lula about addressing deforestation.
“We think the Amazon Fund can be opened quickly to support the government’s action plan once the Brazilian government reinstates the governing structure of the fund,” the embassy said in a statement to the AP.
The split between Lula and Marina in his last administration came as the president was increasingly kowtowing to agribusiness, encouraged by voracious demand for soy from China. Tension within the administration grew when Mato Grosso state’s Gov. Blairo Maggi, one of the world’s largest soybean producers, and others lobbied against some of the anti-deforestation measures.
Lula and Silva were also at odds over the mammoth Belo Monte Dam, a project that displaced some 40,000 people and dried up stretches of the Xingu River that Indigenous and other communities depended upon for fish. Silva opposed the project; Lula said it was necessary to meet the nation’s growing energy needs and hasn’t expressed any regret since, despite the plant’s impact and the fact it is generating far below installed capacity.
After Silva resigned, she quit Lula’s Workers’ Party and became a fierce critic of him and his successor, Dilma Rousseff. Silva and Lula didn’t begin to reconcile until this year’s presidential campaign, finding common cause in defeating President Jair Bolsonaro, whom they deemed an environmental villain and would-be authoritarian.
Caetano Scannavino, coordinator of Health and Happiness, an Amazon nonprofit that supports sustainable projects, said Silva “grew to become someone larger than only an environment minister.”
“This is important, as the challenges in the environmental area are even greater than two decades ago,” Scannavino said, citing growing criminal activities in the Amazon and increasing pressure from agribusiness eager to export to China and Europe. "Silva’s success is Brazil’s success in the world, too. She deserves all support.”
AP writer Carla Bridi contributed from Brasilia and Diane Jeantet from Rio de Janeiro.
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UPDATES: Adds detail about official announcements.