‘We need a civilizational change’

Marina Silva began her career as a rubber tapper before becoming Brazil’s youngest elected senator at age 35. Now, as the country’s environmental minister, she is making incredible strides in Amazon rainforest preservation. 

As the journal Nature detailed for its annual “Nature 10” series, Silva became involved in eco-friendly efforts after meeting environmental advocate Chico Mendes in the mid-1970s.  

The conservationist, a tapper like Silva, was killed in 1998 by a cattle rancher who had bought a rubber reserve with the intention of deforesting the land. Mendes, as noted by History.com,  fought for the preservation of sustainable reserves and had foiled the rancher’s plans.

Silva, who is native to the Amazon, fought alongside him before being elected to the senate in 1994. 

“I finally realized that all the social fights that I was carrying on — trying to give the people from the Amazon better lives and in making this region self-sufficient without spoiling the Amazon — that I needed government action, not only social non-government movements,” Silva said through a translator in a documentary by Goldman Environmental Prize that showcases her work.  

Silva also spoke to the biological loss and social impact of deforestation, noting that rubber plantations could employ hundreds of people at a time, whereas cattle ranchers would hire less than 10. 

Growing up, alongside her siblings, Silva extracted latex from trees in the Amazon to help support her economically disadvantaged family, according to Nature.

Today, Silva is taking the helm of Brazil’s environmental efforts for the second time after holding the position during President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s first term in 2003. Her action plan reduced deforestation by 83% from 2004 to 2012

While she resigned in 2008 over “differences of opinion with the government over development projects,” per Yale Environment 360, she returned under Lula da Silva after progress was lost with the government of Jair Bolsonaro, who served from 2019 to 2022. 

Now, deforestation rates are declining once more. 

“What fills me with joy is to see at work a concept that is very dear to me — that environmental policy should not be restricted to only one sector, but traverse all ministries,” she told Nature of her revamped program’s successful start. 

Silva has been honored with the 1996 Goldman Environmental Prize, the 2007 Champions of the Earth award, and the 2009 Sophie Prize. Recently, Time selected her as one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2024

Her work to restore the Amazon is ongoing, but, as she explained, that alone isn’t enough. 

“If countries do not reduce their CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, forests run the risk of being destroyed due to climate change, in the same way,” she told Nature. “So we need a civilizational change, a change in our ways of life.”

However, despite the task at hand, Silva pointed to how our actions and policies can create positive change.

“Obviously, this is not easy, but it’s also not easy for countries that are dependent on coal, oil, and gas to reduce their CO2 emissions to the point of zero by 2050. So, we have to believe, and we have to work,” she told Yale E360.

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