Photo: Elza Fiúza – Agência Brasil

By Juliet Eilperin, from The Washington Post

When international climate negotiators convene next month in Copenhagen, Brazilian politician Marina Silva will serve as the conference’s unofficial philosopher-activist. A native Amazonian who grew up in a community of rubber-tappers, Silva worked with murdered Amazonian activist Chico Mendes, won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 1996 and served as Brazil’s minister of the environment under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from 2002 to 2008. She spoke with Washington Post environment reporter Juliet Eilperin during a recent visit to Washington; Stephan Schwartzman of the Environmental Defense Fund translated from the Portuguese. Excerpts:

What inspired you to do environmental work?

It was a combination of things. First, the sensibility I gained from living with the forest, from being born there and taking my sustenance from it until I was 16 years old. Second was my contact with liberation theology, with people like Chico Mendes, a connection that raised social and political consciousness about the actions of the Amazonian rubber-tappers and Indians who were being driven out of their lands because the old rubber estates were being sold into cattle ranches. These encounters made me become engaged with the struggle in defense of the forest. Later, I discovered that this was about “the environment” and the protection of ecosystems. It was an ethical commitment that these natural resources could not be simply destroyed.

How does your Amazon upbringing affect the way you see the issues at stake?

Without doubt, the experience of living in one of the most biologically and culturally diverse regions of the world has affected how I see the world. I see two time frames: forest time and city time. Forest time is slower; things have to be more fully processed; information takes a long time to get there, so people didn’t have access to new information. When a new idea arrived, you thought about it, elaborated on it, talked about it for a long time. So this way of thinking, reflecting on and developing ideas, helps me have a sense of the preservation of things, to not make rushed decisions.

In your view, how is the international community responding to climate change?

We are already extremely close, in terms of the maximum of what is permissible in emissions. It’s an effort that both developing and developed countries have to make. What has been agreed to so far in the meetings leading up to Copenhagen is not terribly promising. Society has to reflect this kind of urgency to leaders, and leaders need to assume responsibility for taking on the issue, not only in terms of present interests but in terms of future interests.

What they would like to do, or what they would feel comfortable to do with the short-term time horizons of their mandates, is not enough.

To what extent do you think avoided deforestation in places like the Amazon can succeed at curbing global warming, given that deforestation accounts for 15 percent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions?

For this process to last, to be sustainable over time, we need to change the process of development. It’s not enough to say what people can’t do. You have to tell them what they can do, how they can do it and provide them with the means to do it. In the case of the Amazon, there are 25 million people living there, and they need alternatives. If there are not alternatives, there will once again be tremendous pressure on the forest. What’s needed is a change in the fundamental economics of the Amazon to create sustainable expectations to meet the needs of the people.

How do you view the United States’ current work on climate change?

We’re enthusiastic about what’s going on in the United States, the fact that there’s been a law passed by the House of Representatives. The fact that climate-change legislation is on the agenda of the United States is tremendously important. It’s a huge change, after being absent from the international negotiations for nearly 10 years, that the United States has returned.

For this process to last, to be sustainable over time, we need to change the process of development. It’s not enough to say what people can’t do. You have to tell them what they can do, how they can do it and provide them with the means to do it. In the case of the Amazon, there are 25 million people living there, and they need alternatives. If there are not alternatives, there will once again be tremendous pressure on the forest. What’s needed is a change in the fundamental economics of the Amazon to create sustainable expectations to meet the needs of the people.

How do you view the United States’ current work on climate change?

We’re enthusiastic about what’s going on in the United States, the fact that there’s been a law passed by the House of Representatives. The fact that climate-change legislation is on the agenda of the United States is tremendously important. It’s a huge change, after being absent from the international negotiations for nearly 10 years, that the United States has returned.

I recognize that the United States not having legislation [passed] in the Senate creates a problem. At the same time, the sentiment of the international community is going to demand that these [industrialized] countries take on a long-term target, an 80 percent reduction in emissions by midcentury. It’s important that there’s agreement around a long-term target. President Obama and the Congress are beginning a discussion that should have happened 10 years ago. But the fact that it has begun is very promising.

How optimistic are you that the world’s nations will take on binding commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions?

We already have the greater part of the technical responses that we need to address these problems. What we need to do is to put these technical responses and methods at the service of ethics, and take into consideration the fate of future generations.

Do you still live in the Amazon part of the time?

In my mind, I’m always in the Amazon. I just have a job that requires me to work in Brasilia for a certain time. I’m increasingly called upon to travel to other states in Brazil and outside of Brazil, but my reference point is Amazonia; it’s the locus from which I enter into dialogue with other regions of Brazil and the outside world. I make a point of returning to the Amazon at least once a month.

What was it like working with Chico Mendes? What might he make of Brazil’s and the world’s efforts on the environment today?

I worked and lived with Chico Mendes. It was sharing friendship and apprenticeship. It was principally a political apprenticeship, not in the sense of party politics, but the politics of how to relate to different parts of society, in this case the rubber-tappers. Chico Mendes had an enormous capacity for dialogue — even with those who were against him, who opposed him in the extreme — and to not let himself be intimidated by the seeming impossibility of dialogue. He didn’t allow other people’s indifference to influence him. Even if someone was indifferent to his cause, this didn’t mean he had to be indifferent to them. I learned that first we should count on relationships, on persuasion rather than conflict, on processes of co-authorship.

With regard to the efforts Brazil and the world have made on environmental issues, if Chico were alive he would agree that they are far beyond the times he experienced, when he had to confront the fury of those who wanted to do the same thing in the Amazon as was done in Brazil’s Atlantic forest and other Brazilian biomes. But he would also certainly conclude that these efforts are much less than the planet needs.

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