By the time I arrived at Marina Silva’s office in the Ministry of the Environment and (fortunately, now also) Climate Change, I had gone past a number of excited officials. There is something light and cheerful about the corridors of the modernist building on the Esplanade of Ministries in the city of Brasilia. For those who managed to survive the years of Jair Bolsonaro and his anti-environment ministers, Ricardo Salles and the less flamboyant — but no less destructive — Joaquim Álvaro Pereira Leite, the change is so radical that it doesn’t even feel like the same building. For those who have just arrived or come back after the long dark winter that lasted four years but felt like 40, the idea of being able to once again act on behalf of the environment turns into a joy that is the power to actually do something, which is so present in the Amazon Forest. And this is the case, even though they know they have come back to a land that has quite literally been ravaged and they face huge challenges. This would be true in any context, but it is much more so after the ministry was “cut off at the knees”, as the minister declared in the following interview, and with a budget which, notwithstanding the funding increase gained during the transition process, is still considerably short of what is needed.
Marina Silva was sitting behind her ministerial desk when I entered. Her office is a vast, lengthy room with a large meeting table. She was wearing casual clothes that had an austere elegance, with a Xavante inspired necklace made out of recycled plastic bottles (unfortunately not the one in the photo that illustrates this page). For Marina, ethics is also expressed through aesthetics. And with her style she exhibited the same bridge between worlds that she sustains in life, by belonging at the same time to the Amazon Forest, to the rubber plantations in the State of Acre where she was born and grew up, and to the academic intellectual circles, where she sought to round out her knowledge. This synthesis is not always easy to achieve in the world of politics, but in aesthetics she found the refined simplicity that has become her trademark. There was also a modesty, perhaps inspired by her evangelical faith, in her choice of clothes and the curly hair of her African ancestry tied up in a tight bun.
The minister preferred to do the interview at her desk, which keeps a considerable distance between her and her interviewer, and also indicated a hierarchical position. She remained on one side, while her press officer, Felipe Werneck and I were on the other. During more difficult answers or when Marina had doubts about how far she should go, they exchanged glances. We both recorded the interview, which lasted for almost an hour and a half, a difficult length of time for a person in public office who works as hard as she does. Marina answered all the questions.
The most difficult questions, and we knew this in advance, were about the tons of steel and concrete called Belo Monte dam, built by Workers’ Party governments and which is now back on the new government’s desk, like a giant boomerang. And, also in relation to what is emerging as a source of major disagreements: oil exploration at the mouth of the Amazon and the connected fate of Petrobras. Fossil fuels, which are nowadays regarded as a major villain in the climate crisis, are still viewed in a positive light in the very soul of the Brazilian left, particularly those whose origins lie in the trade unions, which was the birthplace of the Workers Party. Pre-salt oil development was the flashy highlight of Lula’s second mandate. And now oil will progressively have to be replaced and Petrobras will have to become a renewable energy company, if Brazil wishes to walk in synch with the enlightened part of the world that doesn’t deny the climate crisis, and if Lula wants to maintain his international popularity and the investments that come with it.
Marina Silva was Minister of the Environment in Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s first term in office and remained in the position until 2008, when, due to disagreements, she left the government and the following year left the Workers Party after a period of notable achievements during her stewardship. Her central role in the broad front that helped Lula achieve a (narrow) victory was a decisive factor for her return to office in the Workers Party’s third mandate. It was due to his negotiations with Marina that the president made a public commitment to the Amazon, other biomes, and measures to tackle the climate crisis.
The Minister of the Environment and Climate Change answered the thorniest and most abstract questions with diplomacy. After spending four years listening to politicians who could not put together a meaningful sentence, a hallmark of the Bolsonaro years, it is a relief to finally listen to a woman who is both a skilled politician and a great thinker. So, let’s listen to her.
SUMAÚMA – Marina, you are coming back to the ministry after almost 15 years. There is a general sense of euphoria, on the part of a segment of Brazilian society, because it is a relief to have a democratic government after four years of Bolsonaro. But you are taking on a ministry that has literally been gutted. What is it like to wake up and go to sleep with this situation?
Marina Silva – Look, I am living a paradox. We have got problems on a scale that make me very tense, very sad and very worried. But despite all of this, it’s also a very joyous moment for me. Twenty years ago, when first I entered [the ministry], I was 44. Now I am 65, and the feeling I have is the same one, of worry and joy. But I hope to God that [I am coming back] a little bit wiser.
[In 2003], this ministry was handed over to me by Zé Carlos Carvalho [Minister of the Environment in Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s administration], and the government was handed over to Lula by Fernando Henrique. [This time round] nobody handed the ministry over to me, there was no one here, just a few officials. It was full of military people who were here more for the purpose of sabotage than anything else, throughout the entire Bolsonaro administration.
Last time, it was a case of fixing the plane while it was in flight. Now the feeling I have is that we are manufacturing the plane while it is in flight. I don’t even know if we should say this, but I will say it anyway: we are working with 53% of Ibama [Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources]. When I arrived here, 20 years ago, we had 1,100 inspectors in the inspection area. When I left, in 2008, we had 1,700 inspectors. Now, I am left with just 700 inspectors. That is the scale of the dismantling.
We did not have civil service entrance examinations, people were threatened, harassed, abandoned, frightened. Those who could retire, did so, those who were close to retirement, brought their retirement forward, those who managed to pass another examination, did so and switched to a different area. This is the state of affairs that I found here at the ministry. And if you talk to each ministry, they will have their shortages. It is not only that this ministry with deficits, it is not just the government with deficits, but the entire public policy that suffers deficits. Public institutions have been cut off at the knees. What we are doing here initially is making an effort to put in some replacements so that we can walk.
Everyone knew that the environmental area was devastated. You took part in the transition team and saw up close what they had done in this ministry. But was there anything that, when you came in here, caught you by surprise, that was even worse than you had imagined?
I think that all of this that I have just mentioned: we came in and found that Ibama had just 53% of its full complement of employees. Observing the level of emotional and psychological suffering that the civil servants were going through was worse than I imagined. To come here and listen to the civil servants saying that they could only reach a certain height of the door [points to a place well before her desk], with a security barrier system… This is a civil society that didn’t come here, right? I am getting an average of 50 requests a day for hearings. Multiply this by 60 days and you have got a huge pent-up demand.
ON MARCH 5, 2023, MARINA JOINED ASSISTANCE WORK AT THE FEDERAL BASE INSTALLED IN THE YANOMAMI INDIGENOUS LAND, IN RORAIMA. PHOTO: FELIPE WERNECK /MINISTRY OF THE ENVIRONMENT AND CLIMATE CHANGE
And how do you deal with this?
Firstly, by addressing this shortage, which is what we are already doing. We were able to get a 19% increase in the ministry’s budget in the PEC [Proposed Constitutional Amendment], you know? We got an extra 560 million [reais] for the Ministry. A good part of this has gone on enforcement actions, to the green grant [program that is aimed at helping families in extreme poverty, encouraging nature protection practices]. Although this 19% increase is nowhere near the amount we need, at least it helps put us back in the position we were in during the pre-Bolsonaro period. What gives us even more strength is President Lula. He is calling for zero deforestation, he is saying climate change is at the top of the priority list, and we can already see that 11 Ministries have created either offices or departments or a general coordination bureau [related to climate change].
President Lula committed himself to the climate issue and to the Amazon in speeches during his campaign, in his victory commemorations, at his inauguration, and at the Climate Summit. When we denounced the Yanomami genocide, he went to Boa Vista [the State of Roraima’s capital] and took part of the ministry with him, showing the State was present to protect the indigenous peoples. This represents a strong important symbolic image. But if you are president of a country and you are not a mass murderer, then the decision to bar genocide is an easy choice. It may be technically and logistically difficult, but ethically it is an easy choice and it is also a constitutional obligation. But soon, the hard choices will come, the ones that will really show the real scale of Lula’s commitment to the Amazon and to tackling the climate crisis. And what I am talking about here is the exploration of oil, gas, fossil fuels. We know that oil is something that is very symbolic in Brazil, at least since the time of Getúlio Vargas [1882-1954]. Something that is linked to wealth and progress, something that Lula loves, all you have to do is take a look at the photo that epitomized the boom of his second mandate, with his hands filthy from the pre-salt oil. You left the government in 2008, during Lula’s second term, and in 2009 you left the Workers Party. Could oil be the topic of discord in this third term? How do you intend to deal with this issue?
Look, I wouldn’t say it was a question of dealing with it. We have to start celebrating achievements, so that we don’t stay put at square one, you know? Celebrating the fact that we previously had a government that opted for oil, opted for genocide, opted not to vaccinate, opted not to respect human rights, opted to be racist, and opted to be macho-homophobic. And now we have to celebrate the fact that we have a government that opts for indigenous people, that opts for human rights, that opts for zero deforestation, and that faces a challenge regarding energy generation. The world has not yet been able to get rid of this source of energy generation, you know? It’s a hard choice.
In my opinion, and this is my personal opinion, Petrobras cannot continue as an oil exploration company. This is a challenge both for the government as well as for its shareholders. It has to be an energy company that will use the money from oil to make this [energy] transition, to quit this source that has a shocking impact on the planet’s balance.
This is a challenge that is set as an objective to be pursued, but we know that, with the installed capacity that we currently have [of alternative energy], there is no way yet to meet our needs. So, we have to work on the transition, and that is why we attach so much value to the idea of other sources of energy generation, and that is what President Lula has been saying. Including for us to be a solution for other countries that will have a very hard time giving up the use of fossil fuels, as is particularly the case with Europe, which is dependent on coal and gas from Russia.
MANED BIRDS FLY OVER THE REGION OF BOM AMIGO, ON THE COAST OF AMAPÁ, ONE OF THE AREAS THREATENED BY OIL EXPLORATION IN FOZ DO AMAZONAS: THIS PROJECT IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES ON IBAMA’S TABLE. PHOTO: DANIEL BELTRÁ/GREENPEACE
Right now, the new management of Petrobras, this government’s Petrobras, is going ahead with oil exploration at the mouth of the Amazon. It seems surreal that in the 21st century, you have got ‘oil’ and ‘Amazon’ in the same sentence, on a planet which is in climate collapse, but that is what is happening. And it is on Ibama’s desk. How is this ministry going to deal with this?
I am looking at this challenge [of oil] in the same way that I looked at Belo Monte. It has a very high impact and we have an instrument for dealing with very high impact projects, which is the integrated environmental assessment instrument. We have to look at the river basin. The strategic environmental assessment instrument, which was an innovation during President Lula’s first government, when Dilma [Rousseff] was still Minister of Mines and Energy, helped us to avoid putting some extremely controversial oil blocks up for auction. This instrument can be used for any situation, as long as it has a certain complexity. In my opinion, this exploration has this complexity.
But, in my view, I think this is a debate that we need to have not just as a government, but as a society. Because these are choices, right? We were able to make a choice for democracy. It was clearly stated that the government is committed to zero deforestation, so I am working under the assumption that it is no longer just the choice of a government or of a group of parties. It is now also the choice of a significant chunk of the people who voted for this project.
There is an element of sustainability that is political sustainability. The climate issue, the forest issue and the indigenous peoples’ issue have gained political sustainability and we are here to work on this. Of course, these are paradoxes, they are negotiations that are being made with a reality that has a very high level of complexity. It is a country that has to protect its forests, has to protect its native peoples. It has to change the way it produces food both for itself as well as for the rest of the world, tackling the problem of 33 million people going hungry. Are we going to be able to take care of the 33 million people who are starving without growth? What is the challenge to achieve growth without this meaning more violence, because this growth with more deforestation has never solved the problem of the poor. Quite the opposite, right? These are choices that are being made and we are dealing with the principle of reality. But they lead to a path. And that is what I see, I feel, that president Lula is committed to this agenda, you know what I mean? I think that it is up to us, as a society, to us as managers, to us as scientists, to help give this new agenda political, technical and cultural sustainability.
But there is this urgent question of the licensing for the drilling of Block 59, at the mouth of the Amazon, which is now sitting on Ibama’s desk. And it is a process that is coming to an end. Just now, in February, a team from Petrobras went to Amapá to talk to the indigenous people, saying how wonderful this oil exploration there would be. And this is moving forwards. And we are very anxious in relation to this decision. What will Ibama’s decision be?
If I say anything now, it will be a political stance. If I say that we will make a statement in the case file, it will be a decision of a technical nature, which does not mean that it is devoid of any political content. What I can predict is that we have instruments to work with that are already in place as part of the reality of a highly complex and high-impact undertaking. It cannot be a purely one-off licensing, it will be necessary to conduct a strategic environmental assessment and put all the elements, all the implications of a project like this on the table.
Does my analysis that the oil question, the issue of fossil fuels, could be a point of contention between this ministry and the presidency, between you and President Lula, make sense?
Look, I am 65. President Lula is 77 and he has made commitments which he is living up to. I want to focus on helping to find the answers. This is the third time we are here. Out of the whole government, it is just me and him who are here for the third time. It was his [Lula’s] choice to call me for the third time. And it was my choice to come back for the third time with this feeling that we can help to find the paths, in some cases, and in other cases to find new ways to move forwards. And this I am borrowing from [Amazonian poet] Thiago de Mello [1926-2022]. I arrived here [in 2003] and six months later Congress approved the law on transgenics. It was a very intense discussion within the government, but the project that came out of the Office of the Chief of Staff, by order of President Lula, came out exactly as we had designed it. It was a model of coexistence. We were going to decree some areas free of transgenics.
That was the arrangement we drew up, the project went to Congress and they overturned this model. I remember that a group of environmentalists came here, brought me flowers and a message: “It is time for you to leave.” I said: “But we have been here for six months, is this question of transgenics our Armageddon?” And I told myself that my Armageddon was the Amazon. And indeed, it was. I don’t want to be forced to choose an Armageddon right now.
Minister, Belo Monte is back on your desk, right? The renewal of the license to operate the hydroelectric plant has been on Ibama’s desk since last year. There are a number of conditions that have not been fully met up until now [13 out of 47], the Big Bend of the Xingu is drying up because Norte Energia [the power plant’s concessionaire] is using the river as if it were a giant water tank, and this is causing an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe. Well, SUMAÚMA comes from this world, as it is based in the Middle Xingu, and the people there really want to know what Ibama is going to do. We know that remediation [in the sense of undoing the damage already done] is no longer possible, but justice and mitigation is. Those who closely monitor Ibama know the technical team and its opinions have often been ignored in order to accommodate a political decision. What is going to happen now, given the operating license is back on your desk? This is a question that was put to me by people who are suffering immensely and whose lives depend on this decision.
This point is really painful, the idea that there are a lot of things that there is no way of remedying. Ibama will have to look at it from a technical viewpoint. What is there that should not be made worse, in terms of issues that have already been clearly proven? Not to look at the curve [of the Xingu’s Big Bend] simply as a thing. If it continues to be used as the water tank, as you just pointed out, the situation will get even worse than it already is. You have to look at and take into account all of these issues before making a decision that will be forwarded as a response to this license application for a reality that is already in three dimensions. The only thing I can say is that I have no way to give you an answer without all the facts. We are totally comfortable in relation to doing the analysis. That is the difference: nobody is going to be coerced, as they were before, and this represents a total change.
But can you guarantee, as a minister, that Ibama’s technical decisions will be respected?
Look, I have never issued a license here that was based on political decisions. No license has ever been issued because of political decisions.
THE DISASTROUS BELO MONTE HYDROELECTRIC POWER PLANT, WHICH WAS APPROVED AND BUILT UNDER WORKERS PARTY RULE, IS UP FOR A LICENSE RENEWAL. PHOTO: LILO CLARETO
So, can the people of the Xingu therefore expect, that the operting conditions of Belo Monte will finally be met?
You are asking me questions that are not within my purview. We can establish the conditions. But it is not actually Ibama that enforces these conditions. We can use legal means to make sure they are complied with, because otherwise what is sometimes the company’s responsibility, the judiciary’s responsibility, other sectors’ responsibility ends up becoming the environmental sector’s responsibility. And I think we have to relieve Ibama and the ministry of this burden. We will do our part. And I hope we can do it in a way that is in the public’s interest, in the best way possible.
Can the population of the forest trust that there will be no more hydroelectric dams in the Amazon?
We will strive to ensure other sources of energy generation are given priority, among other reasons, because the large-scale projects, such as Belo Monte, have not solved our energy generation problems and have created other infinitely more serious problems, with enormous damage from the economic, social and environmental point of view. We have to look at other things, but obviously it’s not just the ministry [of the environment]. We also have the Ministry of Mines and Energy. We will work to prioritize other reduced impact sources or projects as much as possible.
So, the Tapajós River is not going to get any [large hydroelectric dams]?
Well, I can’t speak for the Ministry of Mines and Energy, you know? Based on what the president said, we are going to make other sources of energy generation a priority.
We have just experienced this extreme event, on the northern coast of the State of São Paulo, where you actually flew over the area in a helicopter to see the extent of the destruction. This was one of the first times the wealthiest people were personally affected by an extreme event of the climate emergency era. Although most of those who were killed and made homeless were poor people, many of the wealthiest were suddenly confined to their mansions, casting doubts over the idea that they would always be safe. But again, many of them rose above the wreckage in their helicopters, leaving behind them on the ground children, pregnant women and old people who are part of the underprivileged classes. This is a very powerful image of Climate Apartheid, isn’t it? And, probably, what we will see next is that, instead of restoring nature’s infrastructure, like restoring the hills, we will focus once again just on repairing the material infrastructure, such as roads. How can we make the elites realize that, on a planet where extreme events are an ever-increasing occurrence, the day will come when helicopters will not save them? Because it is still the elites who, to a large extent, determine public policies…
Unfortunately, we have set in motion a process [the climate crisis] that we have no way of controlling. Unfortunately, [greenhouse gas] emissions have already changed the established natural weather patterns that have accompanied human beings up until this point. And even if we manage to get to zero emissions now, we may not be able to reverse what has already changed. So, we will have to adapt to these new natural patterns. And these new natural patterns are more detrimental to the poorest people.
That’s where the idea of climate justice comes in as a political-philosophical-ideological support, to back up this adaptation. These people will need safe spaces because they won’t have a helicopter to fly above the mud and then be able to go to their safe places. There also have to be safe places for the most vulnerable.
There are already some situations where the rich are also being affected, such as the case of the drought in State of Rio Grande do Sul. Maybe it is hurting the major crops more, which no one wants to see. As you said, there comes a time when there is nowhere to go by helicopter. The only thing we can do is to mitigate, adapt, adapt, adapt. That is why, ever since the transition, we have already raised the question of having a plan to prevent the effects caused by extreme climate events. This plan would include the National Mitigation Plan.
We already have a historical series, [that allows us to know] where these events are happening on a recurring basis. Why aren’t these 1,038 municipalities receiving Climate Emergency State status, so that the budgets can be allocated for this emergency, so that the construction work that needs to be done doesn’t have to go through the same time-consuming process as a construction project that is executed under normal circumstances? Ah, but this can lead to corruption [they say]. We could arrange alternatives that offer a structure of transparency, with the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Court of Auditors, society and academic experts monitoring certain projects, whether they are population removal projects, drainage infrastructure projects, or reforestation projects, which, as [climate scientist] Carlos Nobre says, is the most effective way to do this containment. We also have to work with warning systems, with escape routes. This is for the climate emergency that has already been installed, for immediate prevention. We also need medium and long-term preventive measures. With a diagnosed emergency, it is possible to act preventively, to act in a more structural way. Adaptation will not work if there is no mitigation [reduction of the effects of the climate crisis], because it will only aggravate the adaptation. We need mitigation so that we don’t get to the point where there is no longer anything to adapt to.
RESIDENTS TRY TO CLEAN UP THE MUD IN BARRA DO SAHY, AFTER THE EXTREME WEATHER EVENT THAT KILLED 65 PEOPLE AND MADE OVER 4,000 HOMELESS IN FEBRUARY ON THE NORTH COAST OF SÃO PAULO. PHOTO: ROVENA ROSA/BRAZIL AGENCY
There are a number of parallel but connected realities in the Amazon and in Brazil. There is this government that represents an enormous relief for all of those who have been living in the forest during the last few years. There is the government demonstrating that the State is back in charge in those areas that had been taken over by criminals, such as in the case of the Yanomami Indigenous Land. But, at the same time, you have a Congress full of destroyers of the Amazon and other biomes, and cities in the Amazon region where most of the city halls and city councils are controlled by land grabbers, loggers and gold miners. For example, just a few weeks ago, the mayor of the municipality of Itaituba [in the State of Pará] held a public meeting to encourage the gold miners of the Tapajós region to continue mining. How do you deal with these realities?
I think we have a good amount of experience that was proven for 10 years, which was the PPCDAm [Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon, created in 2004]. For 10 years we had an ongoing public policy, even with all the problems, which was then weakened and eventually totally discontinued for four years. Now, in the current four years [of Lula’s government] the aim is to maintain the State’s presence. It is not easy, because we have a set of demands at this moment. We need to look at every front. What we have to stop is having industries that produce environmental damage. This is the what has to stop, because before long we will be using all of our staff and all of the public sector’s resources just to keep putting out the fires.
This is a restraint that is linked to something that is a lot more complex, which is the restraint of political consciousness, because we also decided to be a democracy. It is the people who choose the mayor, who choose the president and who choose the federal deputies, and we are in a situation where the people, and unfortunately also our people in the Amazon, have made their choice. There is only one deputy with a tradition of resistance who came back [was reelected]. All the others who were elected did not come from this tradition of resistance. Maybe there were new ones who were elected who are committed to this agenda. But those who were historically committed to this agenda were not reelected. So, there is a political process of dispute that is in place and this has to be handled very wisely.
That is why I say that, even though there are contradictions, I prefer to focus on what strengthens us. And it is the political vision, the political decision, the political sensitivity that is in favor of preservation, that is in favor of the indigenous people, that is in favor of changing the model. Because the other side is already there, in the way of thinking that, in order to have liquidity, you have to destroy something, you have to destroy the forest, you have to destroy water resources, you have to destroy diversity, you have to destroy the indigenous peoples. Isn’t this the way of thinking that has been going on for 300, 400 years? The other way of thinking is still being proposed in a very flimsy way. What are the advantages of betting on this other logic [namely that of preservation and respect for diversity]? What are the economic instruments that also betting on this other logic? Because not everybody is going to support it just because they have feelings about it. Or I don’t even know if it was a choice, you know? If it was a decision made with the heart, which was already in us even before we became politically aware of it. But not everyone will take action based on their feelings. They will take action for a reason, right? Even if it is for the environmental reason, even if it is for the social reason.
There is the Crop Plan (Plano Safra) for the big farmers, there is a Crop Plan for family farming, and now we are going to have the Pronaf [National Program for the Strengthening of Agriculture] for the extractivists, the Brazil nut growers, those who make their living from harvesting babassu palm trees, the babassu coconut breakers, the traditional fishermen, the indigenous communities in that their production is in accordance with their endogenous choices, because their production is also extremely valuable.
I was having a chat with the Minister Margareth [Menezes, of Culture], who very kindly came here to give me a birthday hug, about the idea of creating a type of royalty for the use of indigenous motifs, of indigenous iconography. Whoever uses them will have to pay royalties. It is a collective process, with a fund that will benefit everyone. There are very beautiful things. Even this is a Xavante necklace [points to a beautiful necklace around her neck]. I have an original Xavante one, which I was given, you know, but this person here [the one who made the necklace she’s wearing] I think she made it out of a recycled plastic bottle. There are these wonderful prints, that never get boring. If I wear an outfit with flowers every day no one can stand it, but when you look at these [indigenous prints] you don’t get tired of them. There are many things we can do in another frequency, in another direction. And it cheers me up to see people in 11 ministries talking about transversality.
When you are dealing with an issue like this, there is no seniority criterion. It doesn’t matter if we were there at the start. It is important that everyone pitches in. That is what the bible teaches, where, when hiring workers in the vineyard, Jesus says that some were hired at 5 o’clock in the morning and others at the end of the afternoon, and in the end they all received the same wages. It seems unfair, but it was only possible to collect the entire harvest with those who arrived in the first hour, with those who arrived in the second hour, and with those who arrived in the last hour. Because, no matter how hard we have been working right from the start [on the environmental issue], we will not be able to complete this new harvest by ourselves. So, it needs those who are coming on board now and those who will come on board later, right?
In the old days, sometimes I used to think: “My God, this sneaky so and so was over there until yesterday…”. [on the opposite side, on the side of destruction]. Then, I began to feel happy, you know: “Wow, do you see, she is coming over to our side. Even if she comes on account of another reason, with other political, ideological, aesthetic motivations. I will repeat something else now: whether it is for love of Christ or whether it’s due to vanity, the important thing is that [the person] preaches the Gospel, because the language of love speaks for itself. The language of what is well done, the language of what is ethical and what is aesthetic speaks for itself. What I see is this effort that we are making so that this agenda can be a winner. A spark can illuminate other lights, right? Maybe it is because I think this way that I am here, experiencing this paradox of being very worried, but at the same time very excited.
Subjectivity, culture, seems to be the most important thing to me and is harder to address. Normally what catches the eye in relation to the Amazon issue, is deforestation, mining, and things which can fought with impactful actions. How long does it take to restore a river contaminated by mercury? How long does it take to restore the forest? But there is something that has occurred in the last few years that seems to me much more horrific, in the sense that it may well be impossible to restore, which is the destruction of culture. The most effective way of destroying nature is by destroying culture. When you see Yanomami teenagers who, in the space of just two or three years, were torn from a traditional culture that has endured for thousands of years, to the use of alcohol and cocaine, to the grooming of Yanomami girls for prostitution, to the use of cell phones – and not because of the cell phones themselves, but rather because this came into their lives suddenly – it seems to me that there is no way to salvage this, because it has changed from the inside. I have also seen this occur in the extractive reserves in the Terra do Meio region, this internal change, which is the change of subjectivity, of their being and existing in the world. This is the most effective attack of governments like Bolsonaro’s. And there is no Ibama operation that can solve it. I wanted to hear your opinion on this.
The cultural changes are not in the physical body, they are in the soul. It is the place of meaning, the place of significance. These are the most difficult, the most uncontrollable. It is the result of the contact between one human being and another. And there is no way this contact can be germ-free, except when we start off from the perspective that we are two different realities, that we can mutually question each other, even if it is for each of us to walk deeper in our respective direction. When we start off from this ideal world, you know? Then it is possible for us to coexist. Without wanting to persuade the other that beauty is what I think it is, that prosperous is what I think it is, and not the beauty and prosperity of the singularity of the social and cultural condition, of the indigenous worldview.
INDIGENOUS PEOPLE OBSERVE THE DESTRUCTION CAUSED BY MINING IN YANOMAMI TERRITORY DURING AN AUGUST 2022 MEETING IN WATORIKI VILLAGE, DEMINI REGION. PHOTO: PABLO ALBARENGA/SUMAÚMA
Unfortunately, as Caetano [Veloso] says, our culture and our civilization, regards anything that is not a reflection of itself as being ugly. But, more than that, it wants to destroy those who enjoy life in a way that is different to us. Those who I can’t get through to or understand. Unless I start off from the assumption that I don’t need to be gotten through to, that I don’t need to understand: I just have to be willing to offer and receive. And the offer will never be an imposition. And nor is what I receive an imposition. But you don’t see a white person, in the language of the West, who transformed himself into an indigenous person. Only my shaman uncle Pedro Mendes, who at the age of 12 went to live with the Indians of the Upper Madeira River, and left there as a westerner who was almost an indigenous person, educated there.
And that unconscious hatred is there, it is that which wants to make this different way of enjoying life the same. Be the same as me. It is that which thinks that being rich is having food in the barn and not in the river, which thinks that being rich is having fruit trees planted one after the other rather than us running after it in the forest, climbing up the cocoa tree and climbing up the Bacuri (Platonia insignis) tree and going underneath the palm tree and eating the palm and seeing the time when the breu (Protium heptaphyllum) trees are all white in the forest and eating the tree’s fruit because you found it at the right time, when it is in season, and when there is no fruit on the breu to go without it and think I can go and eat something else.
No, not us, we want to eat oranges all year round, melons all year round, grapes all year round, strawberries all year round, and we simply don’t understand. How is it that there are people who are happy not having fish in the freezer because they would rather have the fish in the river?
Wow, how amazing it is to have fish in the river, I don’t know how to live just having fish in the river, but this is a way of life that I want to see continue, that is why the land should be marked out. That’s why there shouldn’t be any illegal gold mining. That’s why there shouldn’t be any farms. That is why there is an issue that I don’t even know how it works, because I shouldn´t even have contact with it, because this is a choice and this is the choice of the supreme power. Because the greatest power is not the power to do what I can do and I want to do. The greatest power is the one where, even though I know how to do it and even though I can do it and even though I want to do it, I don’t do it. Like entering the land of those who want to be left alone.
Marina, it is not by chance that the first minister of indigenous peoples is a woman, Sonia Guajajara, that the first indigenous president of Funai (National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples) is a woman, Joenia Wapichana. Nor that you, the minister of environment and climate change, who was in Lula’s first two terms of office and are now here for his third mandate, are a woman. More and more, women are playing leading roles in the Amazon and in all biomes, not just in Brazil but also throughout the rest of the world, and there is a growing consensus that it is only through women’s leadership that it will be possible to protect the forests and tackle the climate crisis. Do you agree with this idea?
MARINA SILVA CELEBRATES THE ARRIVAL IN CONGRESS OF NEWLY ELECTED SONIA GUAJAJARA AND CELIA XAKRIABÁ, IN FEBRUARY 2023. SONIA LEFT HER SEAT TO TAKE OVER THE MINISTRY OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES. PHOTO: MATHEUS ALVES
This perspective at this moment is related to the practice of caring. Of doing it together, of thinking together, of not getting tied down to pre-established models. Thinking this way, for sure it will be the women that will make it right. But we don’t want this other part, namely the men to be excluded from the process. I hope they will be motivated by this female way of doing things. Because that is the challenge that is faced by women, of not doing things in the Cartesian way, where you are going to put all your bets on a single leader. But rather that they are distributed in this collective that we women represent. I have already said that we need a world without heroes and I don’t know if we will be able to achieve this world without heroes, but the day we don’t need heroes anymore, I think we will rest more, sleep more, have more fun, spend more time just lazing around, you know? Because the world of heroes puts a very heavy burden on some people, to do what makes them into heroes. And a very great weight on others, too, in what makes them anti-heroes. And since heroes are rare and there are a lot of anti-heroes, it means that there will never be enough heroes in order for us to be able to rest.
Marina, you said at the start of the interview that in this government out of all the people from Lula’s first mandate, back in 2003, there is just you and him. Why only you two?
As I am a woman of faith, I think that first of all it is by the will of God and of the Brazilian people. And this has significance for me as well as for president Lula. And I am not putting myself on the same footing here. His weight is incomparably greater, his political leadership is incomparably greater, and so on. We have countless political leaders in the environmental area, most of whom are more competent than me. So, once again it means that something very big has happened. Maybe we need to fertilize the seed again. The seed of democracy, the seed of public policies, the seed of respect for legislation. I don’t know if you can really understand the metaphor. But the fruit fertilizes the seed as it decomposes. I am 65 years old and Lula is 77. He is the fruit fertilizing the seed of democracy, and we have to be grateful for this person. Imagine if we didn’t have him [Lula], what would have happened. What would have happened if Bolsonaro won again? It’s so good that even with everything that happened, he [Lula] was there to win this election. And I am grateful to God and to the Brazilian people and to him for being here for the third time, but with the awareness that there are a lot of people who could be here. Politics is not just about technique. Politics is a living process. These cells are being remade all the time, but there are some organs that are vital, and these vital organs sometimes need to be preserved by the political body, by the social body, by the environmental body. And that is why once, on the day I left the ministry [in 2008], I said that defeat and victory are only measured in history. This undoubtedly applies to Lula. He was arrested and it seemed definitive. But defeat and victory are only measured in history.
Speaking of history and memory, how important is it for Bolsonaro to be tried for genocide both inside and outside of Brazil?
It is important from an ethical point of view, from a political point of view, from a human point of view. It won’t make amends for anything he did, but there is punishment. There are things that are so evil that there is no punishment for them, because it is the banality of evil [referring to the concept of “banality of evil” created by the German philosopher of Jewish origin Hannah Arendt, based on the trial of the Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, in Jerusalem]. But it is necessary that even those who trivialize evil are equally punished. Even if this does not make amends, but for the respect of life and human dignity. Human beings are capable of doing wonderful things and terrible things. So, these punishments serve to make us realize that we are flawed beings, incomplete beings, as beings that cannot simply be assumed to be good.
I know it is time to end the interview, but SUMAÚMA wants to do journalism from the Amazon and there is are a lot of expectations in the forest about your ministry. What would you say to the people of the Amazon?
Look, I am not going to tell the people of the Amazon what to do. I am an Amazonian. So, for this very reason what I do is for me, for us. Maybe what matters is not what we need to say to ourselves, but what we need to say to others. And what I am about to say, I have already repeated many times. That we should not be viewed as a problem, but as we are. That we should not be seen as a question, as a questioning, but as an answer. That we should not only be seen as strange, as different, but as a more intimate part of our political and social identity, the most alive, most diverse, most beautiful, strongest and most fragile part. And that we should not be seen just through the eyes of despair, but above all through the eyes of hope.
Spell check: Elvira Gago
Translation into Spanish: Meritxell Almarza
English translation: Mark Murray
Photography editing: Marcelo Aguilar, Mariana Greif and Pablo Albarenga
MARINA SILVA WALKS ALONGSIDE YANOMAMI LEADER DAVI KOPENAWA AT THE FEDERAL BASE INSTALLED IN THE YANOMAMI INDIGENOUS LAND, IN RORAIMA, ON MARCH 5, 2023. PHOTO: FELIPE WERNECK/Ministério do Meio Ambiente