The Brazilian environment ministry: Same leader, different reality – Two decades later, what changed in Marina Silva’s role as a minister?

Beatriz Ferreira Silva

Beatriz Ferreira Silva

Beatriz Ferreira Silva is an emerging journalist from Brazil, who has an interest in covering global topics and bringing awareness to what is happening around her home. She has contributed to two student publications, first as The Varsity’s news associate, and now as a journalism writer for The Underground. Beatriz is a student in the University of Toronto Scarborough / Centennial College joint program and contributed to the Global Summitry Project as part of an experiential learning opportunity in 2023.

Disclaimer: Beatriz Ferreira Silva is a Brazilian reporter whose native language is Portuguese. The interview with Dr. Cristiano Lenzi was conducted in Portuguese and translated to English by her for this article. 

After four years of a controversial environmental ministry that softened environmental regulations, took power from environmental organizations, neglected the importance of the Amazon fires, and lacked support for Indigenous populations, Brazil again has a minister who prioritizes the environment. 

“Marina [Silva] represents the rescue of the environmental politics,” said Dr. Cristiano Luis Lenzi, an environmental management professor at the São Paulo University (USP) about Silva’s comeback as the environment minister in a Zoom interview.

Silva was Brazil’s environment minister from 2003-2008 and has now returned to the same role in 2023.

It is safe to say a lot has changed in Brazil and the world in two decades, and so have the challenges Silva will face. At the same time, experts say it is a relief to have her back at the ministry, after a controversial term under former President Jair Bolsonaro’s leadership.


Who is Marina Silva and what is her relevance to Brazil’s government?

Marina Osmarina da Silva Vaz de Lima, popularly known as Marina Silva, entered public life in 1986 and was finally elected two years later as a councilwoman for Rio Branco, the capital city of Acre, a state in the north region of Brazil. In 1994, she became a senator and was reelected in 2002. That same year, Silva was nominated for environment minister, and remained in the role from 2003 to 2008, before she resigned due to disagreements with the federal government.

During her resignation speech in 2008, she reviewed her main accomplishments in her five-plus years as a minister and said, “I have seen the environmental issue placed at the heart of this country’s agenda.”

Under the first presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula, Silva was credited with strengthening laws and monitoring deforestation, approving funds for environmental management, and investing in technology that could help preserve the environment. 

Her achievements include the Plano de Ação para Prevenção e Controle do

Desmatamento na Amazônia Legal (PPCDAm), which was a governmental plan for reducing deforestation in the Amazon that used a real-time deforestation detection system. Also during her ministry, the Atlantic Forest Law, which introduced regulations on using resources extracted from the Atlantic Forest, was approved. Along with that, the National Forest Development Fund (FNDF) was created, with the objective of developing sustainable forests and investing in technology that would support environmental management.

Silva has been internationally recognized for the environmental fight. In 2007, she won the UN’s Champions of Earth award for her role in protecting the Amazon and addressing the populations that use resources from this forest. A year later, she was featured by The Guardian in a list of “50 people who could change the planet.”

Lenzi said that Silva’s vision was too progressive, which didn’t align with the priorities of the central government and might have been the reason for her resignation.

After her resignation from the environment ministry, Silva ran for president of Brazil three times. The first two times, in 2010 and 2014, she had a strong electoral presence, with over 20 per cent of the votes, while in 2018 she gathered 1 per cent of the votes. Throughout her three campaigns, the environment was her topic of priority.

Silva was appointed as environment minister again by President Lula in 2022, following his reelection. Since she began filling the role in 2023, she has appointed leaders of the ministry’s branches, strengthened environmental crime control and punishment, restored funds for the Amazon, and more

“Having her back is tremendous for environmentalists, it’s a great victory,” Anthony Boadle, a Reuters correspondent in Brazil, said in a Zoom interview. “She is seen as a very serious environmentalist and a very determined person who won’t make concessions.” 


Reversing the harm: the consequences of Bolsonaro’s environmental management

In an interview with Brasil de Fato, the president of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama), Suely Araújo, said that any government could do a better job than Bolsonaro’s in terms of environmental management. 

During the former president’s term, the then environment minister became known for polemic decisions and policies, with softening of regulations, cancellation of environmental funds, reduction of environmental organization power, and more

In 2021, the Amazon deforestation level was at the highest level since 2006. Before that, deforestation levels were already growing, with a 73 per cent rise in the first three years of government only. With these numbers, Bolsonaro was highly criticized by international scholars for his poor environmental management.

Lenzi said that Silva will have the additional job of restructuring the environment ministry and bringing it back to how it was before Bolsonaro and Salles. “It’s the same as if you lent your house to a stranger and they return it to you unorganized,” he said.

On the other hand, he believes Silva will have support. “I don’t think there will be internal resistance. I even think that on the contrary, there will be an internal effort to reorganize and a rapid restructuring of these environmental agencies.”


Polarization: how can Brazil’s current political environment affect the ministry?

According to Lenzi, the current political environment in Brazil might represent a big challenge for Silva. 

“Today there is a resistance, a polarized discourse that can bring new challenges. Especially if this polarization, if this resistance is present in the regions where she needs to implement those policies,” he said.

Figure 1. Amazon rainforest in Brazil [map]. Beatriz Ferreira Silva.
Figure 1. Amazon rainforest in Brazil [map]. Beatriz Ferreira Silva.

The states of Amazonas, Acre, Mato Grosso, and Rondônia hold a big part of the Amazon forest in Brazil. It is also in these states that Bolsonaro received the biggest percentage of votes, and that the protests against the results of the latest elections lasted for longer

Figure 2. Bolsonaro’s percentage of votes in Brazil’s states [map]. Beatriz Ferreira Silva.
Figure 2. Bolsonaro’s percentage of votes in Brazil’s states [map]. Beatriz Ferreira Silva.

The resistance of citizens from that area might represent a challenge for Silva in imposing new regulations on deforestation and exploration of natural resources, among other policies that require collaboration from the population. 

Besides that, although Lula was elected president, and Silva is now again the head of the environment ministry, most elected governors for the Amazon area are associated with Bolsonaro, or at least, from the opposition. This might present a difficulty in approving and implementing new environmental policies. 

This year, the Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey of degrees of polarization conducted by the global communication and marketing firm, revealed Brazil to be the seventh most polarized country among the 29 countries analyzed. 

Lenzi said that Silva will need support in dealing with these polarization issues.

Meanwhile, Boadle says that if Lula doesn’t pursue “good government,” the policies implemented by Silva could be overturned after the next elections in 2026.


Predictions for Silva’s Ministry 

Silva left her first ministry in 2008 due to management conflicts with the central government, and Lenzi said he wouldn’t be surprised if that happened again. 

The professor also said that Silva’s priorities should not change drastically. He expects her to continue working on deforestation, focusing especially on climate change, and working to reestablish Brazil’s image internationally. 

One of Silva’s first acts as minister was changing the name of the ministry, which is now called the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change. The objective is to show that, as she said in her inauguration ceremony on Jan. 6, climate change will be a priority not only for this ministry but also for the government as a whole.

“The environmental debate has been lined up with the climate issue. She has already given signs that she is in sync with this agenda,” he said. “There is no way to escape from this agenda, it is a global agenda. It is an agenda that lines up the relationships of countries with other countries and their economic relations.”

According to Boadle, Brazil has international importance and responsibility in terms of the environment. The country is home to 60 per cent of the biggest rainforest in the world, the Amazon. 

“It’s enormous. Whether you consider it the lungs of the world or not is a semantic question. It factors, it absorbs a lot of carbon dioxide and produces lots of oxygen,” Boadle said.

Silva’s comeback as head of the environment in Brazil might seem good, but governments and experts are still skeptical as a result of the polarization in the country, Lenzi said. “It generates international insecurity… countries might choose Marina but they might ask themselves until when will she last?”

The professor said that this lack of stability might make it difficult to make partnerships, especially in the long term because the international governments can’t trust that the internal Brazilian agenda will remain stable or priorities will remain the same. 

Meanwhile, Boadle said he is confident that Silva can restore the country’s international trust in terms of the environment. “The priority now is to restore Brazil’s credibility. I think somebody like Marina Silva definitely has that credibility.”

Brazil’s political context infographic: 

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