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Critics slam loss of Brazil’s environmental chief

Brazil’s hard-line environment minister quit last week in a move lauded by agribusiness interests.

By Andrew DownieCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 22, 2008

Marina Silva: Former environmental minister.

Jamil Bittar/Reuters/File

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São Paulo, Brazil

The reactions of the business community and the green lobby to the resignation of Brazil’s environment minister last week illustrated just what she meant to Brazil.
Business leaders, particularly from agricultural states, celebrated Marina Silva’s departure and called it a victory for development.

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“Her overly ideological decisions have held Brazil back,” says Assuero Doca Veronez, a cattle rancher in Ms. Silva’s home state of Acre and the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock Farming’s environmental spokesman. “Her aim was to stop the agricultural frontier advancing. The country could have been growing faster if she had been more flexible.”
Environmentalists, meanwhile, say Silva’s resignation exposed as a sham President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s supposed attempts to protect the Amazon. Without her, the environment will suffer, green activists say.

“Marina’s resignation underlines the carelessness with which Lula’s government is handling the environmental agenda and the protection of the Amazon,” says Paulo Adario, Greenpeace’s Amazon campaign coordinator. “Marina takes all of Lula’s environmental credibility with her, credibility which she has brought to his government over the last five years. Without her, King Lula is completely naked.”

Tensions are climbing

As if to underline the conflict between economic development and environmental protection, some 1,000 indigenous Brazilians protested a proposed $6.7 billion dam this week in the Amazonian city of Altamira. Painted and feathered protesters attacked a electric company official with machetes and clubs after he spoke to the group Tuesday.

Brazil is busy building huge hydroelectric dams, roads, and other infrastructure to boost the country’s sluggish rise as a regional economic power. But its boom means paving, flooding, and stringing power lines through thousands of miles of pristine jungle.

Silva is particularly sensitive to the dam project as it take places in the remote western Amazon where she was born and raised.

A poor rubber tapper from the western Amazon who only learned to read and write as a teenager, Silva was a powerful symbol of a government that Lula – himself once a poor, factory worker – hoped would be more representative of this vast and varied nation. But Silva was increasingly marginalized and resigned citing “the difficulties I have been facing to pursue the federal environmental agenda.”

Analysts said she had tired of losing recent power struggles with governors and ministers who put economic development over environmental protection.

“Everything she tried to do she was stymied,” said Peter May, assistant director of Friends of the Earth in Brazil. “She was pretty isolated.”

Silva’s early successes

Silva did have some early successes. Her presence gave the ministry a credibility and visibility it had previously lacked and she put together a plan to slash deforestation to the same level as the early 1990s. She also convinced Lula to set aside 24 million hectares as protected areas, several times more than the previous government.

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