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Marina Silva: A Missionary for Care of Creation

I visited Portugal in October, and my visit coincided with that of Marina Silva, the Brazilian environmental campaigner who served as minister of the environment in President Lula da Silva’s government.
This remarkable woman has been justly honored all over the world for her tireless and courageous work.

She is far more than an environmental activist on behalf of the world’s forests. She is a promoter of a different style of politics, one that puts the long-term future of the planet and its inhabitants before short-term financial gain.

This is a politics of sustainability. It is the translation into all our political and economic activities of the biblical mandate to “cultivate the earth and to serve/care for it” (Genesis 2:15).

Marina Silva is a committed Christian. Her Assemblies of God church has commissioned her as “a missionary for the care of creation.”

(Just imagine the transformation in the global church if politicians, economists, business leaders, environmental activists, artists and others were also likewise commissioned and prayed for!)

When she was minister of the environment, she brought together heads of 15 other ministries, including transport, agriculture, education and energy, to formulate policies that would bring the notion of sustainability into the heart of government.

This led her into collision, as it has done all her life, with powerful corporate interests and criminal networks that seek to control the Amazon the way that drug cartels in other Latin American countries control the narcotics trade.

Marina herself was born in poverty and grew up in the Amazon rainforest. She spent her childhood tapping latex from rubber trees and hunting with her father to support their large family.

She was 16 years old when she finally learned how to read and write. That happened after she moved to the nearest city to work as a house servant.

Until then, she had learned from the forest and her own people who inhabited the forest – these stimulated in her the love for creation as well as the senses to interpret it.

Ten years later she earned a university degree in history and went on to found an independent trade union movement with rubber tapper leader Chico Mendes in the state of Acre.

(Just imagine how many children there must be like Marina around the world, their human potential undeveloped simply because of the misfortune to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.)

In the early 1980s, Marina and Mendes organized peaceful demonstrations by forest-dwelling rubber tappers against wanton deforestation and the expulsion of forest communities from their traditional holdings.

Acre became famous as an example of grassroots resistance to wholesale environmental destruction by logging companies hand-in-glove with local politicians.

When Mendes was assassinated, their work became known on a global level. It catapulted Marina into federal politics and, in 1994, she became the first rubber-tapper to be elected to the Brazilian federal senate.

As a senator, and later as environmental minister, she fought to reduce deforestation by a combination of actions: increasing forest patrols by making the official environmental agency, IBAMA, work alongside the federal police and the defense ministry; breaking up more than 1,500 illegal businesses in the Amazon region; re-ordering land use by creating 24 million hectares of protected areas; introducing the Public Forest Management Law, which provided for the sustainable production of timber; and financially enabling the local forest-dwellers to have a greater role in the management of the forests.

Marina is back in the Brazilian senate, and she embodies a politics that puts people and the planet before profits and power. But this is a lonely position to occupy anywhere in the world.

The rich elites of Brazil, India and China who are the focus of the global media (as in the recently held Indian Grand Prix) are the ones who define “development” for the rest of us.

Their moral imaginations are, tragically, severely crippled. They can only imitate the wasteful, unsustainable lifestyles of Western elites, and although we now know more of what those lifestyles cost the planet and the majority of its human and nonhuman inhabitants, there seems to be little creative thinking in these “newly emerging powers” as to what an alternative model of “development” would look like.

Finally, compare Marina Silva with some of the current presidential candidates in the U.S. who claim to be “Bible-believing” Christians.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, for instance, has only one recipe for the present economic woes of her country: scrap the Environmental Protection Agency and all environmental restraints on Big Business!

Such stupidity gets a bigger voice in the secular media than Marina’s evangelical economics.

(One wonders which Bible Bachmann and others are reading.) Can the church worldwide look to women like Marina as role models, instead of vociferous North American megachurch pastors and politicians, when it comes to Christian leadership in the public sphere?

VinothRamachandra is secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka. A version of this column first appeared on his blog.