On Sunday, nearly 136 million Brazilians will be heading to the polls to elect a new president, and for a country on the rise with such a wealth of natural beauty, there may be more at stake than just politics. Among the leading candidates, one has put sustainable development at the top of her agenda. Meet Marina Silva -- she wants to be Brazil's Green new president.It's no surprise that environmental issues are at the heart of Silva's campaign; Born in 1958, she grew up alongside rubber tappers in the Amazon rainforest as one of eleven children. It wasn't until she was orphaned at the age of sixteen that she learned to read and write, getting a job as a housemaid. Eventually she would enroll in university where she developed an interest in politics. In her speeches on the campaign trail, she would refer to education as the "miracle" which helped carry her from poverty.
She got her start in politics in the mid-90s, becoming the first rubber tapper to be elected to the Brazilian senate. Silva, as senator, was a leading proponent for stronger protections of the Amazon rainforest and economic support for the people who live in it, placing special emphasis on sustainable development in the region.
Many of her political stances were shaped by her early mentor, environmental activist Chico Mendes. A rubber tapper by trade, Mendes fought to preserve the rainforest which sustained the profession, opposing development and deforestation from cattle farmers and loggers. In 1988, he was assassinated by a group of ranchers.
When fellow Worker's Party member Lula was elected president in 2003, he appointed Silva as his Environmental Minister, a position she held until 2008. During her tenure as minister, she was no stranger to criticism. Her commitment to the environmental cause frequently stirred ire from members of her own administration, particularly when economic interests threatened the preservation of the Amazon.
Despite the friction she caused in the Lula's cabinet, she became known internationally for her support of the environment. She was named a Champion of the Earth by the United Nations Environment Program in 2007, and has since garnered numerous other awards.
She opposed many projects which would have had detrimental impacts on the environment, like the creation of highways and dams. After a series of disputes with government officials and business leaders, who saw her as an impediment to development in the Amazon, Silva submitted her resignation from the position of Environmental Minister in 2008. To many environmentalists, this weakened the prospect that Brazil would continue to advocate sustainable development over opposing economic interests. "I'd lost the strength to carry on," she would later recall.
"There is no longer a way of thinking about growth for growth's sake," says Silva. "Growth is important, but it needs to be growth with development and sustainability, in all of its senses: social, environmental, economic, cultural."
A year later, Silva left the Worker's Party, citing the party's "conception of development focused on material growth at any cost" as the reason why. In May of 2010, she announced her candidacy for the Presidency as a member of the Green Party, hoping to ride the wave of international popularity she had enjoyed throughout her political career.
During the months preceding election day, Silva has put the concept of sustainable development at the center of her campaign -- though the issue has been largely drowned out by the two leading candidates, Dilma Rousseff and José Serra.
Dilma, as she's commonly referred, served alongside Silva as Lula's Energy Minister. The two were prone to disagree, as Dilma's interests favored exploring energy and water resources despite the impact to the environment. She was later promoted to Chief of Staff where she was a vocal proponent of industrialization, supporting investment in nuclear and hydroelectric power plants which have been contentious issues among environmentalists.
José Serra, a right-leaning centrist and former mayor of São Paulo, shares many of the same "developmentalist" ideals as Dilma. "Rousseff and Serra were molded by the ideas of developmentalism and industrialization, that's why environmental issues do not figure prominently in their campaigns," political scientist Claudio Roberto told IPS.
Since the two leading candidates for president have largely defined the political discourse this election cycle, Silva's environmental agenda has struggled to sway the dialouge. Those watching her campaign have described it as "undefined," though Silva herself has taken aim at the press for not making the environment a bigger issue during debates and interviews with the candidates.
Despite her history of disagreements with Lula's hugely popular administration, Silva has gathered more support than most analysts were anticipating, with 13 percent support -- compared with Dilma's 50% and Serra's 27%. In Brazil, the winning candidate must receive 50 percent or more of the votes to be elected; if no one does, a run-off election is held between the two leaders. If she can overtake Serra at the polls and shave off support from Dilma, it would force a face-off vote.
While it may an uphill battle for Silva to arrive at the Presidential Palace, the candidate is hopeful that, come election day, there will be a "green wave," insisting that her supporters are more numerous than the polls reflect.
"Mobilizing society, constantly struggling for what is best for Brazil in education, health, public safety, economic and social development . This is how the Green Wave just keeps growing , and I will remain in a state of permanent campaign until the final moment," Silva promised.