Marina Silva
describes her work, as her country’s first woman environment minister, to implement sustainable development policies that promote social and environmental health.

When I became Minister for the Environment last year, at the time that President Lula took office, I faced a major question. How to translate all my accumulated experience of environmental issues – in society, the academic world, parliament and at the various levels of government – into a policy that would embrace Brazil’s socio-environmental challenges and be geared towards sustainable development?

The first aspect to consider – bearing in mind my academic training as a history teacher – concerned the historic relationship between environmentalism and social concerns. In 2003, we marked 30 years of environmental policies in Brazil, which had begun with the creation of the Special Secretariat for the Environment in 1973. This was a response to the first protests against industrial pollution in both urban and rural areas and led initially to a policy of command and control. Two years before, the environmentalist José Lutzenberger had launched a crusade against contamination by pesticides, which he evocatively called ‘agripoisons’.

In 1981, a new law established a National Environment Policy and the National System for the Environment (Sisnama), in which municipal and state authorities and the federal government all took part. Four years later the National Council of Rubber Tappers proposed setting up ‘extractive reserves’ as an alternative to agrarian reform in the Amazon region. North American and European environmentalists were amazed that the forest peoples were fighting to conserve the habitat on which they depended for survival – putting an end to the myth that they posed a threat to the Amazonian ecosystem. This period also saw the rise of powerful social movements all over the country, leading in 1988 to the writing of a new chapter of the Federal Constitution devoted to environmental issues.

Environmental response
In 1989 the central government created Brazil’s environment agency – the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Natural Renewable Resources – as a response to progress in legislation and social organization amid the huge repercussions of the murder of Chico Mendes.

The 1990s witnessed the institutionalization of environmental issues in Brazil, boosted by the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio and by important new legislation, such as the Environmental Crimes Act and the National System of Conservation Units.

President Lula’s election manifesto included the environmental programme Environment and Quality of Life. This is now being put into practice as a government programme and provides the basis for the definition of the Environment Ministry’s objectives. The programme includes the principle of ‘transversality', implementing an integrated environmental policy within the overall government policy. It also provides scope for the participation of civil society in controlling public policy, and for involving different levels of government (federal, state and municipal) in reinforcing Sisnama and consolidating the sustainable development agenda. It also confirms the Environment Ministry’s role as the instigator of socio-environmental policies.

We have an opportunity to create a new concept of progress that is socially just and environmentally sustainable

Greater participation
From the start, our government has had to face the challenge that social movements have been giving voice for over 20 years to the public desire for greater participation in environmental politics. We gave priority to strengthening existing organizations, and organized the first National Conference on the Environment, which involved 70,000 people. Meanwhile around 5 million young people, teachers and family members took part in preparations for a Junior Conference under the slogan ‘Let’s take care of Brazil and strengthen Sisnama’.

The government designated 826,000 hectares of land as conservation units, in response to the demand for protecting our biodiversity and using it sustainably. Amazonia was one of the targets of this integrated policy. Important measures were taken to deal with deforestation, such as establishing a new kind of rural settlement, the Forest Settlements, and the plan to combat the deforestation of Amazonia on which 11 ministries collaborated.

The National Integration and Environment Ministries launched the Sustainable Amazon Plan to promote a paradigm shift in regional development policy: it includes measures for environmental management, sustainable production with innovation and competitiveness, social inclusion, providing infrastructure and new forms of financing. As a result the activities in the second phase of the Pilot Scheme for the Conservation of the Tropical Rainforests have the status of public policies for the Amazon region.

Integrated policy
In a further integrated policy initiative, we are working with the Ministry of Mines and Energy to implement a new management model for the electrical sector: its innovative strategies take account of the environmental dimension in planning investments.

The dilemma of how to reconcile environmental policy with economic development is gaining prominence in certain sectors of Brazilian society, especially the media and the infrastructure industry. Seldom has the issue of the environment attracted so much attention over the past 30 years. This could be a positive indicator of the relevance of the new environmental policy to the management of the economy. But it also represents a conflict between different points of view on introducing the environmental factor into development strategies. The proposals in Agenda 21 – especially the Brazilian version – and their adaptation to local conditions are particularly relevant to the debate. There is, thus, an unprecedented opportunity to create a new concept of progress that is socially just and environmentally sustainable, through public debate and government action.

It is up to the government to demonstrate that concern about the use of the environment and natural resources is no obstacle to social and economic progress. Quite the contrary, it adds value. It is both an incentive and a benefit, it generates income and employment and is an opportunity for lasting, sustainable development. By contrast, over the last 40 years – since the ‘developmentalism’ of the 1960s and the ‘Brazilian miracle’ under the military government, associated with unbridled agricultural expansion – we have not managed to overcome enormous social inequality, nor to guarantee quality of life and intelligent use of natural resources, apart from in localized projects and initiatives.

One practical response offered by our government is the paving of the Cuiabá-Santarém highway, the subject of a long-standing regional dispute in which environmental restrictions have always been regarded as obstacles. Without the necessary precautions, projects of this nature can deepen social divisions and damage the environment – and even jeopardize economic objectives. But our project – which we have called the Sustainable Highway – results from a political process involving governments, the private sector and social organizations. It is centred around a plan that will bring sustainable development to the whole region affected by the construction work. The process will include creating conservation units, controlling land use, providing basic services to the population and promoting policies to encourage appropriate use of natural resources. It will serve as an example for future infrastructure projects, demonstrating that such construction work is not in itself the cause of insuperable environmental and social problems.

All this has been made possible by the fact that we are not starting from scratch, but operating in a favourable climate in which technical experts, environmentalists, political leaders and communities are all ready and willing to work together to achieve sustainability. We have an effective legal framework, the support of a forward-looking and committed business sector, and experience of engaging with controversy and negotiating at every level to reach our objectives.

New contributions
That is why – in this initial period in office – we are not presenting appraisals inspired by the standard question: ‘What have we done?’ We are posing a more complex and more far-reaching question: ‘What new contributions are we making?’ So far, I believe the government has taken the first steps towards public policies for a development agenda that takes full account of the socio-environmental dimension

Senator Marina Silva is a member of Brazil’s Federal Senate and Minister for the Environment. She has won many international awards including a Goldman Environmental Prize and nomination as one of UNEP’s ‘25 women leaders in action for the environment’.

PHOTOGRAPH: Nelson Lourenco/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Miles to go before we relax | Practical consensus | Power shift | Equally effective | People | Peace of mind, piece of land | The young ones | Fuelling change | At a glance: Women, health and the environment | Aishwarya Rai | Unprecedented opportunity | Books and products | Chemical inheritance | Toxic trespass | First empower | Citizen engagement | Adding feminine perspective | After all ‘nature’ is female... | A unique voice

Complementary issues:
Culture, values and the environment 1996
Poverty, Health and the Environment 2001
Energy 2001
World Summit on Sustainable Development 2002
Energy 2003

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and natural resources