Marina Silva, Brazil's Minister of the Environment and Climate Change.

Marina Silva, Brazil's Minister of the Environment and Climate Change. Evaristo Sa / AFP via Getty Images


Marina Silva on Brazil’s Fight to Turn the Tide on Deforestation

Reprising her role as Brazil’s environment minister, Marina Silva is determined to reverse the rampant destruction of the Amazon. In an e360 interview, she talks about her efforts to crack down on illegal mining and logging and to bolster protections for the nation’s forests.

When Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected for a third term in 2023, he named Marina Silva — a former rubber tapper and senator from the state of Acre, and a veteran campaigner against illegal deforestation — as environment minister. Silva was not unfamiliar with the job: She’d held the same position during Lula’s first term in office, which began in 2003.

Though Silva was instrumental in slashing deforestation during that period, she resigned, in 2008, over differences of opinion with the government over development projects. But she returned last year to help Lula repair some of the environmental damage committed under the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, which had slashed funding and staffing for environmental programs and turned a blind eye to deforestation from rampant, illegal mining and logging.

Silva’s role is considered one of the most important in the country, as the extraction of natural resources is essential to Brazil’s economy. But the fate of the nation — whose vast forests are a significant carbon sink — has repercussions for the health of the entire planet.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Silva — who this week was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2024 — discussed the challenges of restoring and bolstering a crippled ministry, the role of the international community in protecting the Amazon and other forest biomes, and what Brazil must do to reach its goal of net-zero deforestation by 2030.

Federal agents destroy an illegal mining barge in Indigenous Yanomami territory in the Amazon.

Federal agents destroy an illegal mining barge in Indigenous Yanomami territory in the Amazon. IBAMA via AP

Yale Environment 360: What do you think is the biggest challenge you’ve faced since becoming minister under Lula’s third administration?

Marina Silva: It’s very difficult to pinpoint a specific challenge, but I would say it’s recovery, reconstruction. We were handed a completely unstructured ministry, with policies that were completely extinguished or left very weak, with very little budget, and with changes in the [leadership] that ran environmental institutions. So, dealing with that was a very big challenge.

And obviously the fight against illegal deforestation. By prioritizing that goal and restructuring the ministry, we achieved a reduction in deforestation of 50 percent last year [compared to 2022] and a reduction in the first three months of 2024 of 40 percent [compared with the first three months of 2023]. Our environmental policy is now, as I have always dreamed of since 2003, intersectional, including all 19 ministries and headed by President Lula and the environment ministry.

e360: Can you pinpoint something specific that has led to this reduction in deforestation?

“If we reach zero deforestation in the Amazon and the world does not reduce its CO2 emissions, the forest will still be turned into a savanna.”

Silva: I can identify three areas that contributed to this positive result. When you have a unified political leadership, where there is no incentive to destroy and there is no collusion with crime, you create a process of deterrence for these criminals. When this political leadership is accompanied by concrete actions combating crime, this creates a positive result. And when you mix these plans and operations with other measures, such as, for example, blocking criminals from getting loans and from profiting from their illegal activities, creating economic losses, this creates positive results.

And the other issue is to create incentives aimed at new economic practices, which is what we are going to do now. This month a cooperation agreement was made between the federal government and the 70 municipalities that have the highest rates of deforestation so that they can be provided resources to work on environmental regulation, so that they can work on sustainable development programs, and so that those municipalities that are managing to reduce deforestation can now reap the benefits. This is part of the prevention plan against deforestation, which is built on four axes: combating illegal practices, territorial and land planning, sustainable development, and innovative regulatory and financing measures.

Jesus Silva, an acai harvester, with a basket of berries he gathered in the rainforest near Melgaco, Brazil.

Jesus Silva, an acai harvester, with a basket of berries he gathered in the rainforest near Melgaco, Brazil. Tarso Sarraf / AFP via Getty Images

e360: You recently met with French President Emmanuel Macron and discussed the challenges of climate change and the protection of the Amazon. What do you think is the role of the international community in the conservation of the Amazon?

Silva: There is the role of solidarity and the role of technical and financial cooperation. But the most important role that the international community — especially developed countries — can play in protecting the Amazon is to progressively increase ambitions in relation to reducing their CO2 emissions. Because even if we reach zero deforestation in the Amazon, if the world does not reduce its CO2 emissions, the Amazon will still be turned into a savanna. And that is a big concern. That is why it was very important at COP28 [the 2023 UN climate conference], in the United Arab Emirates, that we made the decision to phase out the use of fossil fuels, starting with developed countries, while also accelerating renewable energy.

The other important thing for protecting the Amazon is that the international market be broadened for bioeconomy products. When you combat what is illegal, you have to put something in its place. And we have a number of possibilities, whether in the bioeconomy, in relation to tourism, or in relation to the creation of new products and new materials. And this all has to do with international partnerships. This solidarity needs to include not just developed countries putting pressure on countries that contain tropical forests, but developed countries making gestures — gestures of welcoming our bioeconomy products into their markets and gestures of increasing their ambitions in relation to reducing their CO2, without which the Amazon and tropical forests will be destroyed.

“To halt illegal gold mining, we are targeting the criminals on the ground and targeting the money trail: those who finance and those who buy.”

e360: You mentioned the importance of combatting illegal activities that contribute to the destruction of the Amazon. At the beginning of your second appointment as environment minister, there was a concerted effort to remove illegal gold miners from protected land in the Amazon, particularly the Yanomami Indigenous territory, which seemed to have some success. But now those miners have returned. What is being done to find long-term solutions to the problem?

Silva: The miners’ criminal activities can be attacked with certain measures [like tracking down illegal mining camps and destroying their machinery], but then the miners find ways to circumvent those government actions. Since we’ve identified the ways they circumvent our efforts, we’ve replanned our operations, including creating a permanent base in the state of Roraima [where roughly half of Yanomami territory is located], allocating extraordinary resources — more than 1 billion reais [$190 million] — for these special operations, and increasing supervision and the state’s presence in these communities.

We are also doing intelligence operations that go beyond directly targeting the criminals on the ground. These operations target the money trail: those who finance and those who buy. And in this sense, international cooperation is also essential. A good part of this gold that is produced criminally in the Amazon and other regions of the world ends up being exported to developed countries. So having joint intelligence operations and not buying that gold is fundamental.

The sprawling Brazilian city of Manaus in the Amazon rainforest.

The sprawling Brazilian city of Manaus in the Amazon rainforest. Michael Dantas / AFP via Getty Images

e360: We talk a lot about the Amazon, but Brazil is home to several other biomes that are equally important for climate regulation and biodiversity conservation. What is being done to protect those biomes?

Silva: When I returned to the environment ministry, we determined that whatever we did for the Amazon we would do for the other biomes too. We already have the deforestation prevention and control plan for the Amazon, and we now have the deforestation control plan for the Cerrado [a tropical savanna in central Brazil that includes the Brazilian highlands], which has seen an increase in deforestation. We’ve held a meeting with all the governors. We’ve held a meeting with the private sector. And we are mobilizing society and the scientific community to tackle deforestation in the Cerrado because we have already identified serious consequences related to water [including severe drought].

We are working on plans for all biomes. The Cerrado plan is already being implemented, and we are working on plans for the Caatinga [located in Brazil’s northeast], the Pantanal, the Campos Sulinos [also known as the Pampa], and the Atlantic Forest. Our goal is zero deforestation, and this presupposes tackling the issue in all biomes.

e360: Net zero deforestation seems like a difficult goal to reach. Is it really viable by 2030? How will you get there?

Silva: In Lula’s first term as president, we achieved an 83 percent reduction in deforestation and avoided releasing 5 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. It was the biggest contribution to CO2 reduction ever made. If this continues, in these four years, President Lula’s government will leave a coefficient equivalent to zero deforestation by 2030.

Of course, the more you reduce deforestation, the more difficult it becomes. But we are pursuing the goal. Obviously, this is not easy, but it’s also not easy for countries that are dependent on coal, oil, and gas to reduce their CO2 emissions to the point of zero by 2050. So, we have to believe, and we have to work.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.