Marina Silva
© Raquel Espirito Santo

Marina Silva is demonstrating the best way to use the square-bladed rubber tapper’s knife that her uncle made for her when she was a child. “You make a cut in the wood, like this. Depending on their width, you can have trees that can serve up to eight canequinhos,” she says, referring to the small pots that catch the resin that bleeds out of the trunk.

The rustic Amazon implement is quite a contrast with her elegant suit. But if the story of Brazil since the 1950s has been about the movement of millions of poor from the country to the city, then few people’s lives capture this better than that of Silva. An illiterate rubber-tapper who worked in the Amazon until the age of 16, she has gone on to become a senator, environment minister and two-time presidential candidate.

But if her mind has firmly made the migration to modern Brazil, the spirit of this potential future president seems still to wander in the village of her childhood where an uncle, a shaman who lived among Indians, trained her in the art of extracting latex from the trees. “I miss it, of course,” she said of the seringal — the rubber plantations — in an interview in São Paulo in October. Only a week earlier, she had dropped out of Brazil’s 2014 presidential race after staging the strongest challenge in a generation by a political outsider to an incumbent president, in this case Dilma Rousseff of the centre-left Workers’ Party, or PT. “I always say I was illiterate until I was 16 but I already had a PhD in the ways of the world.”

The knife provides a rare moment of informality in what has been an unflinchingly serious conversation. Forthright, earnest and idealistic are words that spring to mind when meeting Silva. The secret to her appeal is that she has convinced voters that she is that rarest of politicians, one who honestly believes in what she is saying. This is particularly appealing in Brazil, which has scores of political parties but most with one ideal — power.

While her rivals sell a patchwork of populist policies, she offers a more holistic vision of the future — Brazil as a society that is economically successful yet respected in the world for its humanity and environmental and social consciousness. Add to this that she is also a woman and black in a country in which both groups are poorly represented in politics and she seems to capture the rising protest vote in Brazil.

One of her economic advisers, Eduardo Giannetti, who holds a PhD from Cambridge university, said in an interview with the Financial Times earlier this year: “I think that a national leader with the characteristics of Marina is rare anywhere in the world. She is in the line of Nelson Mandela, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, a leader who is grounded in ethics and values.”

This might seem high praise indeed. But Silva’s unusual brand of politics does seem to set her apart. Born in 1958, Maria Osmarina Marina Silva Vaz de Lima was one of 11 children. Her father, one of the few in their community who could read or write, counted the takings of his colleagues to see that the patrão, or boss, of the plantation did not rip them off. Her mother was an avid seamstress, her aunt a midwife. None of them demanded money for their services.

Her shaman uncle taught her about “the behaviour of birds, the fragility of the trees, the diversity of the animals”. “I learnt from him many things in silence because he spoke very little,” she says. She lost her mother at 15 and three siblings to disease. Regularly ill, she left the seringal to seek treatment and to study to become a nun. “I wanted to go to the city to look after my health. I knew I would die if I didn’t,” she recalls in her biography, Marina: A Life for a Cause.

In the nearby state capital of Rio Branco, Silva learnt to read while working as a maid. She earned a degree in history. She became an evangelical Christian, married twice and had four children. She began her political career as a unionist in 1984 working alongside Chico Mendes, the late Brazilian environmentalist who helped the rubber-tappers fight ranchers trying to clear their forests. In 1985, she joined the PT, and in 1988 was elected to the municipal council in Rio Branco, the same year Mendes was assassinated.

Around this time, she also helped Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — the man who would become Brazil’s most popular leader — stage one of his many campaigns for the presidency. The former unionist appointed her his environment minister when he finally won office in 2003. She engineered a sharp fall in the destruction of the Amazon by cracking down on errant farmers. But she quit in 2008 when she perceived that Lula da Silva was moving to reduce her authority. “They are hostage to the most backward elements in Congress, those who have a vision of increasing production by expanding the area of agriculture [through clearing], not through gains in productivity through technology, training, innovation,” she says of the PT.

Silva staged the first of her presidential bids for the green party in 2010. With almost no party infrastructure or TV advertising time, she still managed to win 19.6 per cent of the vote in the first round, establishing herself as a force in Brazilian politics. She said the vote was a demonstration of the desire for change in Brazil, for leadership that “unites the country around what is important”.

She tried and failed to register her own party in this year’s elections and ended up joining another opposition leader, the former governor of the northeastern state of Pernambuco, Eduardo Campos, as his running mate. Then in August, fate intervened: Campos was killed in a plane crash. Silva was unexpectedly thrust into his Brazilian Socialist Party’s candidacy for president. “I took his place with less than 40 days to go before the election. It was a fragile campaign structure,” she says. But she rode a sympathy vote to the top of the opinion polls. The markets rallied to her support, tired of Rousseff’s brand of economic interventionism.

The PT had to retrain its formidable electoral artillery on this new upstart. Silva was considered threatening because her life story resonates in the PT’s electoral heartland — the country’s impoverished north and northeast. While Lula’s life story is in some ways equally compelling — he rose from a poor northeastern family to reach the highest office in the land — the years in power have tarnished his and the PT’s image. Many of his original posse were sentenced to jail for corruption last year and the party is now immersed in a new scandal, an alleged political kickback scheme involving state-owned oil company Petrobras.

“Even as we achieved democracy, stabilised the economy and implemented more even distribution of income, all of this was accompanied by a degradation of our politics and institutions. Our parties and public institutions today are severely compromised by corruption,” Silva says of Brazil’s history after the end of dictatorship in 1984.

Another key difference between Silva and Lula is that while he sold the consumption of consumer goods to the poor as the highest ideal during his eight years in office, Silva’s emphasis is on human development, particularly education. “I think this is an important difference. Lula brought the dream of consumption to Brazil, of cars, home appliances, access to credit. Marina brings the dream of education, the value of knowledge,” says Giannetti, her adviser.

Indeed, there are few politicians with as modern a conception for Brazil as Silva. She talks of a “renaissance” in national life based on exploiting Brazil’s natural advantages. Brazil is home to 60 per cent of the Amazon forest, and it has a huge cane sugar industry, which not only supplies ethanol as an alternative to gasoline but also has enormous potential for electricity generation. The country has much of the world’s fresh water resources as well as areas particularly suited to wind power. This is before even talking about its enormous offshore oil discoveries. “Here it is possible to have a new model, it is possible to dream of another renaissance,” she says.

Silva talks of a “new politics”, a kind of coalition of the best, brightest and most honest, gathered from all parties and walks of life, that would pursue a new agenda. Sustainability is not just taking care of the environment, she says, it is a way of being that takes in the social, political and economic, that involves “respecting cultural diversity, aesthetics, historical heritage, beautiful scenery”. “Sustainability is perhaps the one chance we have of starting a new cycle of prosperity for humanity,” she says.

She sees a greater role for women as a crucial part of this. While Brazil elected its first female president, Rousseff, in 2010, women hold only 10 per cent of the seats in Congress. Domestic violence remains a big problem and women still get paid half the salaries of men. There is a lack of facilities, such as crèches, for mothers who work or study.

“Most women suffer in terms of getting proper recognition for their work,” Silva says. She believes women in public life also need to avoid the trap of what she calls the “caricature male” — being forced to be more ruthless than their masculine counterparts in an effort to prove themselves. “The feminine evokes the notion of the capacity for collaboration, to integrate,” she says. “What is right is to contribute in the way that we are.”

While the former young Marxist in her would cringe, her idea of sustainability includes some concepts from liberal economics. She espoused the importance of running a balanced budget and getting the state out of the way of business. “How do you free people? The state has to create an environment favourable to entrepreneurialism, creativity,” she says.

During the campaign, the PT seized on Silva’s more liberal-economic comments, such as her championing of an independent central bank, to paint her as a raving capitalist. The PT pointed to her supporter Maria Alice Setubal, one of the scions of the family that co-owns Itaú-Unibanco, Brazil’s largest private bank, as evidence Silva would raise interest rates if elected, frightening poor Brazilians already drowning in debt.

The PT even said Silva would revoke the Bolsa Família monthly stipend for poor families. Silva struck back with an emotional advertisement describing how she experienced hunger firsthand as a child. But the PT’s greater free electoral TV advertising time, allocated according to the size of a party’s coalition in Congress, saw voters subjected to a barrage of anti-Silva propaganda each day.

Silva failed to make it through to the second round of the election, although she increased her share of the vote to 21 per cent. “It was a process of deconstruction, not only to win the election but to destroy the person, to annihilate him or her,” she said of the PT’s campaign. But if she is still visibly distressed by the viciousness of the attacks, there is no sign that they have lessened her determination to continue in public life.

One of the PT’s campaigns against her was a fallacious claim that she would stop Petrobras from exploiting its huge oil discoveries off the southeast coast of Brazil, she says. The PT has tried to make these oilfields — known as the pre-salt because they lie under a two-kilometre layer of the compound deep beneath the Atlantic — the basis of a new wave of resource nationalism in Brazil.

But Silva displays how little regard she has for such 20th-century thinking with a simple remark about the Indian tribes the government has purposefully left “uncontacted” to protect them from incursion and disease. “I’m in the habit of saying that our greatest asset is not the pre-salt. It is the 38 peoples that have not yet been contacted. That is our greatest treasure, that is fantastic,” she says, smiling as she thinks of those figures 4,000km away in the Amazon, blissfully unaware of the urban jungle of Brasília and its brutal party politics.

Joe Leahy is the FT’s Brazil bureau chief

Photograph: Raquel Espirito Santo

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