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Brazil's Al Gore?

Green Party candidate has forced opponents to address environment in an unprecedented way.

Brazil environment, global warming, Al Gore
Brazilian senator from the Amazon's Acre atate, Marina Silva, speaks in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Aug. 30, 2009. (Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's update: Some 136 million Brazilians vote Sunday to elect the successor to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Lula's former chief of staff Dilma Rousseff is widely expected to win, though she needs 50 percent to avoid a runoff.

RIO BRANCO, Brazil — A black woman born in the rain forest and illiterate until the age of 16 just might be the Al Gore of Brazil.

Unlikely as that may sound, supporters of Brazilian presidential candidate Marina Silva are invoking Gore's name while crediting Silva with similarly forcing environmentalism onto the national stage.

People in her home state of Acre have long demanded their country address the Amazon's environmental plight, and they say Silva, 53, is finally making it happen.

“Al Gore didn’t win, but his ideas won,” said Raimunda Bezerra, a Rio Branco human-rights activist who has known the candidate for decades. “And they continue winning followers throughout the world. Marina is speaking out about things that interest the whole world.”

And Silva — a senator and former environment minister — certainly looks unlikely to win on Sunday. The latest polls predict she will take around 15 percent of the vote, well behind former Sao Paulo mayor and governor Jose Serra, and Dilma Rousseff, former chief of staff and hand-picked successor to Brazil’s wildly popular president, Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva.

Yet “the other Silva,” as the press sometimes dubs Marina, continues to collect high-profile backers. Filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, who directed “City of God,” bosa nova musician Gilberto Gil, Grammy award-winning singer and songwriter, and Brazilian senator Pedro Simon — a lawmaker widely esteemed for his stands against corruption — have all publicly declared they’ll vote for Marina.

Last week, Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen joined the cause, telling reporters, “I believe in what she wants to do.”

What Silva wants to do is give Brazil a model for development that doesn’t involve chopping down the Amazon. She argues that green technology and a low-carbon economy offer a more promising future than the country’s current reliance on commodities and heavy industry. To persuade the rest of Brazil, Silva will need all the prominent allies she can get.

“It’s an agenda that involves changing the world as we know it,” said Amaury de Souza, a political analyst based in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. “She’s starting at the upper middle classes, the very informed and the famous, and then she will be trickling down.

“What Marina Silva has done in this election is formulate a more modern agenda than either of the other two candidates,” he said. “Both Ms. Rousseff and Mr. Serra are products of the 1960s. Their ideas belong to the industrial revolution, in which progress means a furnace blowing polluted smoke into the atmosphere.”

Silva’s case for change is rooted in a personal story that’s spectacular even for a country accustomed to Lula, whose rise from poverty to factory floor to presidency is itself the stuff of democratic legend.