Brazil's Al Gore?

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.

“Marina represents that even younger generation coming into political power who don’t have any connection to the oligarchy, don’t want any, and are going to have very successful careers,” said Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University. “This is the new Brazil.”

'Marina Silva was born into an impoverished family of rubber tappers in the forests of Acre, a remote Brazilian state near the border with Bolivia and Peru.

Before she was 12 years old, Silva worked from dawn until dark alongside her father in the rain forest, gathering the tree sap used to make natural latex. The threat of illness was constant, and medical care was scant. Silva’s mother and three of her 11 siblings died while Silva was young. Silva herself fell ill with hepatitis at age 16, and she moved to Rio Branco, the regional capital, for treatment.

That’s where she enrolled in adult literacy classes, learning to read and write while working full-time as a maid. She put eventually put herself through college. Although Silva studied to be a teacher, she soon became involved in politics, joining with the environmental activist Chico Mendes in an effort to keep ranchers from clear-cutting the forests indigenous Brazilians and rubber tappers called home.

“She is this Brazilian soul, she was poor and she’s black and she has come so far,” said Altino Machado, a Marina supporter and journalist in Acre. “I think her career is actually much more beautiful than Lula’s.”

After serving in local government, Silva became, at age 36, the youngest person ever elected to Brazil’s senate. In 2003, Lula tapped her as his environmental minister. During her tenure, the government placed 59 million acres of land under protection — an area roughly the size of Idaho — and Brazil’s annual tally of destroyed forests was cut in half.

But the president and his environmental minister clashed over proposed hydroelectric dams in the Amazon, plans to clear land for bio-fuel production, and rejected permits for new Amazon construction projects. After a number of public disputes — Lula at one point created a separate permitting agency to sidestep the environmental ministry — Silva resigned and returned to the senate in 2008.

Although she’s running as an outsider, Silva’s supporters say she has turned the environment into an issue insiders must address, too. “The Green Party used to be regarded as romantics and lunatics because we wanted to make environmental ideas part of the debate,” said Julio Eduardo, her campaign manager in Rio Branco. “Now the political class has started to incorporate these ideas.”

Eduardo was speaking with visitors inside Silva’s hometown campaign headquarters — a modest, three-room storefront with Marina posters and hand-written phone lists taped to the walls. Across the street, a billboard-sized photo of Lula stood with an arm thrown around his chosen candidate, Dilma Rousseff.

“There are different levels of victory,” Eduardo said, when pressed about Silva’s grim poll numbers. Being in the election at all is a victory, he said. Changing the debate is, too. And he refused to accept that an actual electoral victory was impossible.

Genezia Vasconcelos, 40, a fellow campaign volunteer agreed. Silva had spent her life beating the odds, Vasconcelos said, adding, “If Marina only believed in what is likely, she would still be in the forest, tapping rubber trees.”

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect the fact that Gilberto Gil is a Grammy award-winning singer and songwriter, as well as the fact that Jose Serra is the former Sao Paulo mayor and governor.

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