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Brazil's Al Gore?

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

“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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