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“The anthill from below and from above”

By Mario Osava*

Brazil's environment minister, Marina Silva, comes from a movement that "defends the jungles inseparably from the people who live in them." And that means "introducing all aspects of sustainable development into the heart of government," she told Tierramérica.

RIO DE JANEIRO - "I want to see the best of modern times, but also the best of tradition, the anthill from below and from above. It is the marriage between tradition and modernity, between city and forest, sky and earth that will make Brazil into the nation we seek," Marina Silva, Brazil's environment minister, said in a conversation with Tierramérica.

Silva, 45, daughter of the Amazon and of the struggle of the "peoples of the jungle", as a young girl worked helping her father, a 'seringueiro' (rubber-tree tapper), to collect natural latex in the forests of the northwestern state of Acre.

She woke up very early and walked 14 km in her daily rounds. Silva did not learn to read and write until she was 17, but she graduated in history, studying at night and working during the day as a maid.

The decision of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to name her minister in his new administration was widely received with applause.

Marina Silva spoke with Tierramérica recently in an exclusive dialogue:

- What awakened your concern for the environment?
- It is the result of values that were cultivated during hard times. It is also due to my participation in a social movement that contributed to the creation of the "socio-environmental" concept, which defends the jungles inseparably from the people who live in them. That struggle seeks to introduce all aspects of sustainable development into the heart of government. Strength grows through combined effort. The Environment Ministry is guided by three pillars: transversality, which is the interaction of environmental policy with all sectors of government; community oversight and sustainable development.

- How do you ensure that the environmental aspect cuts across all government decisions?
- Many officials (in the Lula administration) come from a long history of social activism and the struggle against the Brazilian dictatorship (1964-1985). What stands out now is the challenge of governing without forgetting commitments to social justice.

- What should be changed in Amazonian agriculture in order to prevent the burning of forest to clear more land?
- Farmers and ranchers in the Amazon are following the wrong model. Recent fires in the northern state of Roraima prove this. There are more than 20,000 families squatting on public lands there who engage in this "iron-and-fire" agriculture that has reigned for centuries. The effects are the loss of biodiversity, depletion of the soil and harm to water resources and human health. We need profound changes in the mode of production and in land settlement, with perennial crops, agro-forestry system and sustainable harvesting, in addition to lines of credit and new technologies. Several ministries and government agencies are fighting the culture of fire jointly. This is an example of transversality.

- What role will the traditional knowledge of the peoples of the jungle play in promoting sustainable development?
- As an example, I like this story: a group of young researchers set up their tent on the sandy bank of a river in an Amazon rubber-tree forest. A local resident suggests that they should move to higher ground because it will rain and the beach will flood. The experts respond that their modern equipment does not forecast rain. At two in the morning they knock on the man's door seeking refuge from the storm. The next morning they ask him how he knew it was going to rain. "Do you see that anthill near the river? When the ants move from below to the upper part it's because it will rain," he told them. I want to see the best of modern times, but also the best of tradition, the anthill from below and from above.

- What measures are being considered to combat what is known as bio-piracy?
- Brazil is the world's richest country in terms of biodiversity. We have more than 20 percent of all known living species, and in recent years have seen the value of natural resources in creating new products. To fight bio-piracy we have the Biodiversity Resource Access Law, which must be reinforced. A recent case of bio-piracy involves the cupuaçú, an Amazonian fruit that was patented by a Japanese company.

* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.


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