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Environment minister steps down in Brazil

Environment Minister Marina Silva resigned Tuesday, ending an often stormy six-year term that put her in conflict with developers in the Amazon rain forest.
Brazil Lula Amazon
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula of Silva, right, speaks with his Environment Minister Marina Silva at an Amazon conservation program in Brasilia on May 8. The minister resigned Tuesday. Eraldo Peres / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Marina Silva brought impeccable credentials to her post as Brazil’s environment minister: The daughter of a poor Amazon rubber tapper, she was a colleague of slain rain forest defender Chico Mendes.

But environmentalists said Wednesday that her sudden resignation a day earlier showed that her prestige had masked the intentions of a government bent on economic growth and development regardless of the environmental cost.

“Now the emperor has no clothes. The intention of Lula’s government is clear,” said Roberto Smeraldi, director of Friends of the Earth Brazil, referring to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva by his nickname. “This thing where Marina says one thing and the government does the opposite has ended.”

Marina Silva, who is not related to the president, resigned at a moment when Brazil’s rain forest is threatened by dams and other big public works projects, as well as farmers bent on tilling the region’s soil to meet the world’s growing demand for food and biofuels.

President Silva said Wednesday that the resignation took him by surprise. But he vowed it would not weaken protection of the Amazon.

“Brazil’s environmental policy will not change,” the president said at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “The policies are not the minister’s policies but the government’s policies.”

Conservation International’s vice president for Latin America, Jose Maria da Silva — not related to the president or the former minister — said the resignation complicates Brazil’s efforts to reassure the world that ethanol and other biofuels do not threaten the Amazon.

“Without her, the government’s credibility drops significantly,” he said. “The government still hasn’t proven its guarantees about the environmental sustainability of biofuels.”

Merkel called Silva’s resignation a “warning sign.”

“Biofuels are a way toward replacing classic fossil energy sources,” she said, “but only if they are cultivated sustainably.”

Since assuming her post in 2003, Marina Silva had opposed genetically modified crops, tightened environmental licensing for public works projects and urged limiting biofuel plantations in the rain forest.

She tried to work with other agencies for an integrated approach to protecting the environment — but lost almost every time she was opposed by another department.

Recently she came under attack from the president’s powerful chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, who complained about delays in granting environmental licenses. Agriculture Minister Reinhold Stephanes criticized her policy of denying government credit to farmers caught illegally deforesting. He advocates opening more of the Amazon to sugarcane crops for ethanol.

The final straw apparently came last week, when the government announced its “Sustainable Amazon” plan led by the minister of long-term planning, Mangabeira Unger, long known for arguing that the Amazon cannot be left untouched.

Marina Silva’s resignation letter cited “difficulties in advancing the federal environmental agenda.”

She now returns to her seat in the Senate representing the Amazon state of Acre.

The president’s office announced she will be replaced by Rio de Janeiro state Environmental Secretary Carlos Minc.