ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Brazil's presidential election is coming up, and polls show two women in a close race for the top spot. One is the incumbent, Dilma Roussef. The other is a former environment minister, Marina Silva. Silva is running as a Socialist. But if she wins, she will be the greenest president of a major economic power. So why aren't environmentalists happy? NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Sao Paulo.
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UNIDENTIFIED SUPPORTERS: (Singing in foreign language).
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Marina Silva walks into the repurposed factory in central Sao Paulo to an upbeat campaign tune, which goes, in part, her last name is Silva, she's from the selva - or forest, in English. Marina Silva doesn't come from the centers of power on the coasts of Brazil, but rather grew up the poor daughter of Amazon rubber tappers. A longtime environmentalist, she was a colleague of the murdered rights activist Chico Mendes. She became a senator, the youngest ever elected at the time. And then she was appointed environment minister under former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Described by admirers as a person of strong personal conviction, she ended up quitting over disputes about environmental protections and controversial dam projects. Now Silva has a chance to win the top job herself in the country after her running mate, Eduardo Campos, was killed in a plane crash last month. Polls show her possibly beating the incumbent.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At this campaign event, NPR asked Silva if she will be the first green president of Brazil if elected.
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MARINA SILVA: (Through translator) I see myself as the first social, environmentalist president. What that means is someone who integrates economics and ecology - conservation and social justice. I'm smiling as I say it. I'm imagining if Chico Mendes were still alive to see it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The possibility that a woman with such strong credentials could be the next president of Brazil should be good news for environmentalists here, right? Not so fast.
LUIZ CRUZ VILLARES: They are optimistic with Marina. But I think there is a lot of skepticism as well.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Luiz Cruz Villares is from Brazil's Sustainable Amazon Foundation. He says the first worry is that even with the best intentions, Marina Silva won't have the clout to get things done. Her party is a small one. She wasn't even its first choice, but only got the top spot after the death of the main candidate. She would have to build consensus, he says.
CRUZ VILLARES: She would have to be backed by a very large portion of society. And that comes, in my opinion, the very first challenge of her government.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: A government like that would necessarily have to make compromises. Environmentalists note with concern that she's already been courting agro-business leaders and has dialed back her vocal opposition to genetically modified crops, Brazil's deep seabed oil exploration and other environmental issues. Pedro Telles from Greenpeace in Brazil says that the Brazilian reality is that you have a massive economy based around agriculture and fossil fuels, with strong political congressional support for those industries.
PEDRO TELLES: The biggest challenge we have now in Congress is the ruralist front, which represents the interests of the big, agricultural producers pushing forward regressive legislation in terms of allowing more degradation of the environment.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All of the environmentalists I spoke with say that Brazil, which had been an example of strong environmental protections, has seen those rolled back in the past few years. Vilmar Berna is an environmental activist. He says Marina Silva could really change things for the better.
VILMAR BERNA: (Foreign language spoken).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Our hope with Marina is very big, he says. But when I asked him if he'll vote for her, he says he still doesn't know. I don't think any one person can save this country, he says. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paulo.
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