RIO DE JANEIRO — Decades ago, deep in the Amazon rain forest, a fire was lit. In the predawn gloom a young girl prepared a banana salad for her family’s breakfast. Then, along with her father, brother and six sisters, she followed miles of trails through the forest in search of rubber trees that could be tapped for their latex.
At 16 she was illiterate and had just lost her mother. After contracting hepatitis, the girl traveled alone to the nearest city for medical treatment, and to learn to read and write so she could fulfill her biggest ambition and become a nun.
Forty years later, Marina Silva, 56, is on the verge of becoming Brazil’s next president.
In the intervening decades she followed a remarkable path, from working as a maid to becoming a graduate, teacher and grass-roots campaigner against deforestation in the Amazon alongside the idolized activist Chico Mendes, who was murdered in 1988.
More recently she became a politician and environmental icon revered for her passion and perhaps the most prominent defender of the threatened rain forest.
But nothing about her background has been as spectacular as her elevation in recent weeks to the status of front-runner in the presidential election, which will be decided in October, after the death of her running mate, Eduardo Campos, in a plane crash Aug. 13.
Leading polls show Silva winning a second-round victory against President Dilma Rousseff. It’s a remarkable turnaround, given that her ticket with Campos of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) had been polling as low as 8 percent before the accident.
Much of that surge can be attributed to Silva’s star power as well as an unlikely alliance of young leftists, evangelical Christians and a few billionaire backers.
Having come third with 19 million votes in the last election, she was initially denied another opportunity to run on the top of a presidential ticket after failing to get the signatures needed to get her Sustainability Network party on the ballot.
But the tragedy that killed Campos and six others near São Paulo last month gave Silva an unexpected second chance to fulfill her presidential ambitions. To become the country’s first black president, she will have to defeat the first female president, Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT), as well as the pro-business Aécio Neves of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), who is now running in third place.
If, as the polls predict, Rousseff and Silva compete in the runoff, it will be a fascinating clash. The president is the daughter of a well-off Bulgarian immigrant whose torture at the hands of the military dictatorship became infamous. Silva’s lowly start in the rain forest — she traces her ancestry to indigenous Amazonians, Portuguese immigrants and African slaves — could barely be more different.
“Her great strength is her personal story, which will resonate with large sections of the Brazilian population,” said Jeffrey Lesser, a professor of modern Brazilian history at Emory University. “What helps is that her style today — how she acts, the causes she fights for — resonates with her personal story and the life she has lived.”
Maria Osmarina Marina Silva Vaz de Lima was born on Feb. 8, 1958, in the forest community of Breu Velho in the state of Acre, close to the border with Bolivia. She had 11 siblings, three of whom died, as did her mother when Silva was 15.
In adolescence, her dream of becoming a nun fed her appetite for study. As she recalled later, her grandmother told her, “My daughter, a nun cannot be illiterate.” Her early life in the forest also left its mark on her physically, with bouts of malaria, hepatitis and mercury poisoning causing her medical problems in later life.
In the state capital, Rio Branco, she graduated in history — her first of three degrees — within 10 years of learning to read and write. While lodging in the city at the Servants of Mary convent, she first met Chico Mendes, then a local union activist.
Together they labored to rally rubber tappers against the destruction of the forest and the eviction of indigenous communities, which was spiraling in the early 1980s.
They led peaceful protests, called empates, in which which rubber tappers and their families formed human chains, to physically prevent the destruction of the forest. Empates became famous as an example of effective grass-roots resistance, successfully protecting thousands of hectares of land and hundreds of local families.
The murder of Mendes by ranchers in 1988 remains the most notorious of the hundreds of similar killings in the Amazon, where impunity remains rife. He was shot in his garden while two police officers guarding him played dominoes inside at his kitchen table.
Silva continued to campaign, however, and Mendes’ legacy lives on in the creation of a 2-million-hectare reserve of forest managed by its communities.
At the time of Mendes’ death, Silva had already begun her political career. She was elected a councilor in Rio Branco that year. Two years later she became a state legislator, and in 1994, at 36, she completed an apparently graceful rise up the ladders of power by becoming the youngest-ever federal senator in Brazil.
Three years later she renounced a lifetime of Catholicism and joined the wave of Brazilians joining the evangelical churches that were proliferating across the country. It was an act that could yet prove crucial to her electoral hopes.
By now a major — and polarizing — political figure in Brazil, Silva carried out her crowning achievement as environment minister under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. She instigated a highly ambitious plan to prevent logging in the Amazon that led to an unprecedented 57 percent drop in deforestation in three years.
But she ended up resigning after a stormy six years of being at loggerheads with powerful agribusinesses that were unused to such governmental obstinance and eventually with the president himself. Last year, after a contentious reform of the forest code that she opposed because it weakened environmental protections, deforestation leaped 28 percent.
After flitting among political parties — she has been affiliated with the Workers’ Party, the PSB and the Green Party, for whom she placed third in the presidential election in 2010 — she resolved to start her own.
But Brazil’s electoral court ruled last year that her Sustainability Network party could not field candidates. The court said that of nearly 600,000 signatures submitted, fewer than the 492,000 required under the country’s bureaucratic system were valid.
Some of her supporters believe that many in the country’s federal institutions feared her potential candidacy. Soon afterward Campos invited her to join his ticket, although she made it clear she intended to return to her own party.
Much of her popularity rests on her image as an anti-establishment politician — unlike Rousseff, whose party has governed Brazil for 12 years, and Neves.
“Victor Hugo used to say that there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” she said in an interview last year. “This is the time to change things, even the way we relate to each other and how we do politics.”
Whether Silva’s spike in popularity will last until the Oct. 5 first-round election may depend on her ability to maintain that image in the cut, thrust and compromise of presidential politics. Already she has been forced to defend her billionaire backers, including entrepreneur Guilherme Leal. “I have no problem with those who are elite. Brazil’s problem is not its elites,” she said in a televised debate.
It will also depend on her ability to hold together a diverse coalition made up of many of the idealistic young people who took part in spontaneous protests last June — Silva was the only major politician to receive a poll bounce from the unrest — and a large contingent of evangelicals.
The presence of the latter has shone a light on Silva’s conservative social politics. Her strong lines on abortion, gay marriage and drugs make her far from a standard liberal. In recent days she has also come out against the repeal of an amnesty law for those who committed crimes during Brazil’s military dictatorship, something she previously strongly supported.
As she has become a front-runner, she has drawn comparison to Barack Obama, another politician who made the most of his inspiring backstory. But as the magazine Carta Capital noted, “Every politician has a marketing team. … The big difference is that Marina uses her marketing team to give the impression of not having a marketing team. Is this really a new way of doing politics?”
If she does prevail, she will face once again the institutional constraints and vested interests she fought so indefatigably earlier in her career. Her supporters can only hope that, despite having many scars from a lifetime of battles, the flames kindled many decades ago deep in the rain forest will still be blazing.