Evangelical Passion Drives Brazil Presidential Challenger Marina Silva

Will Divine Providence, or "Bible roulette," play a role in the outcome of next month's Brazilian elections?

Presidential candidate Marina Silva
Presidential candidate Marina Silva
Natuza Nery, Ranier Bragon and Andreia Sadi

BRASILIA — In difficult times, when she has to make a tough decision, Brazilian presidential hopeful Marina Silva usually turns to a faithful companion, one that has barely left her side in her 56 years: the Bible.

Although she is running to represent the secular Brazilian Socialist Party, Silva is an evangelist. This particular characteristic could prove decisive in the presidential race, especially in a country where more than one-quarter of the population now identify themselves as evangelists.

Recent polls show that Silva is well-positioned ahead of the first round of voting Oct. 5, and could beat incumbent President Dilma Rousseff in a runoff.

Born Catholic, she almost became a nun in her teenage years before converting to Evangelicalism in the late 1990s. The particular Christian movement she follows is Pentecostalism, whose adherents believe that the Holy Spirit intervenes directly in people's lives.

The politician converted after receiving what she called her "third death sentence" by doctors when she was very ill. Silva says she was cured thanks to a divine message, and since 2004 she has been a missionary for an "Assembly of God" in the capital of Brasilia.

There are two specific occasions when she made a decision after participating in what is sometimes called "Bible roulette," in which people randomly open to a Bible page looking for spiritual guidance in a verse that will point in one direction instead of another.

According to a close Silva aide, one of these occasions was Oct. 4, 2013, just hours before surprising the country's political class by announcing her support of Eduardo Campos and becoming the Socialist Party candidate's running mate in the upcoming presidential election. At the time, Campos also said that the political alliance between the two had been inspired by the Bible.

Silva and late candidate Eduardo Campos in November 2013 — Photo: José Cruz/ABr

Of course, we know by now that Campos was killed in an Aug. 13 plane crash, leaving Silva as the party's candidate for next month's election.

The other occasion of "Bible roulette" was described in her authorized biography, Marina: A Life for a Cause. Before agreeing to the book, Silva needed to hear "somebody else's opinion."

"She got up from the couch and went to get a Bible," author Marília de Camargo César wrote. So the approval for the biography itself came after "a personal message from God," which was expressed in the psalm she read after randomly opening the holy book.

Cheating death

"For her to make a decision, bless her, it takes time," explains clergywoman Valnice Milhomens, a friend of Silva's for the past decade. "Not only does she consult the earth, she also consults the heavens. She needs to hear everybody for the decision to mature.”

Speaking after Campos' fatal crash, Silva attributed her absence aboard the plane that crashed north of São Paulo to "Divine Providence." It was not the first time she has cheated death.

Growing up in a very poor family in the state of Acre, in northwestern Brazil, she was struck several times by different diseases, including malaria, hepatitis, leishmaniasis and even suffered heavy metal poisoning, all of which have forced her to maintain a rather restricted diet.

Then in 1997, she says she had an epiphany that led her to become an evangelist after yet another health scare. It was her doctor who, on the phone one day, put her through to a young pastor of the Assembly of God, André Salles.

"I thought that was an unusual thing to do for a doctor," the Socialist candidate explained once. "Then the pastor talked to me and said, "I have the gift a revelation of the Holy Spirit.""

After that, Marina Silva converted to evangelicalism. Two years later, while she was still ill, she had a divine revelation while waiting in a church line for the anointing of the sick. The letters "DMSA" came to her mind. She only remembered later that this was the name of a drug from the United States that she had refused to take a few years back. She took it, and the level of mercury in her body dropped.

The new pastor at her church, Hadman Daniel, believes that she doesn't need a spiritual guide. "She has her own relationship with God. She knows God," he says.

According to Daniel, she turns to the church in difficult times, like when she accepted Campos' offer to be his running mate. There was another time before that, back when she was Environment Minister, and a fire broke out in the northern Amazon forest.

"We prayed," the pastor recalls. "And although it wasn't forecast, that same day it started to rain."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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