BRASÍLIA – FOR Marina Silva, life began in the heart of the Amazon. From the age of 11, she walked nine miles a day helping her father collect rubber from trees.
These days, as an icon in the environmental movement, she has dedicated her life to protecting that same rainforest.
Illiterate and seriously ill from hepatitis, Ms. Silva left her home when she was 16 and headed by bus to the city of Rio Branco seeking medical care and an education. There she learned how to read and write, graduated from college and became a teacher and a politician.
She worked closely with her friend Chico Mendes, the rubber tapper and environmental activist, before he was gunned down in 1988 by ranchers opposed to his activism. When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected Brazil’s president in 2002, he picked Ms. Silva to be his environmental minister, and on her watch Brazil devised a national plan to combat deforestation and created an indigenous reserve roughly the size of Texas.
Last week Ms. Silva shook up Brazilian politics by announcing that, after nearly three decades, she was leaving Mr. da Silva’s Workers’ Party to join the Green Party, where she is likely to be its candidate in next year’s presidential election.
Her story — that of a humble woman who overcame extreme poverty and illness to become a force in Brazilian politics — could prove an inspiration to Brazilians in their search for a president to replace the popular Mr. da Silva, himself a product of humble beginnings, political analysts said.
“Marina is a person that earned her own wings, and it is not surprising to discover that those who have wings can fly,” said Jorge Viana, the former governor of Acre, Ms. Silva’s home state.
Her candidacy would pit her against Dilma Rousseff, President da Silva’s chief of staff and his choice to succeed him. Political analysts say the two women have been at odds since 2003 over the country’s economic development policy, including energy projects that Ms. Silva has questioned for environmental reasons.
Ms. Silva has “shaken up the race, mixed up all the cards,” said David Fleischer, a political science professor at the University of Brasília.
If either woman wins, history will be made. Brazil has never had a woman as president. In addition, the country has never had a black president; Ms. Silva is black.