By Reese Ewing
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazilian presidential candidate Marina Silva, an icon of the green movement, is cozying up to old adversaries in the sugar and ethanol industry as she seeks to win over the powerful farm lobby ahead of next month's election.
Since entering the race in mid-August, Silva has picked a pro-agriculture congressman as her running mate, met repeatedly with agribusiness leaders and campaigned in the farm belt, eager to make allies in an industry that accounts for a quarter of Brazil's economy.
Her message: conservation and big agriculture would thrive side-by-side in a Silva government and she would roll back the gasoline subsidies that President Dilma Rousseff has used to contain inflation. The fuel price controls have gutted Brazil's once-booming sugar cane ethanol industry.
Silva, who polls show is slightly ahead of Rousseff in an expected runoff, has also pleased crowds in the farm belt by reminding voters that she has dropped her opposition to genetically modified crops, which have been crucial to Brazil's rise in recent years as an agricultural power.
"There's this legend out there that I'm against genetically modified crops. That's not true. I support a model in which GMO and GMO-free crops co-exist," she said in a recent TV interview.
A few days later, on a campaign stop in the grains-rich state of Rio Grande do Sul, she said: "I will support agriculture on all levels" - a relief for producers who worry she would favor smaller family farms over the large-scale plantations that have come to dominate Brazil's countryside.
Silva's apparent embrace of big agriculture marks an about-face for a lifelong environmentalist who ran for president in 2010 on the Green Party ticket, and she runs the risk of alienating some voters and allies in the green movement.
A former rubber-tapper and maid who grew up poor in the Amazon state of Acre, Silva became a symbol of the global green movement by devoting her life to environmental issues after the murder of her mentor, union leader Chico Mendes, in 1988.
As environment minister between 2003 and 2008, she fought to contain the expansion of Brazil's grain belt and cattle ranching, helping to reduce the pace of Amazon deforestation by more than half but also angering farmers, ranchers and loggers in the region.
But to win the October election and form the political alliances needed to steer Brazil out of its economic rut, the center-left Silva needs agribusiness leaders and their influential friends in Congress on her side.
So far, the strategy appears to be working. Though not everyone in the farm belt is rallying around Silva, several big names in agribusiness have spoken out in her favor.
Polls show her gaining support in the farm belt, giving her a good chance of beating Rousseff in a runoff between the two.
"She seems to get the importance of bringing value to agribusiness," said Plinio Nastari, a leading consultant in the sugar and ethanol sector who hosted a recent dinner for Silva with 47 agribusiness leaders.
The sugar and ethanol industry, which has watched biofuels lose market share under Rousseff's gasoline subsidies, was a logical starting point for Silva. Her defense of sustainable development is an easy fit with the renewable energy credentials of the cane industry.
But her environmental advocacy often put her at odds over the years with farm leaders, especially as Brazil aggressively expanded its farmland and asserted itself as a major producer of everything from soybeans and beef to sugar and coffee.
Her highest voter rejection rates still reside in the agribusiness community, although that also means she stands to gain votes if she can convince farmers that she's not their enemy.
Roberto Rodrigues, a prominent farm leader who clashed with Silva when he was agriculture minister under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has spoken more favorably of his former adversary than Rousseff, Lula's hand-picked successor.
"Agribusiness is wary of her (Silva), but not me," Rodrigues said recently.
Marcos Jank, an executive at Brazil's biggest poultry exporter BRF who previously headed the country's association of sugarcane producers, wrote in an op-ed piece: "There is more common ground than divergence between the agendas of modern agriculture and sustainable use of resources as proposed by Marina Silva."
A growing number of local agricultural leaders now embrace the tough conservation laws that Silva helped shape earlier in her career, arguing that they help boost the appeal of Brazilian exports in some foreign markets.
"Louis Vuitton doesn't want the leather in its bags associated with deforestation in the Amazon," said Roberto Smeraldi, director at Amigos da Terra, a non-profit group focused on sustainable development in the Amazon.
POLLING THE FARM
A poll this week showed Silva's efforts have given her a 5-point lead over Rousseff in the grain- and cattle-rich states in central Brazil. Silva, who now represents the Brazilian Socialist Party, also has a commanding lead in the southeast, home to Brazil's sugar cane belt.
Her charm offensive, though, may not be enough to win over everyone in agribusiness. Some in the grain belt question whether Silva has truly evolved from her days as a hard-line environmentalist.
Senator Blairo Maggi, whose family is one of the biggest producers of soybeans in Brazil, said recently that Silva "will be a disaster for our sector" if she is elected, and called her "stubborn and deceptive."
Maggi is a former governor of Mato Grosso, a grain state on the southern rim of the Amazon, where some of the highest rates of deforestation occurred when Silva was environment minister.
To be sure, Rousseff still enjoys solid support in the farm belt, especially in her adopted home state of Rio Grande do Sul. She has given the farm sector the hope of better infrastructure by auctioning off contracts to expand and pave key roads that will improve farmers' access to sea ports and local markets.
But Silva hopes her promise of a free floating currency, in contrast to Rousseff's policy of propping up the real to help contain inflation, will attract votes from agricultural exporters who benefit from a weaker exchange rate.
Silva's rapprochement with agriculture has generated some unease among her environmentalist support base, though no one is accusing her of selling out just yet.
She remains immensely popular back in home in Acre, a state that has managed to preserve about 90 percent of its rainforest in part thanks to Silva's efforts. But some cracks in that support are starting to surface.
One former supporter, a daughter of Silva's late mentor Chico Mendes, has declared her vote for Rousseff instead, saying she doesn't think Silva would be able to "form the utopian government" she is touting on the campaign trail.
(Editing by Todd Benson and Kieran Murray)