Trouble in paradise as Bolsonaro government fights for archipelago

. Nov 23, 2020
Fernando de Noronha. Photo: Guilherme Spengler/Shutterstock Fernando de Noronha. Photo: Guilherme Spengler/Shutterstock

Sitting roughly 350 kilometers off Brazil’s northeastern coast, the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha is one of the most exclusive holiday destinations in the country. With its idyllic beaches and sparse population, it has become something of a millionaire’s playground. Rooms in its luxury hotels are often booked up for several months in advance.

But long before it became an exclusive tourist paradise, Fernando de Noronha had a long history of being fought over by various countries and governments.

</p> <p>Before the Portuguese Crown officially made the archipelago part of the captaincy of Pernambuco in 1700, Fernando de Noronha had been invaded by the British, <a href="">French</a>, and <a href="">Dutch</a>. In 1736, the islands were taken over by the French West India Company and renamed Isle Dauphine, before forces sent by the Portuguese government kicked the French out.</p> <p>In 1942, during World War II, Fernando de Noronha was used as an advanced war base and officially became Brazilian federal territory, before being handed back to the state of Pernambuco in 1988.</p> <p>And after all of these comings and goings, ending up in the creation of an idyllic beach resort, President Jair Bolsonaro is now discussing making Fernando de Noronha federal property once again. In one of his weekly live broadcasts on Facebook, Mr. Bolsonaro spoke of reclaiming the archipelago from the Pernambuco state government, decrying the high costs of tourism in the region and saying that paying BRL 100 (USD 18.54) to visit a beach was &#8220;absurd.&#8221;</p> <p>Indeed, this declaration came after the president&#8217;s eldest son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, had visited the archipelago on holiday, illegally charging his plane tickets as parliamentary expenses. Once this came to light, Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s office called it a &#8220;mistake&#8221; and said they had canceled the expenses request.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="662" src="" alt="Marine turtle in Fernando de Noronha reef" class="wp-image-53097" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>Marine turtle in Fernando de Noronha reef. Photo: Leo Lamas/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <h2>Open season on sardines</h2> <p>While visiting Fernando de Noronha, Flávio Bolsonaro met with members of the government, such as Ricardo Salles and Marcelo Álvaro Antônio — the Environment and Tourism Ministers, respectively — who were in the region on official business. Also in attendance were Brazilian tourism board head Gilson Machado Neto and the fisheries secretary Jorge Seif. After clearing their schedules, the group decided to tack on a few days to their stay and spend the weekend.</p> <p>Earlier, Messrs. Salles and Seif had authorized sardine fishing in Fernando de Noronha, ignoring a technical note from the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), in charge of the environmental preservation of the archipelago.</p> <p>Mr. Seif took part in President Bolsonaro&#8217;s live social media broadcast, defending his decision, saying that &#8220;no-one will can sardines in Fernando de Noronha&#8221; and that the only ones to benefit from the measure would be island natives and artisanal fishermen. &#8220;No-one is going to go there, with an industrial boat, invade Noronha and get rid of everything, like people are saying. And another thing, they even filmed a statement saying there would not be enough food for the sharks. It&#8217;s absurd,&#8221; he said.</p> <p>The president said he had the impression that Fernando de Noronha had become &#8220;an island of friends,&#8221; insinuating that business owners were extorting tourists. &#8220;It&#8217;s absurd, you have to pay BRL 100 to go to a beach in Fernando de Noronha. (&#8230;) Unbelievable, this has to change.&#8221;</p> <h2>An island with an entrance fee</h2> <p>Indeed, Fernando de Noronha is a lot more than tourist beach resorts. Made up of 21 different islands, the archipelago is home to a wealth of biodiversity, with a number of endemic species. The Baía dos Golfinhos (Dolphins&#8217; Bay) is the world&#8217;s most consistent observation spot for spinner dolphins, which gather there every day. The archipelago was recognized by Unesco as a Natural World Heritage site in 2001.</p> <p>In July 2019, Jair Bolsonaro declared that he intended to scrap entrance fees for Fernando de Noronha&#8217;s National Marine Park, which he described as &#8220;theft.&#8221; At the time, Brazilian visitors paid BRL 106 to access the park for ten days, while foreigners paid BRL 212. Despite his claims of theft, the president signed off on an increase to those rates later the same year, rising to BRL 111 for Brazilians and BRL 222 for foreign tourists.</p> <p>According to ICMBio, 70 percent of entrance fees are reinvested in infrastructure, signage, and maintenance of the park&#8217;s nature trails. Visitors to Fernando de Noronha also have to pay an environmental conservation tax of BRL 73.52 per day, up to 30 days.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Bolsonaro looking for cruise control</h2> <p>In another blatant disregard for expert advice, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro promised in March 2020 that his father&#8217;s government would put <a href="">Fernando de Noronha back on the route</a> for international cruise lines. The first ship, with 200 passengers, was meant to reach the archipelago in April, but <a href="">Covid-19 restrictions blocked the entry of any tourists</a> — Brazilian or otherwise — in Fernando de Noronha.</p> <p>Environmentalists claim that cruise ships overload the archipelago&#8217;s ecosystem and that Fernando de Noronha is already operating at full capacity: which is 340 tourists a day, according to experts from ICMBio and the Environment Secretary of Pernambuco state. If the federal government got its way, the islands could welcome ships with over 600 passengers.</p> <h2>Pernambuco holding on to its islands</h2> <p>Despite President Bolsonaro&#8217;s wishes, Fernando de Noronha is still administered by the state government of Pernambuco, which is, in turn, overseen by government opponent Paulo Câmara, of the Brazilian Socialist Party. And Mr. Bolsonaro has given no indication as to how he would make the archipelago federal property once again. According to legal scholars and politicians, the only way to do this is by amending the constitution: a long and drawn out process in Congress.</p> <p>Mr. Câmara has spoken out against the Bolsonaro government&#8217;s incursions in Fernando de Noronha, saying that &#8220;creating solutions is more productive than creating arguments.&#8221; He criticized the federal administration for, in his words, not fulfilling its promises of sending funds to build houses and renovate highways.</p> <p>&#8220;The federal government said three times that it would send funds for basic sanitation but never did, besides increasing the price of preservation fees when it promised it would extinguish them,&#8221; said the Pernambuco governor.</p> <p>Another opponent to the federal government in this discussion is Humberto Costa, senator for Pernambuco state. Besides stressing that the ownership of Fernando de Noronha is entrenched in the Constitution and cannot be changed, Mr. Costa says that passing the archipelago to federal hands would result in environmental damage.</p> <p>&#8220;It would be giving the federal sphere one of the most beautiful and protected areas on the planet with the objective of destroying it for predatory exploitation, as they are doing in the <a href="">Amazon</a> and <a href="">Pantanal</a>. We will fight on all fronts to block this atrocity.&#8221;</p> <p>Legal scholar José Paulo Cavalcanti sees another potential issue with taking Fernando de Noronha away from Pernambuco. The state of Rio Grande do Norte — much closer to the archipelago than any Brazilian state — could have a better claim of ownership than Pernambuco or the federal administration. All of this would result in political fallouts and turbulence, making a constitutional amendment almost impossible to approve.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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