By Waldheim Garcia Montoya
Fernando de Noronha archipelago, Brazil, Nov 23 (efe-epa).- Brazil’s Fernando de Noronha, an Atlantic archipelago whose natural beauty and biodiversity have earned it a spot on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, is resisting President Jair Bolsonaro’s plans to open it up to a larger number of visitors.
The rightist head of state sees untapped tourism potential in that volcanic island chain, which boasts lush vegetation, rock formations and golden-sand beaches washed by crystal-clear turquoise waters harboring colorful fish, sea turtles and rays but which has been off-limits to cruise ships for nearly a decade.
The proposal to reopen that archipelago to cruise vessels of up to 600 passengers, prohibited since 2012, has been harshly criticized by biologists and experts in marine flora and fauna.
But local inhabitants of Fernando de Noronha, part of the northeastern state of Pernambuco, also oppose the idea even though it would provide them with an additional source of revenue.
“The island’s ecosystem is fragile and the cruise ships come in high season, when the ocean is calm and marine life is more sensitive and vulnerable,” tourist guide and fisherman Lucas Antonio told Efe, referring to the archipelago’s homonymous main island.
“It would be wonderful for the island’s economy, but for the island’s ecosystem it won’t be good. We have to think about the island first and foremost because that’s where our livelihood comes from. If the cruise ships are going to come, then it should be during low season, from May to June,” he said.
Brazil’s most geographically remote area relative to the mainland, Fernando de Noronha is one of the country’s most environmentally preserved regions. On 20 of the archipelago’s 21 islands, the presence of human beings is only permitted for purposes of scientific research.
Tegu lizards, the largest species of that reptile in South America and an animal imported in the 1960s to combat rodents and insects, and herons are regularly seen on the only paved road in Fernando de Noronha, the largest island.
The archipelago’s economy, which is limited to restaurants, inns and small souvenir shops that were hard-hit by a seven-month coronavirus-triggered lockdown, is only now getting back on its feet.
“It was a tough time. Life here is expensive because everything comes from the mainland, and with no flights and fewer ships everything became even more costly. But I think the island has to maintain its environmental conservation policy. If someone has to leave, they can leave, but the animals have nowhere to go,” shopkeeper Fatima de Rita told Efe.
This archipelago 355 kilometers (220 miles) offshore from Brazil’s northeast coast was included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2001 due to its unique biodiversity, including endemic species such as the Noronha skink.
But pressure from tourism has intensified in recent years. Fernando de Noronha received around 114,000 visitors in 2019, 29,000 more than the total contemplated under an environmental management plan, prompting calls for tougher enforcement measures.
“All infrastructure activity in Fernando de Noronha has to submit to a plan, which is a law that establishes all the environmental parameters to be met by the public administration and the private sector,” civil engineer Fabio Lins, the local government’s infrastructure superintendent, told Efe.
That plan, according to Lins, encompasses environmental conditions such as guarantees for the provision of potable water (which is obtained through desalinization or arrives from the mainland).
He added that the plan limits buildings to two stories and bars further road paving to prevent alteration of the natural sedimentation process, a factor in the islands’ biodiversity.
Authorities also have imposed an environmental preservation tax on visitors to the island, a measure that makes Fernando de Noronha an exclusive destination not accessible to all budgets.
Visitors are taxed 75 reais ($13.90) per person for the first day, with the rate climbing steadily the longer their stay. A tourist who remains on the archipelago for an entire month – the maximum allowable time period – would owe 5,300 reais.
The tax, practically the only official source of revenue for the islands since local inhabitants do not pay property tax, has come under criticism from Bolsonaro, who also has referred to plans to establish more federal governmental control.
“We’re going to … federalize Fernando de Noronha, do away with these questions, really make it a tourist hub,” the president said recently.