“The world is turning a page,” says Rocha, the island’s administrator. “The era of dirty energy is over.”
Luiz Falcão considers the same tropical paradise and sees untapped potential — for more business. The owner of the Dolphin Hotel dreams of creating a world-class port to welcome cruise ships packed with passengers coming to patronize a growing landscape of bars, restaurants and hotels.
“This could be a Maldives, a Cozumel,” he says. “Here, we can have only 100,000 tourists. There, they receive 90 million.”
Those competing visions have made Noronha an unlikely battleground in the larger debate over growth across the Western Hemisphere’s second-largest nation. Will Brazil exploit its abundant natural resources to lift itself out of economic stagnation? Or will it use those resources to show humankind the way to a green future?
For a time here, the environmentalists appeared to be winning. Since the beginning of the year, this island of 3,000 residents and almost as many dolphins has banned disposable plastic, imposed mandatory recycling and launched a program to neutralize carbon emissions by 2030.
Tourism here has nearly doubled since 2012, but the number of visitors remains capped by law. Foreigners are charged more than $50 to use the beaches, and environmental regulations, strictly enforced, have restrained development.
Bolsonaro calls Noronha ‘an example of how not to do tourism’
But now local business leaders have a powerful new ally in Brasilia.
President Jair Bolsonaro, a climate change skeptic who won office last year on promises to cut environmental red tape and promote development, posted his displeasure with the beach fees this summer on Facebook. He called them “robbery” and said they explain why “there is almost no tourism in Brazil.”
“Brazil is the No. 1 country in the world in natural beauty, but one of the last in tourism revenue,” he tweeted. “Fernando de Noronha is an example of how not to do tourism.”
His take on Noronha mirrors his administration’s approach to the environment more broadly: Ease regulations, promote business, shout down critics.
When the head of the government’s space research agency reported a jump in deforestation in the Amazon this year, the president denounced the data as “lies” and fired him. He has dismissed international criticism over deforestation as an assault on Brazil’s sovereignty; as fires spiked across the Amazon last month, he initially rejected an aid package offered by the Group of Seven and told foreign leaders to mind their own business.
Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has isolated him on the world stage. But here in Noronha, it’s struck a chord.
Fabiana da Silva, 31, remembers when living on the island meant wading through muddy streets and waiting weeks for food to be shipped from the mainland. Growing tourism has changed life here, creating jobs, funding improvements, strengthening the economy.
Environmental regulations, she says, mean she has to ask the government for everything.
“We are humiliated,” says da Silva, who works at a shop that sells clothing and jewelry. “We have to ask to build a toilet. If you want to build a house, you have to beg.”
Endangered species, and the world’s most beautiful beach
What happens in Noronha can reverberate throughout Brazil. After officials here introduced the ban on plastic, they say, they received calls from local officials around the country hoping to do the same. Paulo Câmara, the socialist governor of the state that administers the island, says he uses it as a laboratory to test ideas before implementing them more broadly.
Noronha, just a 70-minute flight from Recife on the Brazilian mainland, has much to attract visitors. UNESCO has declared the island a World Heritage Site, citing its “indescribable beauty,” its biodiversity and its endangered species, including green sea and loggerhead turtles. TripAdvisor has named Baia do Sancho the world’s most beautiful beach. Spinner dolphins greet tourists in the morning; lemon sharks dive around them during the day, stingrays gather at their feet at dusk.
The island received 103,000 visitors last year. They generated nearly $9 million in taxes.
Marco Aurelio da Silva, a ranger at Fernando de Noronha Marine National Park, delivers lectures to visitors each week. Between instructions on how to behave during their stay — “Please don’t poke the sharks with your selfie sticks” — he tries to instill a sense of environmental responsibility he hopes they’ll take with them when they leave. “We have to remember Planet Earth is our home,” he told one group. “Who takes care of it? We do!”
Everyone has an opinion
Tourists have brought opportunities, but also challenges: Growing crowds are straining the primitive sewage system, taxing the limited water supply and wearing out unpaved roads.
The solution? Business leaders say it’s more development — building the new port, expanding the desalination plant, reinforcing the infrastructure.
Falcão, the hotelier, considers himself the founder of tourism in Noronha. He began chartering flights for 100 travelers a week in 1981, when only fishermen, soldiers and biologists had reason to venture here.
His 40-room hotel, between the airport and the beach, is one of the island’s most popular. But expanding the business has proved all but impossible. His hope of building a second hotel has stalled over environmental permits.
He blames the environmentalists.
“They say no, just to say no,” he said. “But it’s the people’s heritage. Noronha should compete with the world.”
Bolsonaro, he hopes, will rein in local officials and clear the way for more business-friendly decisions.
The president is already making changes. After his Twitter tirade, he sent Environment Minister Ricardo Salles here to assess whether some of the tourist fees should be waived. Salles met with business leaders, lifted a ban on sardine fishing, and replaced the head of the island environmental agency with a native who the business community hopes will ease restrictions.
In Noronha, where environmentalists have enjoyed an outsized influence, activists fear that Bolsonaro could threaten projects decades in the planning. Local officials worry that speaking out could make them the president’s next target.
They didn’t have to wait long to see their fears realized, with the reassignment of a local environmental official. José Martins is an oceanographer who worked on Noronha for three decades. A public critic of the spike in tourism, he was ordered to leave Noronha after Salles’s visit.
The Ministry of the Environment denied repeated interview requests and would not allow Martins to speak to reporters. At a town hall meeting in August, however, all eyes were on him. He silently teared up as lifelong friends called on the government to reconsider.
“He has not committed a crime,” said Domício Alves, one of Noronha’s most senior political leaders, drawing a standing ovation. “If you disagree with him, let’s discuss it, but don’t do this.
“He is an affront to the interests of big business. That’s why this is happening.”
The meeting descended into chaos. Business leaders shouted over activists. The future of the island was at stake, and everyone had an opinion.