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Brazilian island wants to show the way to a green future, but business leaders want to make it Cozumel

Competing visions have made Fernando de Noronha an unlikely battleground in the country's debate over growth. Will Brazil use 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?

Tourists take pictures on a beach in Fernando de Noronha, Brazil.
Tourists take pictures on a beach in Fernando de Noronha, Brazil.Read moreMarina Lopes / Washington Post

When Guilherme Rocha surveys the golden sand beaches, turquoise waters, and dramatic cliffs of his island in the South Atlantic, he sees a model of sustainable development for Brazil — and the world.

A place where the number of visitors is limited; where the money they bring is used to promote electric cars, solar farms, and mandatory recycling; where the tourist activities include lectures on climate change and ways to reduce carbon emissions.

“The world is turning a page,” says Rocha, the administrator of the island speck that is Fernando de Noronha, 220 miles from where Brazil’s east coast juts into the Atlantic Ocean, northeast of the city of Recife. “The era of dirty energy is over.”

Luiz Falcão considers the same tropical paradise and sees untapped potential — for more business. The hotel owner envisions a world-class port to welcome cruise ships packed with passengers coming to patronize a growing landscape of bars, restaurants, and accommodations.

“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 use 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, the environmentalists appeared to be winning. Since the beginning of the year, the 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 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.

But now local business leaders have a powerful new ally in Brasilia, the capital.

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.”

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, a 70-minute flight from Recife, 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. Baia do Sancho is among the world’s most beautiful beaches. 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 the Fernando de Noronha 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 that 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!”

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.

Business leaders say the solution is 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 Dolphin 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."

President Bolsonaro, he hopes, will rein in local officials and clear the way for more business-friendly decisions.

Bolsonaro 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, lifted a ban on sardine fishing, and replaced the head of the island environmental agency with a native whom the business community hopes will ease restrictions.