Why you should care

Because sometimes, in the face of reality, idealism gets sacrificed.

A local fisherman walks toward his favorite bay, Baía do Sueste, at the far end of the Fernando de Noronha archipelago, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s the same bay where his father, and his father’s father before him, always fished. But as the man comes over a hill, he’s shocked at what he sees: A fence, with a turnstile, runs the length of the beach.

Welcome to one of the newest trends in Brazil, where the country is handing over management responsibilities of its national parks to private parties. Today, the country boasts no fewer than 60 national parks, but in recent years, at least three of its most-frequented treasures — whose visitors top 4 million each year — have come under the management of the same concessionaire. Fernando de Noronha is the latest of such projects, but the first to include a coveted element that Brazilians care about most: beaches. That has created sad scenes like the one above, which a government worker recounted to OZY, and which many Noronha fishermen have encountered. Even the park’s chief, Eduardo Cavalcante de Macedo, calls moments like these a “trauma.”

Of course, Brazil isn’t the only one toying with its park system. In wealthier countries like the United States, park concessions have become a big business. For example, Aramark, the hospitality and food provider, recently signed a $2 billion contract to become the new concessionaire of Yosemite National Park, running hotels, stores, restaurants and park services. And it was the U.S. park system that crafted the concession model in the first place, in parks like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. But in Brazil and other developing countries, the concessions are being employed for a different reason: to make up for the utter lack of resources offered by poor, and often mismanaged, local governments.

While taking over a crumbling national-park infrastructure may seem risky, the payoff can be worth it.

And that has some people here feeling uncomfortable. Blending conservation with profit generation is a “really new concept” and still, to some extent, “taboo,” says Ricardo Araújo, an expert on park concessions currently working for the Fernando de Noronha National Marine Park. Araújo was among one of the Brazilian government’s first working groups looking into introducing concessions into the country’s parks back in 2009. As a result of that work, highly trafficked parks with the greatest potential for economic viability were targeted for concessions. Tijuca (the forested hills near Rio de Janeiro’s Christ statue, with around 3 million visitors a year), Iguaçu Falls (1.5 million) and Noronha (75,000) each made the short list.

Fernando de Noronha

Brazil is beginning to blend conservation with profit generation.

Source Elder Vieira Salles / Shutterstock

Of these parks, Noronha, home to around 3,000 people — almost all of whom work in tourism — offers “the greatest contradiction,” Araújo says. While it is a hotly desired destination among Brazilians, those arriving here five years ago might not have even realized that 70 percent of the archipelago and its surrounding waters were a national park. After all, the infrastructure at the time was so shoddy there wasn’t even a sign, Macedo admits. And while Noronha was seen as an enclave for VIP tourists, the 30 percent of it not included within the national park boundary is technically a district of one of Brazil’s poorest states, Pernambuco, 350 watery miles away. As a result, much of the revenue generated on the island was sent back to the mainland government and spread around more impoverished areas. Infrastructure and management of the park was also left behind, leaving trails muddy and lookouts without railings, and illegal fishing rampant. Noronha’s park needed help.

Enter EcoNoronha. In 2010, the park signed a contract with the company, a subsidiary of the Iguaçu Falls concessionaire, Cataratas do Iguaçu SA, which didn’t respond to OZY’s requests for comment. The park has also granted smaller concessions to diving outfits, tour boat operators and more than 320 guides. And while taking over a crumbling national-park infrastructure may seem risky, the payoff can be worth it. These days, with the number of tourists up 20 percent between 2013 and 2014, and foreigners paying $50 a pop to enter the park, the numbers are multiplying. Under the new agreement, Araújo says, about 15 percent of the park’s entry fees goes to the federal government, with another 15 percent becoming profit for the concessionaire and the remaining 70 percent getting reinvested in the park.

Today, the park has changed. There’s a trail laid with wooden planks, a bathroom at a forest checkpoint and a fence on the beach — all of which has led some locals to buck against the new company in a series of contentious community meetings. If the concession falls apart or doesn’t pay its bills, some claim this could become yet another example of a failed public-private environmental project. Meanwhile, countries such as Australia and New Zealand feature parks fully managed by the government, where entrance is free — a scenario Macedo calls “ideal, but politically impossible in Brazil.”

For his part, Macedo understands the fenced-off beach is not ideal, though, he says, “It’s the best option.” After all, as he and others acknowledge, making green spaces off-limits to visitors defeats the purpose of having national parks in the first place; the concessions required to properly manage visitors might be a necessary private evil for public good — and maybe even a model for poorer countries around the world looking to preserve their threatened environments. And with one of Noronha’s beaches earning the title of the world’s best beach from TripAdvisor for the second year in a row, the visitors keep rolling in.

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