By Andrew Willis, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The island of Ilha Grande (Big Island) is a rustic gem off the Costa Verde (Green Coast), roughly three hours drive south of Rio de Janeiro city, and is a popular destination for both Brazilian and international tourists. Now government plans to privatize nineteen of the island’s beaches have sparked indignation among residents living on the tropical island, as well as the international community.
The privatization plans originate from the State of Rio de Janeiro, and are almost universally opposed by island residents, said Nelson Palma in a telephone interview.
Palma is the spokesman for a local group that is fighting the government plans, as well as editor of the local O Eco Ilha Grande newspaper.
“There’s a real battle going on,” he said. “They will close the beaches and the general public will no longer be allowed to enter. Obviously the future owners of the beaches, who are big capitalists, are in favor of the law, but the population doesn’t want this.”
Once privatized, the beaches will most likely be developed into new hotel complexes, said Palma. The office of state governor was not available for comment.
Rennie Jackson, an Australian expatirate who fell in love with Ilha Grande’s natural beauty a decade ago and eventually set up the Pousada Aratinga Inn on the island, is equally concerned by the privatization plans. The island’s limited infrastructure is already at breaking point due to a lack of government investment, she said.
This has been exacerbated by the island’s rising popularity with overland tourists, as well as the thousands who arrive on cruise ships each year. “Ilha Grande has been totally abandoned by government, from municipal up to federal level. We have been promised everything, including boardwalks and other facilities, but nothing has materialized,” Jackson said.
The shortage of rain in Brazil this year, coupled with the lack of investment in water-capturing facilities and the rising demand from growing tourist numbers, left the island almost without water last month, she said.
On top of this, a series of irregular housing developments have sprung up in recent years around the island’s main village of Abraão, placing a further strain on the area’s fragile ecology.
Ironically, it is Ilha Grande’s un-spoilt nature that is the main attraction for visitors, the island being one of very few places in Brazil where the Atlantic rainforest can still be seen. Added to this are the island’s 200-plus beaches, aquamarine waters and undulating green mountains.
Despite its proximity to the city of Rio de Janeiro, the island only became a tourist destination in the 1990s, once its infamous Candido Mendes prison was closed down. While in operation, the prison limited the human presence, with the island’s local population still small at roughly 6,000 inhabitants.
Both Palma and Jackson agree that a quota system limiting tourist numbers should be imposed on Ilha Grande, something that already exists on a number of other islands off the Brazilian coast. They also hope an application for UNESCO world heritage status will halt excessive development.