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Brazil: Aquarium Project Sparks Transparency Debate

In Fortaleza, the fifth largest city in Brazil, the recent start of construction on an aquarium has prompted discussions over public resources, state government priorities and the city's future, as well as some creative forms of protest.

Estimated to cost 250 million Brazilian reais (approximately 136 million US dollars), the project promises to become the world's third biggest aquarium. On January 30, 2012, the State of Ceará tourism secretary shared a preview of what Acquario Ceará will offer to the public once concluded:

As promising as the project might seem, its high cost has been subject to criticism, mainly by citizens who believe the budget should be deployed in the areas of education, security, and health, in which the state of Ceará features several deficiencies.

Harboring similar doubts about the project, artist Enrico Rocha published a photo [pt] on Facebook on February 5, 2012 of the planned construction site, ready for construction, and subsequently triggered a debate which extended to 150 comments.

"As long as the Acquario remains a model, we'll still have time". Illustration by Yuri Leonardo, used with permission.

"As long as the Acquario remains a model, there will be time". Illustration by Yuri Leonardo, used with permission.

Ten days after Enrico Rocha's photograph, the Facebook page for the movement opposing the aquarium, Quem dera ser um peixe (I wish I were a fish) [pt], was created. The group is named in reference to the song Borbulhas de amor [pt], by Ceará-born singer and composer Fagner, whose verses “Quem dera ser um peixe/Para em teu límpido/Aquário mergulhar” (I wish I were a fish/To dive in your/Limpid aquarium) go hand-in-hand with the movement's criticisms.

The blog page Why We Question It [pt] features reasons to oppose the aquarium, specifically the lack of transparency surrounding it.

Among the objections, there is no evidence that the companies Imagic [pt], which designed the aquarium, and the North American ICM Reynolds, which is building it, were hired through public bidding. Critics question the irregular building permit granted to the project, given that “mandatory archaeological reports, which must be analyzed and approved by the National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage (Iphan)” had not been conducted.

Furthermore, the bill of such enterprise will go “beyond the debt, with a monthly cost estimated at 1,5 million Brazilian reais (815,000 US dollars)”, and clings to a business plan that remains unknown:

Não foi apresentado um plano de negócios que mostre, detalhadamente, como iremos saldar a dívida que teremos com o banco norte-americano Ex Im Bank of United States, com quem o Governo do Estado está negociando empréstimo de aproximadamente US$ 105 milhões. O restante dos gastos sairia diretamente dos cofres públicos no valor de US$ 45 milhões.

No business plan was submitted to show in detail how will we pay off the debt we'll acquire with the Ex Im Bank of United States, the bank with which the state government is negotiating a loan worth 105 million US dollar. The complement of the required amount would come directly from public resources: 45 million US dollars.

Carnival parade and weekly meetings

On February 22, revelers during Carnival who shared a critical view toward the project came together in a small parade called Unidos Contra o Acquario (United Against the Aquarium), which snaked throughout the streets of the Benfica neighborhood alongside the traditional parade, known as Sanatório Geral. Revelers dressed up as fish and walked under a vast blue cloth mimicking the sea.

Bloco Unidos do Acquário (Aquarium United Block). Photo by Quem dera ser um peixe, used with permission.

Bloco Unidos do Acquário (Aquarium United Block). Photo by Quem dera ser um peixe, used with permission.

In previous years, the Sanatório Geral parade had already played a carnival march called Fortaleza Aquática (Aquatic Fortaleza) [pt], which mocks the project and mentions previous controversies regarding Governor Cid Gomes’ administration.

Another kind of mobilization taking place are meetings known as Inundação (Flooding), shared under the hashtags #OcupePI (Ocuppy Praia de Iracema) and #DesocupeAcquario (Desert Acquario) and organized  and attended on Saturdays by supporters of the Quem dera ser um peixe movement, in the Praia de Iracema neighborhood, which is set to host the aquarium. The first meeting occured on March 10, and gathered citizens opposed to the project as well as residents of Poço da Draga, a century-old community that will face forced evictions to open space for a parking lot for the aquarium's visitors.

#OcupePI. Photo published with permission of Quem dera ser um peixe.

#OcupePI. Photo published with permission of Quem dera ser um peixe.

The State government's reaction followed shortly after the first meeting. The then recently created institutional Twitter profile @acquario_ceara responded [pt] to the controversy not with facts, but with accusations instead:

@acquario_ceara: Quem está contra o #AcquarioCeara trabalha contra o desenvolvimento do Ceará. Parece que são pessoas a serviço de outros estados.

@acquario_ceara: Those against #AcquarioCeara are working against the development of Ceará. They seem to be at the service of other [Brazilian] states.

Also on Twitter, student Débora Vaz linked to [pt] the video shared by the historian Andréa Saraiva on the blog Chafurdo Mental [pt], denouncing the start of the construction before such a permit was granted. She said:

@deboravaz: Enquanto isso, aqui em Fortaleza, a estúpida obra do Acquário começa sem alvará, além de ter sido contestada pelo Iphan

@deboravaz: Meanwhile, here in Fortaleza, the stupid Acquario project starts without a construction permit, besides being questioned by Iphan

Lack of transparency

The Quem dera ser um peixe movement published [pt] documents denouncing irregularities in the project's bidding on April 11:

Dentre os nossos pedidos está o de cancelar imediatamente o processo de contratos já efetuados. Veremos que na surdina o governo tem contratado e licitado ao arrepio da lei e que já está superando o numero milionário de R$ 250 milhoes iniciais.

Veremos também que já foi pago R$ 876 mil reais que ninguém sabe pra quem e nem pra quê, pois o governo não publicou os termos como seria de sua obrigação.

Among our requests is the immediate revocation of contracts already in effect. We will see that on the sly the government has authorized and hired disregarding the law, so far exceeding the original millionaire sum of 250 million Brazilian reais.

We will see that 876,000 reais have been deployed to pay no one knows who and nobody knows the reason, since the government hasn't published the terms of the transaction, as it was supposed to.

Facebook user Alexandre Ruoso shared his comments on the news, writing [pt]:

‎#AquarioIlegal #GovernoFazdeconta
Se isso acontece em obras como esta, que tem toda a visibilidade, imagina nas obras menos importantes.

#Illegal aquarium #Government of make-believe
If such practice occurs in projects like this, which is under the spotlight, I wonder what happens in less important projects.
The attack of the Aquarium Men. Illustration by Yuri Leonardo, used with permission.

The attack of the Aquarium Men. Illustration by Yuri Leonardo, used with permission.

Considering the government's lack of transparency in mobilizing 250 million reais to build the Acquario Ceará, many have questioned the arguments used by Governor Cid Gomes during recent strikes by military police officers and teachers, occasions in which he refused to comply with workers’ demands.

Protests have taken place in other cities of Ceará as well, not only Fortaleza, as Professor Tiago Coutinho reported [pt] on his Facebook page on April 2:

Neste momento estudantes da Urca ocupam as ruas do Crato e cantam “é ou não é piada de salão, tem dinheiro pro aquário mas não tem pra educação?”.

At this moment, URCA [Regional University of Cariri] students occupy the streets of Crato singing “is it or isn't it a joke, there is money for the aquarium and none for education?”.

Andréa Saraiva questioned [pt] the model of tourism reinforced by the Acquario on her blog, arguing that it ignores cheaper and more interesting alternatives for the communities:

O turismo é uma atividade econômica como outra qualquer, portanto ela não é neutra. Aqui no Ceará várias comunidades sofrem pelo turismo predatório, grande aliado da especulação imobiliária, das empreiteiras e do turismo sexual que vem sendo aplicado em sucessivos governos que investem em modelos que só favorecem a industria do turismo. A concepção Tasso-Cidista [referência ao ex-governador Tasso e o governador Cid] de desenvolvimento no Ceará baseado na industrialização se mostrou fracassada e só melhorou a vida de grandes empresários, o número de miseráveis só aumentou. Há outros modelos de turismo exitosos no mundo e até aqui no Ceará que é referência internacional em turismo comunitário. Mas não há investimento porque estes não financiam campanha, esse tipo de turismo não é ‘montado no cimento’.

Tourism is an economic activity like many others, therefore it isn't neutral. In Ceará, several communities suffer the effects of predatory tourism, a great ally of land speculation, contractors, and sexual tourism, and has been applied by the latest state administrations in models that favor the tourism industry. This concept of development carried out both by Governors Tasso [Jereissati] and Cid [Gomes] in Ceará is based on a failed industrialization that has only made the lives of businessmen better, because the number of those living in misery has gone up. There are other successful models of tourism in the world and in Ceará, which is an international reference in community tourism. However these initiatives receive no investment since they don't finance political campaigns; this kind of tourism isn't ‘based on concrete’.

The project's sustainability has sparked questions [pt] as well, mainly after reports of cultural centers in town being in disrepair, such as the Centro Dragão do Mar de Arte e Cultura.

Local mainstream media coverage has proven itself to be ambiguous, but an article [pt] written by journalist Adísia Sá highlighted the need of a public consultation on the project. She said:

Volto a insistir: a população tem o direito de ser não só informada como consultada. E não venham me dizer que deputados e vereadores sabem de tudo e que eles, sim, são a opinião pública. Todos foram eleitos com os nossos votos, sim, mas não lhes foi dada carta de alforria para falar, agir e decidir por nós – em qualquer assunto. Há limite na representação popular. E, pelo visto, isto não está sendo considerado.

I insist: people have the right to be informed and heard. And don't you dare tell me that state representatives and city councilmen know everything and they are the sole public opinion. They have been elected with votes, indeed, but they haven't been given a letter of manumission to speak, act and decide on our behalf – in any given matter. Political representation has a limit. And apparently this hasn't been taken into account.
João Miguel Lima collaborated with this post.


  • No matter what public project is proposed there will be some people who are against it.
    People complained when the National Aquarium in Baltimore was built in 1981 too. That project led a renaissance for Baltimore’s development. Prior to the aquarium the Inner Harbor was derelict and no tourists visited Baltimore. 2 years after it opened it was the number one paid attraction in Maryland, generated $88 million annually, and accounted for close to 3000 jobs.
    In the first 5 years that the Georgia Aquarium opened it has had at least $1 billion economic impact. Aquariums are effective tourist magnets. I hope that they allow the project to be completed.

  • Your american Import-Export Bank will finance this, without respect to the national law of public purchases that exists to ensure comercial competition. Wheather you are against aquariums in general or not, you can’t be for a project that breaks the law. We don’t even know if the price is right. If you knew the place, you would also agree that the 3o aquarium in the world would not fit there, not even parking space is taken care of. And if you knew Fortaleza you would know that there are other priorities for tourism, such as clean beaches to say the least.

    • Nathaniel

      There’s truth in all that. But commercial competition in architecture results in bad building — a bunch of low-balling competitive bidders by companies that have little experience and will likely go out of business by the end of the projects, which is what those paying often want because then they don’t have to pay their final installments. But I think that just makes these rich contracting firms and their client’s rich, and results in lots of lost jobs and industry among subcontractors.

      What you want is a good team that knows what its doing to create an outstanding building, and that’s what’s happening on the project. But yeah, its a mixed bag for Brazilians, because the don’t control the money, their own fabrication companies don’t get an opportunity to bid the project.

  • […] construction of the Acquario Ceará, which has provoked many a discussion lately about transparency in the Brazilian city of Fortaleza, will be subject to a democratic vote [pt] this coming October, […]

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