Photo via Brazilian Tourism Board
Just before the Trump impeachment hearings took center stage, Brazil’s president decided he wanted to garner some press by weighing in on Hollywood elites.
In an odd, out of left field comment, President Jair Bolsonaro falsely blamed Leonardo DiCaprio
for the wildfires that have been ravaging the rainforest within the country.
This came just days after Gilson Machado Neto, the president of the Brazilian Tourism Board (Embratur), similarly blamed celebrities for spreading "fake news" about Brazil’s wildfires.
Now, according to CNN
, Brazil's president has labeled Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg a "brat," after she called out his government for the deaths of indigenous people in the Amazon.
"Greta has said that the Indians died because because they were defending the Amazon. It's amazing that the press gives space to this kind of pirralha," Bolsonaro told reporters in Brasilia, with "pirralha" meaning "brat" in Portuguese. This statement is likely to further intensify international attention on the country's ecological crises.
We reached out to Neto before this latest spectacle. He was appointed to his current position in May, after serving as national secretary of Ecotourism and Environmental Citizenship, as part of President Bolsonaro's transition team. Neto has also been Brazil's Secretary of Forests.
In an interview with the Orlando Weekly
, Neto didn't mince words regarding the recent outrage regarding the wildfires in Brazil’s rainforest. Instead, he pushed back, calling some of the reporting on the fires "fake news," while saying visitors shouldn’t take what they read online as fact.
This is what he said to us:
Visitors should come and see with their own eyes what is happening in the Amazon. They should not take everything they see on the news or social media as actual facts. There were a lot of fake news spread by many people when the fires first began. There were even celebrities sharing old pictures and pictures that weren’t even in the Amazon to fool people into believing that the whole rainforest was burning down.
Here’s the reality: Brazil is an environmental powerhouse which seeks to develop the Amazon as the best way to preserve its natural wealth and to improve living conditions for more than 20 million people living in that territory. The Brazilian Forest Code is one of the most advanced and strict in the world and determines, among other things, that private properties preserve 80% of native vegetation in the Amazon, 35% in the Cerrado biome and 20% in other biomes.
The Bolsonaro government is working hard to combat illegal deforestation and other criminal activities that put the Amazon at risk. Among the actions is the authorization of the use of the Armed Forces to combat fires in the Amazon. The troops act in preventive and repressive actions against environmental crimes and fighting fire outbreaks.
We are a zero-tolerance government with crime, and in the environmental area it will be no different. It is necessary to remember that when the fires were at their peak, Brazil was in a traditionally dry, hot and windy season, which unfortunately burns every year in the Amazon region. In rainier years, the fires are less intense. In warmer years, such as this one, they occur more often.”
He continued, explaining that Brazil must protect its natural beauty since it is the nation’s "greatest asset," and integral to ecotourism, a primary driver of the nation’s economy:
“There is no one more interested in preserving the environment than we are. This is our greatest asset, there is no more important attraction than our rich biomes (Amazon, Caatinga, Cerrado, Atlantic Forest, Pampas and Pantanal), our unique flora and fauna. Ecotourism is one of the most fundamental pillars of Brazilian tourism. And there is no way to develop ecotourism without protecting the environment.
Our government wants to preserve and protect, we are committed to this very fundamental heritage for our country. According to the Ministry of Environment, today, the country has 60% of its territory covered by vegetation. We have 334 conservation units (federal, state and municipal). Among the almost 9 million km² in Brazil, agribusiness and livestock occupy 30% of the territory, with another 30% legally protected (between protected areas and indigenous territories).”
While Neto and Brazil have publicly stated that they are committed to preserving the nation’s unique natural resources, Bolsonaro’s far-right policies cast doubt on many of their statements.
A report earlier this year by the New Yorker
, which has been closely covering President Bolsonaro's actions regarding the rainforests, stated that deforestation within Brazil has increased by nearly 40 percent over last year.
Leonardo DiCaprio took to Instagram to respond to the comments by Brazil's president. In a lengthy post
on the social media site, DiCaprio noted that he supports the "people of Brazil working to save their natural and cultural heritage. They are an amazing, moving and humbling example of the commitment and passion needed to save the environment. The future of these irreplaceable ecosystems is at stake."
This anti-Hollywood push by Brazil’s government began just as Neto has been trying to strengthen ties between Florida and Brazil. The South American country is looking to learn from Florida’s success as, it attempts to expand its own tourism sector and aims to double the number of annual
visitors by 2022.
Since moving to his new tourism role, Neto has been busy looking at ways Florida and Brazil can better harness their relationship to benefit both economies. Currently, Brazil sees a tourism trade deficit
of $12.3 billion with international visitors to Brazil spending only $5.9 billion, compared to the $18.2 billion Brazilians spent abroad, a lot of which is spent in Florida, one of the top international destinations for Brazilians.
In his interview with OW
, Neto discussed the connections between Brazil and Orlando, conceding his nation has a lot to learn from Florida’s successful tourism industry.
Citing an "open door" policy for tourism, Neto pointed to the nation’s vast selection of existing attractions, and the many new attractions that the nation is looking to open in the coming years. He noted that Brazil’s cuisine, history, and heritage are all potential draws for international tourists.
Brazil has partnered
with Brazilian-owned businesses in Central Florida, including International Drive’s Yes Brazil, as part of a campaign to encourage Brazilians living aboard to promote the nation as a travel destination. "Brazilian, Bring 5+" encourages Brazilian ex-pats to tell at least five Americans that they should consider Brazil as a vacation destination. Another parallel campaign
looks to bring social media influencers to Brazil, with some online influencers to be dubbed “Brazilian tourism ambassadors.”
With the potential for a strengthening economy
, Brazil is viewed as one of the biggest mostly untapped markets in the world for themed entertainment, something that Neto hopes to change via Central Florida’s expertise.
This is the perfect moment for a greater exchange of experiences between Brazil and Orlando. We hope to see an increase of flights between Orlando and key Brazilian cities, not only to transport more visitors, but also to make it easier for investors from Orlando to do business in Brazil.
We hope to attract those in Orlando with the expertise to build and run theme parks. Recently, the main obstacle to the development of theme and water parks in Brazil has been removed. The Brazilian government has passed a law to permanently exempt companies from equipment import tax.”
The removal of the equipment-import tax is part of a more extensive Brazilian regulation overhaul that is designed to attract more visitors and more investment to the nation. Another major aspect of the overhaul was the recent removal of tourist visa requirements for U.S. citizens.
The U.S. was part of a four-nation pilot program that also saw visa requirements lifted for visitors from Japan, Canada and Australia. This came after a successful transition to an electronic visa program for the same four nations. That program saw spending by travelers using the program increase by double-digit percents. The nation is also joining the Global Entry
program at select airports, a move that America has been pushing for since 2012
As part of an overhaul to tourism entry barriers, Neto says he is now working to remove the visa requirements for visitors from other nations with high-income travelers, including China, India, Singapore, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. Between now and the end of next year, more $198 million is slated for government-sponsored tourism efforts in Brazil.
Neto explained that tourism is a critical part of the nation’s economy.
Our tourism sector meets all the conditions to contribute to the economic growth of Brazil through the generation of jobs and income and soon we will have good results to present. Easing access should lead to more visitors, including returning visitors who now will want to discover new areas, and thus the creation of more jobs and income.
It's not just theme and water park development that Neto is looking at as part of his plan. The cruise industry, primarily based in Florida, is also an integral part of how Brazil plans to expand the tourism sector.
We are the world's number one natural resource destination in the world, we have a coastline of about 8,000 km, warm water and sunshine all year round, and 9,000 km of freshwater shores. We need to unite and mobilize, to turn all this into employment and income, so as to increase our cruise tourism sector. Our goal is to propose new management and business models in the area, combining conservation and sustainable development. We hope U.S. based cruise lines can help us identify bottlenecks and set up strategies to overcome the challenges and improve the cruise services and structures used in Brazil.
Neto is correct that the nation’s biggest tourism draw remains its ecological and cultural wonders, but conflicting reports on the government’s efforts to preserve its rainforests make it hard to tell fact from fiction in Brazil's talking points.
Rainforests are something that no amount of theme parks, cruise terminals, Orlando expertise – or fights with celebrity activists – can ever replace.
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