Building resilience in remote communities

Noronha is a remote archipelago off Brazil’s coast, but it could provide insights into the challenges to building community and urban resilience

Dr Leonardo Nogueira de Moraes, University of Melbourne

Dr Leonardo Nogueira de Moraes

Published 18 July 2022

Over the last few years, building community resilience has become critical – whether as part of managing the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of climate change, or the increasingly frequent and intense natural hazard events, like floods and bushfires.

Core to community resilience is our capacity to respond and to adapt to adverse events and continue to thrive despite them. This kind of adaptive capacity requires the nurturing of community self-organisation and ensuring that levels of regulatory control aren’t detrimental.

Core to community resilience is having the capacity to respond and adapt. Picture: Getty Images

As part of that, it’s worth considering how local areas connect to global systems and, in turn, weigh up the impacts brought by shifts in global connectivity. It’s important to work out how these shifts can be absorbed by communities with different levels of resourcefulness and social cohesion.

In this scenario, balancing local self-sufficiency and access to global resources is particularly critical to small oceanic islands – or remote, non-coastal islands.

Learning from their experiences can help us look closely at Australian governance and planning arrangements for local areas, shedding light on opportunities and challenges for building regional and urban resilience into the future.

However, catering for individual and collective agency isn’t simple; Australia can look to international experiences that could help us reflect on our own national practices.

A magnified challenge

Small oceanic islands that are part of large mainland states can face amplified governance challenges when it comes to levels of centralisation in decision making.

These challenges may affect citizenship and generational connection to land, particularly when some of these islands play a strategic role for defence and are subject to high levels of mainland control.

Fernando de Noronha’s local Catholic church and State District administration building with two historic cannons. Picture: Dr Leonardo Nogueira de Moraes

As an example, some island communities mayn’t experience the same local democratic systems afforded by mainland local government areas, and, in some cases, island mothers may be denied the right to give birth on island soil, due to insufficient local medical services.

The level of mainland control can be further heightened when these islands are subject to a complex system of overlapping protected areas, and experience rapid tourist development influenced by mainland interests.

Yet, the unique geography, history, population and environmental conditions that apply to these islands call for governance structures that are distinct to those in mainland local government areas.

But in places with limited resources and fragile environments – like small oceanic islands, how much local governance should be afforded by state or national provisions to ensure local needs are accounted for and local communities are empowered and resourceful to face ever-increasing contemporary challenges?

Fernando de Noronha Archipelago in Brazil illustrates well this dilemma.

Navigating tricky waters

Fernando de Noronha sits 545km off Recife in Brazil’s north-eastern coast, some three degrees South of the Equator in the Atlantic Ocean.

Its strategic location makes it a critical outpost for defence while also extending Brazil’s Exclusive Economic Zone. During the Portuguese colonisation of eastern South America in the early 1700s, Noronha was highly fortified to help protect the Brazilian coast from the invasion of other European powers.

The ruins of Fernando de Noronha’s former fortification system. Picture: Dr Leonardo Nogueira de Moraes

Historically part of Brazil’s State of Pernambuco, the archipelago became a Brazilian Federal Territory and National Security Area in 1942 during World War II.

Through an agreement between Brazil and the US during the Cold War, Noronha hosted an American base for the observation of tele-guided missiles in the 1950s. It has also previously served as a penal colony for dangerous criminals and political prisoners, including those detained during the 1964-1985 Brazilian dictatorship regime.

From the 1980s onwards, tourism has become the island’s main economic activity, increasing its passenger and cargo connectivity with the mainland, providing greater access to mainland-produced food and slowly discouraging local production – which was seen as less lucrative and more laborious than the tourism industry.

This has been compounded by increasing protected area restrictions aimed at curbing land development and the threat of mass tourism. While these restrictions have sometimes constrained traditional livelihoods, they have also opened new employment opportunities linked with conservation and the tourism sector.

Noronha had no indigenous population when the Portuguese arrived in the 1500s and the archipelago currently hosts a community of generational islanders and newcomers from various backgrounds.

Noronha‘s population is also made up of seasonal tourism and temporary service workers, public service officers, non-government organisation (NGO) volunteers and employees, as well as researchers and visitors with various attachments to the archipelago – from first time visitors to frequent travellers and those related to migrants and generational islanders.

Blurred responsibilities

Brazil’s 1988 democratic constitution transferred Noronha back to the administrative territory of the State of Pernambuco but, for political, defence, and environmental conservation reasons, maintained the archipelago as property of the Brazilian Federation.

Land use is restricted on Noronha in order to contain development and tourism, with implications for the local community. Picture: Getty Images

In practice, the State of Pernambuco administers land use and occupation of most areas outside of the National Marine Park and the Air Force base.

As islanders don’t own land, any development carried out by those who hold a permission to use the land (a TPU) also becomes the property of the Federation, encouraging investment in mainland properties in lieu of island places of residence.

This is further stressed by the high cost of building materials that need to be brought from the mainland and require a permit, which can be hard to obtain.

A Federal Environmental Protection Area also applies to the urban settlement. In addition to being listed as World Heritage and being part of Brazil’s Atlantic Rain Forest Biosphere Reserve, Noronha is also a Ramsar site.

This means land use planning and management is complex, involving both state and federal levels with potentially conflicting interests and sometimes blurry or overlapping responsibilities.

The rise of tourism in the late 1980s sparked concerns about mass migration to the archipelago, prompting the State of Pernambuco to adopt a model of governance that could maintain a high level of regulatory control and oversight.

As a result, Noronha was declared a State District – rather than a municipality – the only example of this kind of administrative arrangement in the Brazilian Territory.

The state district is governed by an administrator appointed by the state governor and is overseen by a council of locally elected members without legislative or executive powers.

A cruise ship approaching the Fernando de Noronha Archipelago’s port. Picture: Dr Leonardo Nogueira de Moraes

Self organisation

Faced with little room for agency and citizen representation in decision-making, Noronha residents have self-organised around sectors of economic activity — like accommodation, transport and fishing.

Having formally constituted sectoral organisations of community representation and business operation, they secured representation in the two Protected Area councils overseeing management of the National Marine Park and the Environmental Protection Area established by federal legislation.

The challenges faced by Noronha residents are many. While some of these challenges stem from overlapping and potentially conflicting regulatory and governance structures, others are inherent to remote and isolated communities living in areas with limited resources and high levels of restrictions and control.

In this complex and sometimes misaligned governance structure, islanders have had to lead processes with the Brazilian Federal Prosecution Ministry calling for better coordination between federal and state level decision-making that affect their livelihoods.

Despite its population’s complex mosaic of connection to land and varying levels of global and local knowledge, this small remote community has been skilfully navigating these troubled waters, showing ongoing resistance to neo-colonial practices affecting self-sufficiency that continue to take place between the mainland and the archipelago.

As we strive to build community and urban resilience in Australia, we should look at small oceanic island examples, both domestically and abroad, that can magnify critical issues and challenges that we may be overlooking as part of our planning practice.

To learn more about Noronha, you can register for the upcoming session on Southern Urbanism in South American contexts as part of the Melbourne School of Design’s 2022 Research Seminar Series on Southern Built Environments, taking place physically in Melbourne and on Zoom on the 21st of July 2022.

Banner: Dr Leonardo Nogueira de Moraes

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