Marco Werman: Brazil is building a massive aquarium, the largest in South America. It's in the northeastern city of Fortaleza and it is a wild design. But it's being prefabricated in Kansas city of all places and built with US money. Elizabeth Duffield recently went to Fortaleza to see the project taking shape. She studies Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. Describe for us this aquarium, because I looked at it and I thought, "Well, that looks kind of like the Charles de Gaulle Airport terminal in Paris, part octopus." And I know that didn't help our listeners. So what does it look like?
Elizabeth Duffield: Right. Well, it's hard to describe because it doesn't look like anything that you would conceive for an aquarium and actually reminds me of a lizard stretching out along the boardwalk along the beach. It's sort of this metallic structure and it has these little I guess leg stands jutting out from the sides. Very futuristic. Very modern. Definitely pulling at this new modern image that the Brazil's Secretary of Tourism is really trying to achieve with this city. And it almost reminds me in a sense of the Guggenheim in Bilbao which was also considered to be a very contemporary - almost too contemporary - of a tourism project.
Werman: And in the architect's rendering, I mean it is a very cool kind of Captain Nemo secret lair design. But is it something that Fortaleza really needs? I mean this is one of Brazil's poorest states.
Duffield: That's a great question and that's what everyone's asking over there. The argument from the side of the Department of Tourism is that yes, it will bring a lot of money and create a lot of tourism jobs in a city that really does have its main sector developed around tourism. However, there are a lot of complaints coming from especially the lower classes saying this is not the answer to their problems. This large amount of funds is being directed at building this project that will really only benefit tourists when so much of the city is still without sanitation.
Werman: When you traveled to the state of CearÃ¡ where this is all happening for your research what did you find? I mean how do locals actually feel about this?
Duffield: Right, well, the interesting thing about Fortaleza is that it is a huge contrast. It's one of the most unequal cities not just in Brazil, but in the world. You would go from street, a really nice street full of the wealthiest apartment buildings, and the next street over is some of the poorest and most dilapidated apartment faces that you've probably seen in your time in Brazil. And I really felt the opinion on the aquarium sort of echoed this huge contrast between the populations of Fortaleza - the really wealthy and the rather poor. The wealthier people I had sort of informal conversations with about this project seem to be very much for the idea of the aquarium, thinking that that would bring in much more international tourism, a lot more international recognition for the city. And a lot of the people I talked to from lower socioeconomic classes had to agree saying that yes, it would bring a lot of attention to Fortaleza, but it didn't really answer their calls for better education, better sanitation, and better healthcare.
Werman: And even pumping money into the local economy to make some of the materials for this building. I mean what's interesting is that if you scrape away the fact that this is happening in Brazil, a lot of this aquarium is actually created in the US. You mentioned the Bilbao Guggenheim and I gather this aquarium is actually using stainless steel from the same company in the US Midwest that Frank Gehry uses.
Duffield: Right. So it's very fascinating that the aquarium is actually almost entirely an American product. About two-thirds of the finances have come from the Export-Import Bank, the American Export-Import Bank. A lot of the companies involved, including the company that designed it and the company that is constructing the exoskeleton and even the company that's overseeing the construction, are American companies or branches of companies based in the United States. It's very ironic.
Werman: I mean enough people are unhappy in this aquarium that they've created the "I Wish I Were a Fish" campaign on Facebook. What is that all about and what do you make of it?
Duffield: Exactly. So this social movement "Quem dera ser um peixe" which loosely translates to "I wish I were a fish" actually comes from the community, the favela community is very closely located to this aquarium, just maybe a couple of hundred yards away. They were the primary force behind getting this group started and there are a lot of members that don't live in the community. But they really are the ones driving it. They have a very strong social media presence on Facebook, on YouTube, and they also put on a lot of protests camping out by the aquarium site, a lot of protests in the street before the construction actually started. And they continue to be very active even though construction started in December of 2011 and continues without any foreseeable stop. And the irony about the name "I Wish I Were a Fish" comes from this image of a very poor community, like I said, lacking sanitation and some of its basic necessities, when right next to it they're building this state-of-the-art going to be the third largest aquarium in the world, and the fish are getting essentially a better house than they have.
Werman: After all the protests over money spent and on the World Cup and more frayed nerves thinking about Rio hosting the Olympics, it kind of feels like the Brazilian government is a little tone deaf about how they're spending money.
Duffield: Exactly. That was my same feeling when I was over there. I actually spent a lot of my time interviewing government officials, especially in the Department of Tourism, and they seem to be very convinced that this was the right project for the city and for the state even and for the future of tourism. However, almost everyone else I talked to, whether or not they were for the project, admitted that this wasn't necessarily the right use of funds, regardless of whether it was a loan made by the Export- Import Bank.
Werman: So you must have done some serious thinking about this, Elizabeth. Do you think there is a compromise zone somewhere where the aquarium can be built and also transform Fortaleza and its people?
Duffield: I worry that while it might bring a lot of growth in the area and [??] more jobs for taxi drivers, more hotels, et cetera, restaurants, there still is going to be something missing. This doesn't really attack the problem of the fact that there these schools are just not able to handle the amount of students they have and the amount of students they need to be taking in, it doesn't handle the fact that only something like forty-seven percent of Fortaleza has sanitation. And this will produce revenue, but it's not going to necessarily go towards solving these very much deeply-seated problems that will only continue to grow the divide between the wealthy and lower classes.
Werman: Elizabeth Duffield talking about her study of the multimillion-dollar aquarium being built in Fortaleza, Brazil. Thanks for joining us, Elizabeth. Appreciate it.
Duffield: Of course. Thank you.