Politics In Flames: Brazil's Museum Fire

Politics In Flames: Brazil's Museum Fire

Over the weekend in Rio de Janeiro, a fire tore through Brazil’s vast National Museum, destroying nearly all of its 20 million specimens. Among the items feared lost are a priceless collection of Egyptian and Andean mummies, artworks from Pompeii, a dinosaur skeleton unique to Brazil, rare records from the country’s imperial era, hundreds of audio recordings of extinct indigenous languages, millions of insect and marine specimens, and the oldest human fossil found in Latin America – a skeleton named Luzia.


The museum’s directors had warned for years about inadequate fire systems and general funding shortfalls. Sharp budget cuts amid Brazil’s recent economic tailspin hit the country’s cultural institutions particularly hard. At one point, researchers at the museum had to resort to crowdfunding to deal with a termite infestation in one of the wings. A $5 million renovation project was finally approved this summer, but it wasn’t set to begin until after the presidential election in October.

The destruction of Latin America’s largest natural history museum is an incalculable cultural loss for Brazil, for the region, and for science generally. But the tragedy offers a few political angles to consider as well.

Brazil’s anguish in flames: On Monday, as officials bickered over responsibility for the fire, hundreds of anti-government protesters demanding accountability clashed with riot police outside the building’s smoldering remains. Meanwhile, social media lit up with recriminations – some people took aim at specific parties and politicians for poor funding or bad decisions, but most decried the broader bonfire of corruption, malfeasance, and elite detachment that has plunged the country into its worst political and economic crisis in memory.

Nobody likes funding cuts, of course, but when people believe that the rich and powerful are stealing so much of their money to begin with, it’s doubly galling to see a vulnerable cultural institution go up in flames just years after the government has spent billions on international sporting events of dubious economic value.

“We spent billions on the World Cup,” a friend from Brazil wrote to me on Tuesday, “but we can’t fund or protect the little legacy we have for our own children?”

Tragedies that throw a light on rotten systems: In Brazil as elsewhere, the effects of corruption and negligence are pernicious but often invisible. They spread like a cancer through society – corroding institutions, eroding trust, blotting out opportunities for the most vulnerable.

But every so often their effects result in a spectacular disaster – like the fire in Rio, or the recent collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa, or the Grenfell tower fire in London last summer – that provides a focal point for popular anger and government responsibility.

It’s worth remembering that Brazil is just weeks away from a pivotal presidential vote in which voters’ rage at traditional politicians is one of the few things uniting a deeply polarized country. The museum fire will further inflame that sentiment.

A metaphor for our times: As the fire raged, a small group of researchers and scientists rushed headlong into the flames in a last bid to save whatever specimens, artifacts, paintings, and papers they could. “We were thinking of the researchers who came before us,” one of them said, “and what we saved will permit the continuity of our colleagues’ research.”

At a time when science, objectivity, and expertise are under assault by politicians who thrive on misinformation and “alternative facts,” it’s hard to think of a more compelling image than men and women risking their lives to rescue the most fragile specimens of scientific research from destruction.

Okuafo Pa means good farmer in the Twi language of West Africa. Hence, the naming of the project reflects the value of good farming and the rewards it brings to the people of Ghana. The Okuafo Pa Project will support Ghana's sustainable development by promoting socio-economic growth and sustainable business models.

Watch to learn how Eni is helping youth to develop agricultural knowledge and skills.

Iranians head to the polls on Friday to vote for president, and it appears a foregone conclusion that hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, the nation's top judge, will win.

Outsiders, and many Iranians, roll their eyes at the predictability of this vote. Iran's Guardian Council, a dozen clerics and judges who answer only to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has cleared the field for Raisi by ruling all of his credible challengers ineligible. The fix is in, and Iranians are now preparing for a moment when anti-reform conservatives, those who oppose social change inside Iran and deeper engagement with the West, will for the first time ever control the country's presidency, parliament, courts, and much of the media.

But simmering beneath the cynicism and predictability of this event is a deepening anxiety over Iran's future as it enters a potentially momentous period in the Islamic Republic's 42-year history. The Supreme Leader, in power for 32 years, is now 82 years old. Very few people know the true state of his health. Even if he outlives Raisi's presidency, which could last four or eight years, preparations for a historic, uncertain, and potentially dangerous leadership transition will intensify soon.

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After Biden's first visit, do his European allies feel that America is back?

I think they do. Wasn't particularly surprising, we've heard that message before. But now it was, sort of more concrete issues. I'm not certain there was, sort of major, major, major progress. But there was the beginning of a dialogue on trade and technology issues with Europe, clearly on security issues with NATO, and quite a number of other issues with G7, and general satisfaction with the outcome of the meeting with Putin. So, altogether good.

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Listen: Former US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder weighs in on US President Joe Biden's first trip abroad, which included a very important first stop at the G7 summit in the United Kingdom, and the way forward for the US and its closest friends. Did he convince allies that "America is back" and ready to resume its leadership role in global affairs? And if so, does it even matter if Americans still need to be convinced that US engagement in the world is vital? Daalder speaks with Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Jon Lieber, Managing Director of the United States for the Eurasia Group, shares updates on recent policy developments:

With the Supreme Court's recent decision, is the Affordable Care Act here to stay?

Yes, this was the Court's third ruling on the Affordable Care Act upholding its constitutionality. This challenge was brought by Republican attorneys general who argued that the repeal of the individual mandate tax undermined the court's previous justification for allowing the law to stand. They were unsuccessful, yet again. And the political salience of the Affordable Care Act has really diminished in the last several years, with Republicans moving on to fight other issues and the Court signaling very strongly they don't want to get involved in overturning this piece of legislation. The Affordable Care Act will be here at least until Congress wants to legislate on it again.

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3: China has launched three astronauts into orbit in its first space mission since 2016. The astronauts will spend three months aboard the country's new space station, demonstrating China's resolve to become a space power following successful earlier missions to collect soil samples on the Moon and land a wheeled robot on Mars.

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