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News > Latin America

Austerity, Corruption To Blame For Brazil National Museum Blaze

  • People protest in front of the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil September 3, 2018

    People protest in front of the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil September 3, 2018 | Photo: Reuters

Published 3 September 2018

Politicians and citizens say that corrupt authorities and funding cuts to arts, education, and infrastructure are to blame for the destruction of the historical museum.    

Hundreds of protesters showed up in front of what was Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro blaming austerity measures for the fire that engulfed the massive building on Sunday night.

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Politicians and citizens say that government funding cuts to the institution that formed a part of the Federal University (UFRJ) are why an immense blaze was able to take down the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil in a matter of hours.

The fire began on Sunday night around 7:30 p.m. local time and lasted late into the night.

Rescue workers say there were no injuries, but Rio’s fire chief, Roberto Robaday, said that the two hydrants nearest the museum were dry, allowing the flames to devour the 20 million pieces of art and artifacts. Volunteers managed to salvage a few items and microscopes amid the fire.

The museum had housed Latin America’s largest collection of Egyptian pieces. It also held dinosaur skeletons from the region and ‘Luiza’, America's oldest known human skeleton. But most importantly, it held the largest collection of Indigenous artifacts including mummies from the Andean region and thousands of textiles and ceramics from now extinct culture within the Amazon.

Jose Urutau Guajajara, who often visited the museum to learn about his Amazonian community’s history told the Guardian: “This is the greatest loss of indigenous writing in Latin America. Our memory has been erased.”  

On Monday morning people had gathered in the area to get a glimpse of what remained of the Romanesque building declared National Heritage in 1938.

At one point police in riot gear resorted to using tear gas on a part of the crowd angry that the government had neglected the museum and the infrastructure to save it, opting to spend instead on World Cup and Olympic stadium deals on which corrupt politicians earned millions in kickbacks.  

Luiz Duarte, a vice-director for the museum said politicians were to blame for failing to support the museum leaving it to decay.

"For many years, we fought with different governments to get adequate resources to preserve what is now completely destroyed,” he said. “My feeling is of total dismay and immense anger."

Duarte added that the museum had just signed a deal with the government bank to start a  fire-prevention project. “This is the most terrible irony," he added.

Brazil’s culture minister, Sergio Leitão, even acknowledge that the “tragedy…could have been avoided”, because problems there had been "piling up over time." The minister added that the fire likely started from faulty electrical wiring or, a homemade, paper hot-air balloon.

While Brazilian president, Michel Temer tweeted on Sunday night: “Today is a sad day for all Brazilians. … Two hundred years of work, research and knowledge were lost,” the head of state tried to eliminate the ministry of culture all together in 2016.

Between 2013 and 2017, the National Museum federal funding fell by a third and shrank to just US$ 26,603 the first nine months of this year.

The major fire to Brazil’s and the region’s history comes at a time when leftist presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is being illegally imprisoned and prevented from freely running his campaign and Temer, with a 4 percent rating is leading the government into economic recession with 12 million people unemployed.

Bernardo Mello Franco, one of Brazil’s best-known columnists, wrote on the O Globo newspaper website: "The tragedy this Sunday is a sort of national suicide. A crime against our past and future generations."

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