Alcântara Spaceport: Race, Land Rights and National Sovereignty

Alcântara Spaceport: Race, Land Rights and National Sovereignty

An interview with Sean T. Mitchell

        One day in 1993 I met a group of Brazilian military officers in São Luis airport. We flew off the island by small plane to the Alcântara Launch Center, the main spaceport for Brazil’s space program, where I was to spend two days a week for a year teaching English to the rocket scientists and military staff. In those days, the base was only a few years old. There was optimism in the air but I could already see nascent signs of discontent. The colonel’s secretarial staff was running Windows on state of the art 486 DX2 66 PCs, while the rocket engineers—some of the most intelligent people I ever met—laboured away in DOS on XTs. One of my low paid students who was head of grounds security during launches and was trained in the French and Australian space programs said, “In Australia they have a team of 24 engineers performing my function but here it’s just me.” The staff houses, simple two bedroom bungalows, were rumored to have cost half a million dollars each at a time when a similar house in a middle class neighborhood in São Luis sold for US$15,000. A few years later, Fernando Henrique Cardoso began a process to partially privatize the Brazilian spaceport through a partnership with the Ukraine in what now appears to have been a huge strategic blunder. The Brazilian-Ukrainian partnership consumed hundreds of millions of Reais and folded in 2015 without a launch. Meanwhile, thousands of residents of former maroon communities were relocated or are under relocation threat from a possible base expansion in denial of their constitutionally guaranteed land rights. Two weeks ago, Carta Capital reported that coup government foreign minister José Serra secretly tried to restart Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s negotiations to sell the entire base to the US government in violation of national sovereignty laws. In order to catch up on what is going on in Alcântara, I got in touch with Rutgers-Newark Anthropology professor Sean T. Mitchell. Sean lived in Alcântara for two years and studied the relationship between the former maroon community residents and the Brazilian spaceport for over a decade. His new book about Alcântara, Constellations of Inequality: Space, Race, and Utopia in Brazil, is slated for release in November from the University of Chicago Press. The book analyses the conflicts in Alcântara to understand how the politics of race, development, and inequality in Brazil have changed in recent decades.

Can you explain what a quilombola is and why there are so many of them around Alcântara, Maranhão?

Historically, in Brazil, quilombolas were individuals who escaped slavery and quilombos referred to the communities that they lived in. Although Brazil was the last country in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1888, the institution was breaking down well before then. By 1872, some 74% of people of color in Brazil were free. Ten years after abolition, the São Paulo newspaper Rebate observed that the “law [of abolition] was no more than the legal sanctioning, so that public authority wouldn’t be discredited, of an act that had already been consummated by the mass revolt of the slaves,” as historian George Reid Andrews notes. Free populations formed through many different processes, but the revolt and escape of enslaved people was highly important, and by the time of abolition there were many quilombolas throughout the country.

Because of pressures by Brazil’s black movements, the Brazilian constitution that went into effect 100 years after abolition included a clause the required that the state grant land rights to quilombo descended communities. Many of these communities don’t hold land title, and they have long been victims of land grabs. No one knew what a big deal the clause would be at the time it was enacted, but since then, communities throughout the country have mobilized as quilombolas, and there have been many conflicts over quilombo land claims. In 2003, a presidential decree established the terms for establishing quilombo identity and land claims. But despite the very strong claims made by thousands of communities, since then, only 154 titles have been awarded by the federal government, and prospects for fair evaluations look significantly worse under the Temer government.

Alcântara is a particularly interesting case. The region, on the border between the Amazon and the northeast, was principally an area of cotton cultivation, unlike much of the rest of the northeast where sugar was cultivated. Between 1755 and 1820, when the cotton economy was at its peak, Maranhão (which Alcântara is part of) imported some 95,000 enslaved people. But around 1820, Brazilian cotton exports were overtaken by cotton from the United States. As the cotton economy declined, free black communities formed throughout the region, as anthropologist, Alfredo Wagner Berno de Almeida has documented meticulously. But, although in 2004, the federal government recognized as quilombos Alcântara’s communities in areas contested by the spaceport, no land title has been awarded because of pressure from Brazil’s military.

Why did the Brazilian government build a spaceport in Alcântara as opposed to locations closer to the equator such as in Amapá?

The best place to launch satellites is around the equator, which gives geostationary launches a major advantage in fuel efficiency. Alcântara is 2.18° south of the equator. But, as you note, Amapá lies right on the equator. The spaceport was conceived in the early 1980s, during Brazil’s 1964-85 military regime. The regime was allied at the time to Maranhão’s Jose Sarney, an extremely powerful force in the state and the country since the 1960s. While this former governor, senator, and president of the country no longer holds office, he still owns the state of Maranhão’s main newspaper and television station. Sources in the space program have told me that it was Sarney who managed to bring the base to Maranhão. Back in 1989, the Folha de São Paulo newspaper published the critique that Sarney, then president of Brazil, had reduced Brazil’s space program to a base in his home state.

You were accused of being a spy while doing the research for your book. Why do you think this happened?

An anthropologist from the United States, I faced this accusation frequently. Most people in Alcântara and Brazil have welcomed me over the years with incredible generosity and openness, but I can’t blame some people for being suspicious. The US government is opposed the creation of an independent Brazilian launch program, and has pressured countries such as Ukraine not to transfer launch technologies to Brazil, as WikiLeaks cables (reported on in the Brazilian Press) have confirmed. Space technologies are “dual-use” technologies, useful for both peaceful and military purposes, and the US is opposed to the transfer of such technologies to Brazil.

Additionally, in 2003, Brazil’s third attempt to get its VLS-1 rocket into space with a Brazilian satellite failed with a horrific explosion, killing 21 Brazilian scientists and technicians. Despite an extensive investigation, the explosion has never been explained very well and some people in Brazil suspect US sabotage, as I have written about. Nonetheless there are other problems with the launch program including very low funding. So there are various plausible explanations for the explosion and neither I nor others can say for sure what caused it. But given the often brutal US role in Latin America and US opposition to Brazil’s space program, it is not surprising that some people suspect sabotage and that some have accused me of being a spy. I should say for the record that I’m not a spy, though that is what a spy would say, I guess. Incidentally, many US anthropologists face similar accusations which is one reason that many anthropologists (including me) are strongly opposed to any clandestine work by anthropologists.

One more note on this: this reasonable suspicion of US involvement in Alcântara often slides into the suggestion that the struggles of people in Alcântara are part of some foreign plot. This is frequently an accusation made against indigenous and quilombo movements in Brazil. This is a very disingenuous and dangerous suggestion. Indigenous and African-descended people have had their lands stolen throughout Brazil’s (and the Americas’) history and they have every reason and right to try to protect their land and fight for greater participation in Brazilian society. In my experience and research, quilombo movements are very much Brazilian, not external imports.

Jair Bolsonaro has recently spoken out against further privatization to foreign interests of the Alcântara Spaceport. This is also an important issue for the Brazilian left. Why do you think the left and far right converge on this issue?

There is an important strain of anti-neoliberal, nationalist conservatism in Brazil. I wouldn’t expect Bolsonaro to keep such promises if Brazil were unfortunate enough for him to take the presidency—any more than Donald Trump will keep such anti-neoliberal campaign promises as negotiating lower pharmaceutical prices. Trump gave up that promise as soon as he talked to pharmaceutical lobbyists as president and I would expect the same kind of flip from Bolsonaro as soon as he would talk to US officials.

         Right-wing nationalism is resurgent worldwide, including in Brazil, and Bolsonaro has significant support from right-wing nationalists, including some in the military. Right-wing Brazilian nationalists tended to be allied with the United States during the Cold War—united by anti-communism—but since then, many right-wing nationalists have come to see the United States as undermining Brazilian military industry and sovereignty. This idea is common both to some on the far right and the left who critique the undermining of Brazil’s space program by the United States.

During the 1990s, principally under the neoliberal presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the military lost significant political power in Brazil and the military-industrial-complex that made Brazil the fifth largest exporter of arms at the end of the 1980s was deprioritized by the government, under pressure from the United States. Right-wing nationalists (of the sort I suspect Bolsonaro was trying to appeal to) tend to see the neoliberal privatization of the spaceport as symptomatic of the abandonment of the project to make Brazil a world military power. Nationalism in Latin America has often been associated with the political left, but there is also a long history of nationalism on the political right in Latin America, sometimes ignored by scholars, as historian Nicola Miller notes. The left and the far right in Brazil come at their critiques from completely different directions, but, in the post-Cold War era, they sometimes converge in critiques of US impositions against Brazilian sovereignty and in opposition to neoliberalism.


When I taught English at the Alcântara Spaceport in 1993, a couple of the military officers told me that the biggest threat to Brazil at the moment was the US government, due to its interest in the Amazon region. It was recently discovered that coup government foreign minister José Serra has entered negotiations with the American government for a possible sale of the spaceport. In your opinion, would this represent a backdoor strategy for the US government to increase its penetration of the Amazon region?

The idea that the United States plans to take over the Amazon is another topic that sometimes produces right/ left convergence in Brazil. I have no idea what plans the US might have for the Amazon and all bets are off under a Trump administration. Just over a week into his administration he apparently told the Mexican president that he might send the US military to Mexico to take care of “bad hombres.” I don’t know what that means, because Trump has a precarious relationship to both truth and consistency, but it’s hard to predict what interventions the future might bring from Trump or other US administrations.

It’s certainly possible that a US foothold in Alcântara could be a backdoor to penetration of the Amazon. That said, some of the narratives that circulate in Brazil about foreign intentions on the Amazon are fabrications with origins on the military right, though often spread by the left—something I’ve written about. The Brazilian military doesn’t have very plausible major enemies. So, those in the military who want public and government support for investment in weapons programs tend to be highly focused on the threat of foreign invasion of the Amazon.

The deal for the US use of the base was a Technology Safeguards Agreement signed by Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Bill Clinton in 2000. Because of intense opposition, it was never ratified by Brazil’s congress and was rejected by Lula in 2003. The Temer government has secretly been renegotiating this agreement that has been critiqued from many corners for its impositions on Brazilian sovereignty. It prevented Brazil from having any access to US areas or materials at the base, or from utilizing any technology or money from the deal for Brazil’s own launch program. But some supporters of Brazil’s space program want to renegotiate the agreement because the US has blocked the use of any US-licensed components at the base unless the agreement enters into effect, as WikiLeaks cables have revealed.

While some nationalist supporters of the space program have opposed the agreement because it threatens Brazilian technological development, the most widespread concern has been that the agreement threatens sovereignty in the Amazon. I’m not surprised that the officers told you that the US was a military threat to the Amazon, because it’s a concern for a lot of sectors of Brazilian society, especially in the military. In Constellations of Inequality, I write about the contingent alliance that opposition to the agreement has occasionally produced between military officers and the quilombo movement in Alcântara. This alliance is perilous for the quilombolas, because the military tends to be otherwise strongly opposed to their political struggles. But I think it’s reasonable for Brazilians to be concerned about the threat to Amazonian sovereignty posed by the agreement.

If this deal goes through, what do you think it would mean for the quilombola residents who still live in and around Alcântara?

8,713 hectares were cleared for the spaceport in the early 1980s. In this process, the Air Force displaced around 1,500 quilombolas from their coastal homes and resettled them in inland villages without sufficient land to maintain their livelihood. Although the Brazilian government has at times announced intentions to expand the spaceport—to intense local opposition—there is no need for that expansion. The existing spaceport contains enough room for both a nationally-focused launch pad and up to 2 additional launch pads for international or commercial launch projects. There is no material need for the Brazilian space program—or any other party that might eventually use the base in Alcântara—to take more land from Alcântara’s residents.

         It’s hard to say exactly what would happen locally if the “Technology Safeguards Agreement” with the US were to go through. But I suspect that it would create a lot of pressure to expropriate more land in Alcântara, which would be make life (both social and economic) much more difficult for the area’s residents. I wish the Brazilian space program well and hope it is successful. But Alcântara’s residents have a very strong legal and moral claim to retain their historically-won land and I hope that, whoever eventually uses the base, the rights of the people who live there will be respected—and protected.