Amid a pandemic, quilombo communities around the Alcântara spaceport face an illegal and unnecessary land-grab for a space technology deal between the Trump and Bolsonaro administrations
By Sean T. Mitchell
These are perilous times in Brazil in too many ways to list. Even US media have now noted the possibility of a Fujimori-style auto-coup by an extreme-right wing Brazilian government that has lost much of its domestic institutional support outside of the military, and amid an economic crisis many economists believe is the worst in Brazil’s history. The government of Jair Bolsonaro continues to implement a highly regressive agenda, including gutting the regulations that protect the Amazon forest and its inhabitants under cover of a COVID-19 pandemic that is now the world’s second worst and rapidly worsening. And, less known outside of Brazil, Bolsonaro is exulting in a deal with Donald Trump’s government that will result in the forced expropriation of the constitutionally protected land of Afro Brazilian quilombo communities in Alcântara, Maranhão
This land expropriation is being planned for an equatorial peninsula where Brazil’s northeast meets the Amazon. The region is the site of Brazil’s principal spaceport and a stronghold for Afro-Brazilian quilombo communities. Rural Afro-Brazilian communities have existed in the region for hundreds of years, formed by people who won their freedom through a variety of means, including by escaping slavery.
The expropriation in the service of a TSA (Technology Safeguards Agreement) signed by the Bolsonaro and Trump administrations in March 2019 was ratified by Brazil’s congress in November of that year. By placing restrictions on Brazil’s access to US space technology, and limiting the scope of Brazil’s space program, the TSA greenlights the use of US space technology on Brazilian soil. For the TSA’s defenders, the agreement creates the conditions for the equatorial spaceport to become a commercially successful international launch site.
Yet, as many have noted, the TSA places unusual restrictions on Brazil’s sovereignty and compromises longstanding plans to develop an independent Brazilian space program. An almost identical TSA, signed in 2000 by the administrations of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Bill Clinton came under heavy criticism in Brazil for those reasons, was never ratified in congress, and was rejected by Brazil’s president Lula in 2004. As a congressman, Bolsonaro himself was among the most vociferous critics, decrying the plan in 2001 for sacrificing “part of our sovereignty for a few million dollars per year, not renting the Alcântara Launch Center, but, in reality, relinquishing it.”
But the sacrifice that neither the Bolsonaro of 2001 nor the Bolsonaro of 2020 has any problem with is the sacrifice forced on Afro-Brazilian communities. Because of plans to expand the spaceport for the implementation of the TSA, some 800 quilombola families in Alcântara are threatened with expulsion from their ancestral lands, in the Brazilian state with the highest (and increasing) levels of extreme poverty. In violation of both Brazil’s constitution and its international treaty obligations, this deal between Brazil and the United States threatens to rob thousands of people of their way of life based on communally-based farming, fishing, and gathering.
Fishing near the shore of the quilombo, Mamuna, which is threatened by a deal between the Bolsonaro and Trump administrations.
Brazil’s 1988 constitution requires that the state grant inalienable land title to remanescentes das comunidades de quilombos—to black communities with origins in slavery and resistance to it. Alcântara developed into an important region for the formation of free Black communities as the slave-labor-based cotton economy declined in the 1820s, long before Brazil’s abolition of slavery in 1888. Since 2004, Brazil’s federal government has recognized Alcântara’s communities as protected quilombos and in 2008, the federal government formally committed to issuing land title to Alcântara’s quilombo communities. Nonetheless, despite their legal claim and the 2008 government promise, land titles have never been issued to Alcantara’s quilombo communities.
Over the last year, people from Alcântara’s quilombo communities have published eloquent defenses of their land rights, their way of life, and their firm opposition to the government’s expropriation plans. As Dorinete Serejo, from the threatened quilombo community of Canelatiua, writes: “We, the quilombola communities of Alcântara, will not give up our territory.” I have lived in Alcântara and wrote a book about the region, and have been speaking to people in Alcântara over the last year. Dorinete’s sentiment is widely shared.
The existing spaceport was built during the 1980s. During the waning years of Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship, the Federal Government announced its intention to build a satellite-launch base on the site which sits just south of the equator—thus offering significant advantages for geostationary satellite launches. During construction of the base, more than 300 families were removed from their seaside villages and left impoverished in inland “agrovilas.” The experience of broken promises and impoverishment brought on by that earlier expropriation has left people in the region wary of government promises and determined to protect their land.
When the new Bolsonaro-Trump TSA was being negotiated , Brazil’s Minister of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communications promised that there would be no spaceport expansion or expropriation of communities. This promise, like others made during the construction of the Base in the 1980s, was broken. As the COVID-19 pandemic began coursing through Brazil, the Bolsonaro government made public its plans to illegally expropriate 12,000 hectares of quilombo land.
But whatever the plans of Brazil or the US for space development in Alcântara, there is no technical need for this promise to be broken. The existing spaceport already covers almost 9,000 hectares, already very large by modern launch standards. By comparison, New Mexico’s Spaceport America, completed last decade for commercial satellite launches occupies only 7,300 hectares, and the Canso Spaceport Facility under construction in Nova Scotia occupies a mere 20.
In a recent published critique of the TSA, Danilo Serejo, a lawyer and researcher born and raised in the quilombo of Canelatiua writes, “By blocking a broad and well-defined public debate about the TSA, the Brazilian State and the defenders of this project opted to worsen the institutional breakdown imposed on Alcântara 40 years ago,” when quilombo land was first seized for this project.
Given the involvement of the United States in this project, the debate Danilo is calling for ought to be carried out in the US, as well as in Brazil. Congressman Hank Johnson has taken a stance against the Alcântara accord, and the US House Ways and Means Committee has opposed the Trump administration’s plans to expand economic ties with Brazil, because they would “undermine the efforts of Brazilian human, labor, and environmental rights advocates to advance the rule of law and protect and preserve marginalized communities.” There may still be a chance to prevent an illegal and technologically unnecessary disaster for Afro-Brazilian communities in Alcântara.
Sean T. Mitchell is associate professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, Newark. He is the author of Constellations of Inequality: Space, Race, and Utopia in Brazil, an ethnographic study of the conflicts in Alcântara that won 2018 Sergio Buarque de Holanda Book Prize from the Latin American Studies Association Brazil Section.