In a northeastern corner of Brazil, the countrys past is colliding with its future, creating tension for hundreds of families who are descendants of former slaves, known as quilombolas. A recent agreement signed between Brazil and the U.S., allowing the Americans to use the Alcntara missile launch site in the state of Maranho, threatens to expel hundreds of quilombolas from the land they have been living on since their ancestors escaped to freedom from slavery. They have set up their free communities, called quilombos, where Afro-Brazilian culture thrived in a rural environment.
On March 18, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump signed the pact in Washington, claiming that it will help Brazils space programme and the quilombos. But, going by the history of the region, the picture may be exactly opposite. When the Alcntara base was established in the 1980s, more than 300 families were removed from their coastal land and dispatched to inland areas, called agrovilas. After watching their former neighbours settled in the agrovilas become impoverished and dependent on the meagre wages available at the launch centre, the hundreds of quilombo families still living in their coastal communities have long resisted any further expropriation of land, says Sean T. Mitchell, associate professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, Newark.
According to the Rutgers academic, who has also written a book titled Constellations of Inequality: Space, Race, and Utopia in Brazil, the quilombo residents dont need to be expelled from the area as the rocket launch base already has enough land. The almost 9,000 hectares occupied by the launch centre has an extensive infrastructure already built. The Brazilian space programme can flourish on the land that it already possesses, says Mr. Mitchell, adding that the right of the quilombo to be based at this location is guaranteed under the Brazilian Constitution.
The quilombos, most of which are now examples of sustainable agriculture or fishing, are also a reminder of the countrys brutal history. Of the 9.5 million people captured in Africa and brought to the Americas between the 16th and 19th century, almost 4 million were taken to Brazil to work in its tropical forests and fields. The last country to abolish slavery, in 1888, Brazil witnessed several rebellions by the slaves. In the 19th century, many slaves escaped to freedom and set up their own enclaves, far from the reach of slave owners. These quilombos, spread across the country, are now run by the descendants of former slaves, often with support from the government.
But in the new Brazil, where the Bolsonaro government itself has launched an attack on the environment, quilombos too are facing an existential threat from ranchers, miners and loggers. In a new documentary, Voices of Forest, shown at a film festival here last month, several quilombolas women talked about how they have been facing bullets and fires to protect their land from the constant threat of invasion.
The struggle of the black people in Brazil is 486 years old. And the first step to our real freedom is the right to land, said Nice Machado, a quilombola leader from Maranho, at the screening of the documentary. The land grab has driven us from our lands.
Now, with the Brazilian government planning to further expand the launch centre and lease it out to the U.S., there are fears that more than 800 families would be robbed of their land and pushed into poverty. The scheme has set the alarm bells ringing in both Brazilian and U.S. Congress. Last month, Hank Johnson, a Democratic representative, criticised the U.S.-Brazil agreement on the floor of the U.S. Congress. This agreement threatens to remove hundreds of Afro-Brazilian quilombola families from their lands, displacing even more marginalised communities.
Alcntara witnessed a major tragedy in 2003, when its VLS-1 rocket exploded during a launch, killing 21 engineers and technicians. That accident almost grounded Brazils satellite launch programme. With his agreement with the U.S., Mr. Bolsonaro regime is claiming to revive the Space programme. Under this accord, and with current pitiful levels of funding, Brazils space programme will never recover, and the Brazilian government will needlessly limit its sovereignty and undermine the rights of quilombo residents, said Mr. Mitchell, of Rutgers University.
A new tragedy may be unfolding at Alcntara very soon.
Shobhan Saxena is a journalist based in Sao Paulo