Brazil's Spaceport Displaces Villagers
Fishermen Moved Away From Coast Struggle to Adjust to Inland Life
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
ALCANTARA, Brazil -- From a glistening white launch pad on this secluded
military base two degrees from the equator, Brazil hopes to enter the Space
Age by the
middle of next year. Using a home-built vessel in the final stages of preparation, Latin America's largest country will attempt to join the elite club of nations with
rockets capable of lifting satellites into space.
Even if the Brazilian-made rocket fails, authorities say they have a
backup plan. They are pushing for quick ratification of a treaty with Washington
that would allow
U.S. companies to begin launching American-made rockets here as early as next year.
So it is only a matter of time, authorities say, before this $300 million
gamble on the Amazon's edge takes its place among the world's great spaceports.
"We do not
want to stay locked in the developing world forever," said Gilvan Meira, director of the Brazilian space program. "Our road out will be paved with science and
technology. That is what Alcantara is all about."
But in this nation of stark contrasts, the Alcantara project has come
to represent the paradox of modern Brazil. This country of 172 million
is home to a sophisticated
space program, the world's fourth-largest aircraft manufacturer and a booming high-tech industry -- but also to some of the worst poverty in the Western
Perhaps nowhere is that disparity starker than at Alcantara. Primitive
communities, some more than 200 years old, dot the jungle landscape around
1,275 miles northeast of Brasilia. Populated by the descendants of African slaves and runaway Amerindians, the residents, with no electricity or running water, have
survived for generations largely by subsistence fishing off the South Atlantic coast.
In the 1980s, when work began on Alcantara, authorities relocated hundreds
of residents from these communities against their will, moving them to
a three-hour walk from the coast. Although they were provided with updated homes complete with power and water, the residents are still struggling to adapt far
from their traditional fishing areas. Many are fighting malnutrition, and with a new campaign to expand Alcantara into a modern space center with multiple launching
pads, the government plans to uproot even more communities.
Troubled residents and local activists recently filed a petition against
the government with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the
American States. They say the plans to forcibly relocate the communities underscore a fundamental problem in Brazil's quest for advancement. In a country with a
tiny rich elite and a vast, poverty-stricken majority, critics say the haves are marching toward the future on their own terms, leaving the have-nots behind.
"We are in favor of development, but only when it comes with social
development and respect for the communities of the poor," said Servulo
de Jesus Moraes, 39, a
leader of the Black Movement of Maranhao, an Afro-Brazilian activist group from the state where the base is located that is working to keep the communities intact.
"We don't want rockets if they bring hunger to the people. We cannot be ignored so the rich can have their own version of prosperity."
The Brazilian space program dates back decades. But only in the past
four years has Brazil begun testing orbital rockets here. Two previous
missions failed. The last
attempt, in 1999, came close to success, and officials have high hopes for a third try next August.
The communities are set to be relocated because officials say that if
the base is to become a commercially viable spaceport, it must expand,
types of launch pads to accommodate various models of rockets. Those plans come on the heels of a treaty signed with Washington last year that would license U.S.
companies, which represent 80 percent of the satellite market, to launch at Alcantara.
The location in the tropics, officials say, is the prime selling point,
because it makes it easier to launch objects into an equatorial orbit.
Arianespace, the European
space consortium, already takes advantage of a tropical location, launching rockets from a space center it built in neighboring French Guiana. Authorities say the
expanded spaceport will provide Brazil with a powerful new symbol of national pride, create better paid high-tech jobs and generate up to $30 million a year in
But the plans are being fought for several reasons. Advocates for the
poor, for instance, question whether a developing nation like Brazil should
be shooting for the
stars when there is still so much investment to be made in basic education and housing. Some legislators have also attacked the U.S. treaty -- which strictly limits
Brazilian access to sophisticated U.S. technology at Alcantara -- as a violation of national sovereignty.
But residents of the communities here say expansion of Alcantara threatens their very survival.
In a tiny inlet less than three miles from the Alcantara base, Dorinete
Serejo, 27, says her community is terrified of the move. Although the 160
residents of the
Canelatiwa settlement have no deeds to their land, she says, the community dates back more than 250 years. Residents live in rickety wooden huts, fish from
handmade dugouts and use local plants for medical treatment, as their ancestors did when escaped slaves and Indians first moved here.
As in many settlements in the area, the population of Canelatiwa is
largely inbred. Uncles marry nieces; sisters marry brothers. And the group
customs, such as the celebration of variants on African religions.
"It is not just our fear of leaving our food source and our homes,"
Serejo said. "It is likely we will be forced to live jointly with displaced
people from other
communities, and they might not understand us and our customs. We don't want to leave."