[DEBATE] : Brazilian Villagers Launch Protests of Rocket Base
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Fri Oct 10 02:34:15 BST 2008
* OCTOBER 9, 2008
Space Invaders: Brazilian Villagers Launch Protests of Rocket Base
Descendants of Slaves Claim Land Rights In the Jungle; Disturbing the
By MATT MOFFETT
MAMUNA, Brazil -- For 200 years, descendants of slaves have preserved
a distinctive way of life in this village near the Amazon jungle. Amid
the stone ruins of plantations, they farmed communally, played drums
made of tree trunks and revered spirits in the wilderness.
But then, not long ago, Mamuna was shaken by some strangers: Brazilian
and Ukrainian rocket scientists. The scientists said that they
intended to use land near the village to expand an aging rocket base
into a world-class space center capable of launching commercial
[Brazilian Villagers Protest Rocket Base]
One day in February, a work crew clearing land for the new site
suddenly encountered a log roadblock manned by about 60 Mamuna
inhabitants, carrying machetes and scythes. "We weren't giving up our
lands to outsiders -- not even brilliant scientists," says Militina
Garcia Serejo, a community leader who helped bring the crew's work to
a halt. In September, a federal judge backed the villagers' action,
issuing an injunction halting further construction on the space
project, pending a decision on who should have title to the lands.
In Mamuna and hundreds of other places throughout Brazil, a more
assertive black-rights movement is battling for recognition of
quilombos, settlements founded by runaway or freed slaves. But with
Brazil's economy surging in recent years and land coveted for
development, the territorial push is triggering a flurry of conflicts
with businesses, farmers and the armed forces.
Anthropologists estimate that Brazil has around 3,500 quilombos. The
settlements are an important part of the national saga of a country in
which roughly half the population is black or mixed race. Each Nov.
20, on Black Consciousness Day, Brazilians commemorate the life of
Zumbi, a slave who escaped from Portuguese colonizers and led a
vibrant 17th-century quilombo called Palmares.
Brazil's 1988 constitution, ratified at the end of a military
dictatorship, guaranteed land titles to quilombo inhabitants. But
titling was such an arduous bureaucratic process that in the next 15
years fewer than 100 quilombos received titles. Residents of the rest
of the quilombos were vulnerable to being kicked out of their homes.
In 2003, Brazil's newly inaugurated leftist president, Luiz Inácio
Lula da Silva, faced demands to recognize quilombo lands from the
country's increasingly energized black-rights movement. Along with
other concessions to black Brazilians, such as university quotas, Mr.
da Silva issued a decree that made it easier for quilombos to obtain
legal land titles. That triggered a surge in land claims -- and
resulting court clashes.
Slave descendants have been battling Aracruz Celulose SA, a New York
Stock Exchange-listed pulp producer, over 42,000 acres, three times
the area of Manhattan; vying with the Brazilian navy for control of
Marambaia Island, site of a naval base; and fighting property
speculators in western Mato Grosso state for land that's believed to
have gold deposits.
This year, amid pressure by agribusiness, Mr. da Silva backtracked,
and issued rules that make it harder for quilombos to obtain titles.
But many quilombo residents are still fighting.
The most high-profile struggle has pitted Mamuna and neighboring
quilombos against the rocket base located on a peninsula in the
Atlantic Ocean near the town of Alcântara. In the 18th century, the
area was a center for cotton and sugar plantations, located near a
major port of entry for African slaves.
A grim reminder of the slave era is the whipping post in downtown
Alcântara, now preserved for tourists. In the early 1800s, cotton
prices collapsed and slave holders on the peninsula began abandoning
their plantations. Ex-slaves took over the lands, leading to the
emergence of most of the 100 or so quilombos, with roughly 16,000
inhabitants, that survive on the peninsula today.
While quilombo residents keep their own palm-thatched houses, farm
land is considered communal property. Decisions on who farms where are
made by community leaders, a number of whom are women. Many quilombo
dwellers also believe in encantados, spirits existing in nature.
Mamuna residents say one encantado inhabits a rock outcropping on a
beach, from which a drumming sound is said to emanate.
[Sounding Vehicle Booster-30 Rocket (VSB-30) is launched off the
Alcantara Launch Center (CLA) carrying experiments in an effort to
revive a space program that was set back by a deadly accident in 2003,
in the city of Alcantara in Maranhao State, July 19, 2007.The
experiments were based on minimal gravity in space and developed by
Brazilian and German universities. REUTERS/Lucas Ruiz (BRAZIL)]
A rocket is launched off the Alcântara Launch Center in 2007.
The space program entered the picture in the early 1980s, when the
military government announced it was expropriating a large swath of
the peninsula to build a rocket base. Alcântara was selected as the
site because of its proximity to the equator, where the Earth rotates
faster, reducing the amount of fuel needed to launch rockets.
The construction of the base, in 1986, forced more than 300 families
to resettle from quilombos to smaller parcels far from their fishing
grounds. Sérvulo de Jesus Moraes Borges, a leader of a local
opposition group to the base, says the space program hasn't created
many good jobs for peninsula residents due to an "intellectual
apartheid" between well-trained space workers and quilombo residents
who often lack access to basic schooling.
In 2003, a public prosecutor filed a class-action suit on behalf of
the peninsula's quilombo residents, urging that they be granted land
titles and chastising the government for "creating innumerable
obstacles for [residents'] continuity and cultural reproduction."
In court filings, the Brazilian Space Agency has noted that the base
has brought benefits to the peninsula, hastening the arrival of basic
infrastructure like electricity and telephones. José de Ribamar Alves,
a congressman from the area, adds that the base is geopolitically
vital. "We have to think of the national interest," he says.
Disturbing the Spirits
Plagued by tight budgets and conflicts between military and civilian
managers, however, the Alcântara base has struggled to do more than
launch suborbital research rockets. The biggest setback came in August
2003, when a satellite rocket blew up on an Alcântara launching pad,
killing 21 scientists and technicians.
In 2006, the Space Agency moved to revitalize the base by starting a
venture with Ukraine's government, which would supply its proven
Cyclone rocket. The binational company, Alcântara Cyclone Space, would
offer services for commercial launches, planners said. The company
planned a 12,000-acre expansion of the Alcântara base that would
include a shopping center, staff living quarters, university
classrooms and research laboratories. In an interview, Volodymyr
Lakomov, Ukraine's ambassador to Brazil, said he thought the arrival
of the "industry of the 21st century" would remake the peninsula for
But Mamuna residents say they simply want to preserve a lifestyle
rooted in the 19th century. The villagers confronted the Alcântara
Cyclone work crew this year after it cut a 15-foot-wide road and dug
holes in a palm forest where Mamuna residents say they traditionally
gathered fruit, according to the public prosecutor's petition for an
injunction against the project, filed in May. The suit also cited an
anthropological study asserting that workmen had disturbed Mamuna's
"rich immaterial patrimony" -- that is, the encantados, or nature
Roberto Amaral, director general of Alcântara Cyclone, says the crew
never set foot on Mamuna's land and that the dispute is a "false
conflict." He says tensions are being stirred up by nongovernmental
groups, some of whom, he suggests, may be doing the bidding of wealthy
nations that don't want Brazil to advance as a space power.
The Brazilian judge sided with Mamuna, however. Alcântara Cyclone says
the expansion is off for now, but it will try launching a Ukrainian
rocket from the existing base in 2010.
Write to Matt Moffett at matthew.moffett at wsj.com
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