More on Alcântara: The US Plans to Open Space/Military Base in Brazil
Aggression Against the Communities and Sovereignty of Brazil
In 1982, the Brazilian government built a rocket-launching base in the county of Alcântara in the interior of the northeastern state of Maranhão. The government expropriated, through decree in the name of public interest, an area of 52,000 hectares (128,000 acres). Around 500 families were affected. The majority of the families, descendants of quilombolas (residents of quilombos, fugitive slave communities), survived through coastal fishing and subsistence farming. They were relocated to seven agrovilas (planned farm communities), far from any fishing grounds. The land they received is unsuitable for agriculture. And, little by little, to survive, the families are returning to cultivate their expropriated lands.
In 1990, the government of President Fernando Collor increased the base by another 10,000 hectares, bringing to 62,000 hectares the total area of the Launch Center of Alcântara.
Cardoso Cedes Alcântara to the United States
In October 2000, the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso signed an accord with the government of the United States for the transfer of the base, that is, of the 62,000 hectares. In the accord, the US would assume control of the area and the Brazilian authorities would no longer even be allowed to monitor it. In effect, the Launch Center of Alcântara would be an American military base.
The objective of the US government is not only to conduct rocket launches, but also to use nuclear warheads as a way of maintaining military control over Amazonia. The geopolitical strategy of the US in Amazonia already includes military bases in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia, which are supported by information from SIVAM (Surveillance System for Amazonia), developed by private US companies. Thus, what is an issue is the sovereignty of Amazonia and the control of its wealth, biodiversity, and sources of potable water.
The base could function with just 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres), the area that is in fact occupied by the personnel and installation. But the greatest danger for the Quilombola families is yet to be seen. The Americans would exercise control over the base, without interference from the Brazilian authorities, in return for payment of $34 million per year. This agreement demonstrates that sovereignty over our land can be bought. Experts argue that the principal interest of the US government is to place its forces at the entrance to Amazonia. The US already controls 60% of the world’s rocket-launching bases and, therefore, does not need Alcântara. But it does need to tighten the noose around Amazonia, as it is doing with its numerous bases in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia. With its bases and with SIVAM, the US could militarize the Amazonian region.
Status of the Accord
By determination of the Brazilian constitution, any international agreement requires approval of the National congress in order to enter into being. The Brazilian government sent to Congress the accord already signed in order to receive approval, a necessary condition for the US government to enter into the area.
In 2001, the agreement was sent to the Commission on Foreign Relations, whose coordinator was Deputy Waldir Pires (PT-BA). The Commission has produced an opinion, unanimously approved, in which it rejects the accord as it stands and proposes changes that guarantee Brazilian sovereignty over the area.
The accord then passed to the Commission on Science and Technology, under Deputy José Rocha (PFL-PA), which produced an opinion favorable to the original accord.
In March 2002, the accord was then sent to the Commission on Constitution and Justice, under Deputy Zenaldo Coutinho (PSDB-PA). Coutinho is to produce another review, to be voted on by the commission.
Subsequently, in the coming weeks, the report of the commissions will be voted on by the entire Congress, in which the deputies normally follow the recommendations of the commissions.
Campaign Against the Accord
It is necessary to stop this accord in the Congress because its approval will permit the US government to assume control over the entire Alcântara base (62,000 hectares), with serious consequences for the local communities and for national sovereignty.
Main Demands of the People of the Region
The population that lives in the region and is affected by this government policy has organized the Movement of the Affected by the Base (MAB). Their main demands are:
- Identify the families that live in the affected region and survey their needs
- Do not relocate another family, in particular the 210 that are threatened by the 10,000-hectare increase in the area of the base
- The right to work on the lands covered by the original decree (inside the 52,000 hectares), with an official concession for use
-Guarantee the regularization of those lands that are inside the base that were “Quilombola lands”
- Guarantee education for all children, in addition to technical assistance, capacity-building, and resources for development and agricultural production on these land
- Creation of a social fund composed of 15% of the value of each space launch. Of these resources, 5% would be for the county government and 10% for the dislocated communities.
May the Brazilian government not hand over the base to the United States.
The History of the Communities
By Evanize Sydow*
The county of Alcântara was founded in 1648 and its economy was based on the production of cotton and sugar cane. The work was done by African slaves. In 1759, during the colonial rule of Portugal’s Marquis of Pombal, the lands of the Jesuits were confiscated and sold to private parties. The properties of the religious orders of the Carmelites and the Mercedarians persisted until the end of the 19th century and then passed to the Catholic Church or to the state, giving rise to the traditional communities.
At this time, Alcântara began to be inhabited by slaves and descendants of indigenous peoples. With the fall in the price of sugar and pressures for the abolition of slavery, various quilombos formed in the region, mainly from escaped or freed slaves, based around collective production. They are traditional communities, with culture, dialects, forms of production, and internal rules all their own.
The historical and cultural importance of these communities was such that the Brazilian constitution of 1988 recognized the their right to their lands. In general, they are territories denominated “remains of Quilombos”. These communities, built by the work of ex-slaves, are also called “terras de preto” (i.e., “lands of black people”). The inhabitants were labeled “Quilombolas”. The lands abandoned by the religious orders were given the name “terras de santo” and “terras de santíssimo” (roughly, “saintly lands” or “holy lands”).
*Journalist and Member of the Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos.
Accord Violates the Constitution
By Waldir Pires*
The agreement of the Brazilian government with the government of the United States in April 2000, regarding the use of the Base of Alcântara, is profoundly harmful to the national interest, to our development, violates the constitution, harms our sovereignty, and limits (or, better, supercedes) our just yearning for national participation in the benefits of the technological and scientific transformation of our time.
It is not an accord. It is submission to economic and commercial interests that would inexplicably be imposed on Brazil.
The international agreements will be valid only when approved by the National Congress. Thus, says the Constitution of the Republic. I recommended, as a committee chair in the Congress, for the rejection, pure and simple, confronting the overwhelming majority vote of the government.
I was happy when I perceived, over the course of the public hearings and the debate on the issue, that significant groups from diverse parties from the government’s political base supported us, if oppressive changes to the text were introduced, setting the national fate.
Brazil has signed the United Nations Outer Space Treaty that stipulates the non-appropriation of space by individual or national interests. More than 20 years ago, Brazil embarked on a national project of participation in the economy and occupation of space.
The country has invested, over the years, over $500 million. It built the Alcântara Launch Base and developed the VLS (Satellite Launch Vehicle) to integrate the various nations that are increasingly participating in the market of space and its increasing benefits in telecommunications, as well as atmospheric and climatic information gathering on all of nature. The market for space, in the first decade of this century, now reaches high levels, perhaps several tens of billions of dollars.
Why would we distance Brazil from all of this? How can we allow that, with exceptional geographic advantages at two degrees from the equator and for this reason with enviable operational costs, the Alcântara base could interrupt its project of building the Brazilian presence in space? How can we tolerate that after so much effort and with the benefits in sight, including for the domestic firms that are involved, it is possible to adopt a position, in the accord with the US, so submissive and complacent, in relation to the true strategic interests of the country?
The accord as it stands impedes everything. It is a capitulation of sovereignty and of material interests. Its clauses impede the technological development of the country. It strictly prevents our scientific involvement, now or in the future, that can bring us so much closer to those countries more technologically advanced in this area, such as Russia, France, Ukraine, China and India.
Why? To safeguard American technology that will be denied to us? For whose sake? The proposed revision, that corrects this ominous accord’s suppressive and dangerous sections, was approved almost unanimously by the Commission on Foreign Affairs of the House of Deputies. This vote aimed to reduce the enormous risk to which the nation would submit itself and to secure an independent path of construction and development, for our people.
* Waldir Pires is Federal Deputy of the PT/BA (Workers Party, state of Bahia). He served previously as governor of Bahia and the Minister of Social Welfare.
The county of Alcântara is located 22 kilometers from São Luís, the capital of the state of Maranhão.
Such is the history and cultural wealth that the region was officially designated a Brazilian cultural heritage site in 1948. It is one of the largest collections of architectural sites in the country.
The total territory of Alcântara is 114,000 hectares (280,000 acres). There are around 19,000 inhabitants, the majority of which are descendants of indigenous people and fugitive slaves. Almost 80% of the population lives in rural areas and lives from fishing, agriculture, and other primary production, often with traditional or artesian practices.
Circled by the large Environmental Protection Area of Reentrâncias Maranhenses and the edges of Legal Amazonia, the region is rich in biodiversity and natural resources.
Despite being one of the principal tourist areas of Maranhão and having a high-tech base for space technology, the county has only one hospital, one ambulance and one secondary school. The majority of the communities do not have electricity. The streets are in poor condition. The illiteracy rate is one of the highest in the state.