In Alcântara, Maranhão, Trump/Bolsonaro agreement for rocket launch center threatens to force 800 quilombola families off land; families are residents of fugitive slave communities

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Note from BW of BrazilThe city of Alcântara, Maranhão, in Brazil’s northeast, is the owner of the most populous quilombola area in the country, is at the center of a debate that is challenging the expansion project of the CLA (Centro de Lançamento de Alcântara or Alcantara Launch Center). The residents of this community are the descendants of slaves and oppose the idea of expanding the Força Aérea Brasileira (Brazilian Air Force) base already announced during the administration of President Michel Temer and publicly defended by the elected president, Jair Bolsonaro (PSL). Quilombolos are the communities established by fugitive slaves during Brazil’s near four centuries of forced servitude of Africans and their descendants. In other countries of the Americas, these communities were called palenques, cumbes, maroons e cimarrones.

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The question of quilombolas gaining official title documents to these lands from the government has never been resolved and estimates reveal that only 7% of all quilombolas have legal titles to the the areas in which they live. The process of titling the quilombola area has been at a stand still for exactly 10 years. The last act took place in November 2008, when Incra (National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform) published the RTID (Technical Report on Identification and Delimitation), stating that the area of 78,000 hectares – and where 3,350 families live – would be occupied by descendants of slaves. The Air Force, however, wants another 12,000 hectares of land for the base expansion project.

Bolsonaro advocates expansion

On the 7th, after meeting with the Air Force summit, President Bolsonaro confirmed that one of the agendas was the CLA expansion project. “For my part, it will advance,” he told reporters as he left the meeting. In publications on his social networks, two days after the meeting, Bolsonaro not only said that he intends to expand the base, but also presented the idea of enabling quilombolas to work there.

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Alcântara, Maranhão, located in Brazil’s northeast

“What we want to do is train the quilombolas, those boys, to work on the launch pad, get them into this promising market, give them the means to liberate themselves, no longer live on favors of the state,” said the President. Let us keep in mind Bolsonaro’s view of these communities. Back in 2017, the then congressman infuriated activists of the black community when he expressed his opinion about these descendants of slaves living on these lands who are known as quilombolas. 

The plans for these lands have actually been on the drawing board for a few years now. In November 2017, then-Defense Minister Raul Jungmann said at an event in Washington DC in the US that the government was already debating a project for the commercial use of the Centro de Alcântara not only by the Americans, but also cited the interest of countries such as China, Russia, Israel and France. Sought on Wednesday, August 14, the Air Force said it could not comment on the expansion project by the date of publication of the report.

The CLA was established in 1983 and occupies an area of 8,713 hectares. The area was chosen at the time of the military dictatorship because of its good geographical conditions, especially its proximity to the equator – which enables low-pitched orbit launches and saves energy for maneuvering in space.

According to the statement of Air Force in June 2017, the objective of the area expansion is “to consolidate the center and acquire competence in launching satellites that meet the demand of related projects, such as PESE (Strategic Space Systems Program) and future versions of VLS. (Satellite Launch Vehicle)”.

Land belongs to quilombolas

But the issue involves the traditional residents of the region. The Incra RTID has confirmed the existence of 110 quilombola villages in the area of 78 thousand hectares.

“The lands identified and delimited in this Technical Report, contained in the plan and descriptive memorial, are recognized as lands that belong to the Comunidade Remanescente de Quilombo de Alcântara (Quilombo de Alcântara Remnant Community)”, says the Diário Oficial da União of November 4, 2008.

In April 2010, the Aeronautics and the Ministry of Defense challenged the report and the titling process was suspended for the instruction of conciliation proceedings at the AGU (Attorney General’s Office). The discussion, however, ended without really ending. The delay led the MPF (Federal Public Prosecution Service) of Maranhão going to court to request the follow-up in the land titling process.

In 2017, the Presidential Civil House assumed the conciliation of the matter. In addition to the body, the National Secretariat of Racial Equality Policies and several public institutions were consulted to draft a conciliation proposal.

“The administrative proceeding is at Incra headquarters, awaiting the conciliation negotiations mediated by the Civil House,” said the federal government’s agrarian policy body.

MPF demands titration

For MPF, the delay in titling is the biggest legal problem of the location today. Recently, the case that demands of Incra the progress of the titling has been denied at first instance and is pending appeal before the Regional Court. “What is being sought is for the judicial process to go on to hold Incra responsible, in fact, for the delay and to continue the process of community titling,” says the attorney general of the República, Hilton Melo.

In MPF’s view, the new government project for the area was not presented to residents of the region.

”This project has many uncertainties of true purposes, it’s not such an open and transparent agenda. What has been required is that the government doesn’t even initiate any project, any planning, without talking to the real landowners, who are the quilombolas.” – Hilton Melo, State Prosecutor in Maranhão

“The MPF has no refusals or negatives to the Brazilian space project, including that it can be developed with good eyes,” adds Melo. “What needs to be done is as the legislation allows, and this is not with the federal government putting itself as owner of the area to give the destination as it pleases.”

Land granted before 1888 abolition of slavery

For researcher Patrícia Portela Nunes, from Maranhão State University, the land criteria is not sufficient to understand the antiquity and complexity of the case.

“Unlike other regions of the country, in Alcântara, the failure of large estates occurred well before the abolition of slavery,” she notes.

There is a set of research works that emphasize the impossibility of treating the rights claims of families affected by the space base through the land criterion, in view of the impossibility of reconstituting, by notary data, the set of families that historically remained in Alcântara, after the process of disruption of the mills and cotton farms of the colonial period.” – Patrícia Portela Nunes, researcher

In her research, Patricia noticed that quilombolas report a “set of social effects” produced by the compulsory displacement to areas called “agrovilas”, created between 1986 and 1987, after the base was built.

“These agrovilas, besides being prevented by the military of access to the sea, have land unsuitable for cultivation,” says the researcher. “They also emphasize that the relocation site for the implementation of agrovilas caused ecological disaster, since it was carried out on the headwaters of rivers.”

On August 16, 2001, the quilombola problem was reported to the OAS (Organization of American States) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. At the time, the commission saw several human rights violations. The same commission returned this month to Alcântara, during a visit to the country, for a new investigation. A new report will be released shortly.

The issue of the quilombolas of Maranhão bring to the fore some of the deals and negotiations that were made when President Bolsonaro made a trip to the United States to meet with President Donald Trump shortly after becoming president. We are now beginning to see what some of the goals of that trip were. Needless to say, for many following the situation, Bolsonaro’s handing over of the Alcântara Base to Trump demonstrates another step in Brazil’s subordination to the US.

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Alcântara base and the violation of quilombola rights. 

Alcântara communities will be sacrificed to meet the demands of the United States, says Quilombola leadership

The “new” deal that delivers the Alcântara, Maranhão aerospace base to US domain is due to be voted on this week at the Câmara’s CREDN, under the direction of Eduardo Bolsonaro. Neither the majority of the deputies nor the people know what is being voted on. We demand more time and a sincere debate with Brazilian society. 800 quilombola families (more than 5,000 people) will be expelled from their ancestral lands.

There is no removal or displacement plan and it is not known where the government will take them. There was no prior consultation with the communities that will be affected, as required by ILO Convention 169. The quilombolas have decided to resist and much blood can be spilled. In addition, surrendering the Alcântara Base hurts national sovereignty and puts us under serious threat to national security, as we know that the US wants to make military use of Alcântara for its geopolitical interests.

With the new agreement, Brazil will be the target of international military conflicts. All support to the quilombolas of Alcântara!

Centro da cidade de Alcântara, vista do Porto do Jacaré Sérvulo Borges, liderança 2
Alcântara downtown, a view from Jacaré Porto do Jacaré Sérvulo Borges, quilombola leadership. The street you see is the slope of Jacaré, it has this name because in the slave period the slaves left the boats carrying cans of Querosene Jacaré. The stones of the street are known as ‘cabeça de negro’ (blackhead) – Maranhão.

Alcântara communities will be sacrificed to meet US demands, quilombola leadership says

Alcântara communities will be sacrificed to meet US demands, quilombola leadership says

Mobilization for the right to housing has intensified in the quilombola communities of the city of Alcântara, Maranhão, following the approval of the Technological Safeguards Agreement (AST). The measure allows the United States to use the territory for rocket launches.

The communities in the Alcântara region favor the country’s spatial development as long as they have guaranteed rights; Bolsonaro has signed an agreement with President Donald Trump for the US government to use the base and is pending approval by the national congress.

“We are not against development. What is not admitted is to end the quilombola right to land,” says Danilo Sérgio, a quilombola of Alcântara, a political scientist and critic of the group’s human rights violations in the region.

QUILOMBOLA-ALCANTARA

“We will resist as we always did and we will not give up one millimeter of our territory,” says Danilo Sérgio, a quilombola from Alcântara and a political scientist.

Quilombola fear with the Alcântara Launch Center (CLA) grew after Jair Bolsonaro’s (PSL) visit to the United States for dialogue with Donald Trump. The Brazilian president formalized, on March 18, the Technological Safeguards Agreement (AST) so that Americans have the right to use the territory for rocket launches.

Approved on August 21 by the Committee on Foreign Relations and National Defense of the Câmara dos Deputados (House of Representatives), the Jair Bolsonaro government project calls for the expansion of the Alcântara Launch Center (CLA) to 12,645 hectares. The space is equivalent to that of 8,978 football fields and would occupy the entire coast of Alcântara.

Moradores de comunidades quilombolas resistem a planos de ampliação de base aérea
Inhabitants of the quilombo communities express opposition to the program

One result must be the expropriation of more than 800 families, affecting 4-5,000 people. So far, the government has not revealed where the families will be relocated. This would restrict access to the sea for locals. The proposal, which must be voted on by the National Congress to be approved, would impact more than 150 communities across the territory.

For Douglas Belchior, educator of Uneafro Brazil and member of the Coalizão Negra por Direitos (Black Coalition for Rights), it is important that the future of quilombola communities be discussed nationally.

“It is the task of every black Brazilian to mobilize for the rights of the quilombola people, especially the communities of Alcântara that can be evicted at any time,” he argues.

Federal Deputy Áurea Carolina (PSOL-MG) visited the region to understand the reality of the quilombolas. Faced with reports of rights violations, she promises to oppose base advancement over the areas and rights of local people.

“It is a very difficult and heavy struggle, but here in Congress we are in a position to put on pressure, to denounce the complicated parts of this agreement, to ensure that there is a free and formal consultation process for the quilombola communities to give their opinion on what they want,” she said.

The Brazilian government, as it has done in other sensitive issues, such as the pension reform, produced 2,000 units of advertising material entitled “Knowing the Brazil and US Technological Safeguards Agreement”, worth 26 thousand reais. The aim is to convince society and other members of the benefits of the agreement.

Violations of law

The city of Alcântara has been living with the CLA since the early 1980s. The terrain, privileged for launching rockets into space because of the proximity of the Equator line, can save up to 30% fuel when sending an aircraft out of Earth’s orbit. The proximity to the sea also facilitates the arrival of materials and equipment.

This scenario, favorable for the development of space technology, co-exists with a history of human rights violations. Danilo Sérgio reports that curtailing some rights, such as access to the sea, are part of the community routine and have a negative impact on the local economy.

“During periods of rocket launch operations between 20 and 40 days, communities are prohibited from accessing the sea under the argument of safety. However, no compensatory measure is presented to supply this, given that the sea is the main source of income and food of these communities,” he points out.

Part of the quilombolas displaced for the construction of the CLA depend on “fishing corridors” to have access to the sea. With the approval of the project, this access will be controlled by Brazilian agencies and “companies involved in the launch”, as explained by the ministries involved in response to the PSOL request.

“With the removal of families and other impacts, the sovereignty and food security of these communities and their sacred links with their territories can be compromised,” explains Áurea Carolina.

When removed from the territories, the families are settled into the so-called agrovilas, places negatively described by the quilombolas. The land is 10 kilometers away from the sea, in infertile land and insufficient for the development of economic activities. Some of the results of this displacement were the worsening of poverty, the breaking of community ties, and the weakening of the cultural manifestations of the region.

Given all these restrictions, Danilo Sérgio believes it is essential that quilombolas participate in space management and benefit from the CLA.

“The current management model does not include communities as subject to the benefits generated by the activities developed by the base. We need to think of ways to compensate and allow communities to also participate in the profits generated by the Space Base.”

Another point considered fundamental by the quilombolas is the demarcation and titling of the lands. Federal courts have already ruled that the Brazilian state should carry out this process, which has not yet occurred.

“The lands to this day have not been titled, as promised by the Brazilian state. People suffer the losses and damages of this ethnocidal process, which is still ongoing and only being deepened,” criticizes the federal deputy.

The environmental impacts of the base also draw attention, although still immeasurable. During the center’s 39 years of operation, no environmental impact studies have been produced.

“Alcântara society cannot measure and size the damage caused to the environment and people with each rocket launch operation. It is serious that this occurs. Even more serious is wanting to advance agreements with other countries without resolving this issue,” says Danilo Sérgio.

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Act of resistance

To discuss the risks that residents face with American exploitation of the territory, CONAQ (National Coordination of Quilombola Rural Black Communities) organized a workshop on socioeconomic data in the region.

The goal is for communities to think collectively of strategies to improve the management of their territories and to have access to public policies.

“It is a moment of strengthening the quilombolas and debates about the problems that affect this population,” says Célia Cristina da Silva, executive coordinator of CONAQ.

The approval given by the Brazilian government for the United States to explore the entire coast of Alcântara should transform the lives of the residents of the region.

“It’s absurd that to meet the demands of the United States, hundreds of people will be sacrificed and an entire municipality practically wiped off the map,” says CONAQ’s coordinator.

International actions

Quilombolas have been acting internationally to denounce the violations that occurred in Alcântara. In May, members of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) issued a supporting note. According to the text issued, the action is a threat to “territorial rights and the lives of many Afro-Brazilian quilombo communities in the region”.

The quilombolas of Alcântara denounced the new expansion plans of the Brazilian government to the International Labor Organization (ILO).

According to the text, state actions contradict Articles 6 and 15 of ILO Convention No. 169, where it is provided that quilombola communities should be consulted on projects that may affect their territories and livelihoods.

Ministries involved say communities have not been consulted about AST because the project does not address land issues and does not directly affect local communities.

For the international body, the quilombolas demanded the completion of the process of titling the territory and asked the ILO to compel the Brazilian State not to carry out any type of expansion activity of the CLA area before the titling is completed.

Historical violation of rights

The quilombola communities of the city of Alcântara have been living with their rights violation caused by the Alcântara Launching Center (CLA) since its implementation in the 1980s. The project presented by Jair Bolsonaro (PSL) was not the first to propose a partnership between Brazil and another country for land use.

In 2000, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, then President of the Republic, signed a Technological Safeguards Agreement (AST) with the United States (USA), which allowed the use of CLA. The House of Representatives, however, understood that the arrangement was in breach of national sovereignty and vetoed the bill.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in 2003, also signed an agreement with Ukraine for the development and operation of rocket launches in the territory. The project lasted less than two years and ended unsuccessfully due to financial and operational problems.

Between 1986 and 1989, 312 families were removed from their territories and settled in the so-called agrovilas, places negatively described by the quilombolas. They point out the spaces as having no infrastructure for the development of the group’s traditional economic activities.

“People have not received any subsidies that could alleviate the trauma of losing access to the sea and fertile land for planting. No public policy to change this situation has been adopted by the government to date,” recalls Servulo Borges, a resident of Alcântara and active in defending the rights of quilombola communities since 1993.

According to Borges, the population never participated in discussions about benefits that the project could bring to the municipality of Alcântara. “Regardless of the country that makes an agreement with Brazil, if the community does not participate in the dialogue about what is needed for development, the tendency is that it will go wrong. Almost 40 years have passed and nothing has changed,” he points out.

About Marques Travae 3201 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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