Despite legal protection, Black quilombo communities are facing forced eviction due to the expansion of the spaceport in northeast Brazil.

From the endorsement of ‘pro-government’ protests calling for military intervention, to open hostility towards the Supreme Court, to conspiracy accusations levelled against the President of Congress, it is increasingly evident that fuelling far-right radicalism is part of Brazil president Jair Bolsonaro’s strategy to keep his digital constituency engaged and divert attention from important issues. While the president is accused of committing ‘crimes of responsibility’ – such as attacking democratic institutions and the media and minimising the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic – the health crisis has brought about a smokescreen effect of its own, enabling many important issues to go unnoticed.

As Ricardo Salles, the Minister of the Environment, said in a cabinet meeting which was leaked to the public, the pandemic ‘distracted the press’ and therefore provided an ideal opportunity to push for the dismantlement of environmental protections. With the COVID-19 outbreak seriously affecting Brazil’s already-volatile political landscape, deforestation has increased significantly compared to last year, while loggers and land grabbers have encroached further on protected areas. Meanwhile, in March the government furtively announced plans to proceed with the expansion of the spaceport in Maranhão – centre of Brazil’s developing space programme – and the forced removal of some 800 Afro-Brazilian families.

The plan is not new. Home to more than 200 quilombos – communities founded by former enslaved people and their descendants – the region has a long history of black rural quilombola presence. Yet this population has been systematically treated as invisible throughout Brazil’s modern history. While the area in question has been recognised by the federal government as protected territory since 2004, has consistently failed to acknowledge constitutionally-guaranteed collective land rights of Alcântara’s Afro-Brazilian communities and sought to appropriate the disputed 12,000 hectares of quilombola territory.

The construction of a ‘demographic void’: invisibilising quilombolas

Historically, quilombos have been important pockets of resistance to the condition of slavery in colonial, and later imperial, times. In Alcântara, quilombos proliferated during the second half of the 18th century when, due to the region’s deep economic crisis, colonists were impelled to abandon their estates and seek lucrative opportunities elsewhere. The region’s distinctive economic and trade history created propitious conditions for the creation and growth of rural communities of formerly enslaved people (self-emancipated, freed and runaways), who established their presence well before the official abolition of slavery in 1888.

Due to this ‘unique’ history of quilombo formation, the municipality of Alcântara today boasts the largest concentration of black rural quilombo communities in Brazil – a term adopted by political activists of the quilombola movement to describe and unite under a common denomination different black rural communities across the country.

Despite the abolition of slavery, however, quilombolas were barred from obtaining legal titles for their collectively inhabited territories. Official registries of land in Brazil have always legitimised private, as opposed to collective, ownership of land. This has often led to a discrepancy between legal and effective land possession, as vividly illustrated in the case of Alcântara.

In the centenary of the abolition of slavery, the Federal Constitution of 1988 included for the first time in the country’s history collective rights to land and culture for the ‘remnants’ of quilombo communities, opening the way for the regularisation of their effective land holdings. Nevertheless, the absence of land titles sustained what would later become known as Alcântara’s ‘demographic void’: a political and economic elite-concocted discourse according to which the peninsula was a vast unpopulated area (because most land holdings are officially state-owned), as documented by anthropologist Alfredo Wagner Berno de Almeida.

From Natal to Alcântara

The Barreira do Inferno launch base, built in 1965 in the city of Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, was the first centre of the nascent and ambitious Brazilian space programme. The city’s urban development, however, rendered a future expansion of the base unviable and, in the early 1980s, Alcântara was selected for construction of a new one. Strategically distant from urban centres, with immediate access to the open sea, the Alcântara Launch Centre’s (CLA) position gives Brazil a competitive geostationary advantage – more than the Guiana Space Centre (CSG) in neighbouring French Guiana.

The construction of the spaceport generated conflicts and dramatically accentuated land insecurity for quilombolas in Alcântara. Between 1986 and 1988, its construction displaced 312 households from 23 quilombo communities, which were then allocated to seven government-built villages. But the lack of sustainable planning ensured that hundreds of dislocated quilombola families faced many hardships. Most were forced to leave coastal areas, where their subsistence economy was based on fishing, for inland zones with very limited (requiring military permission) or no access to the sea. Furthermore, the small land plots allocated to each family unit were not only opposed to the traditionally collective use of land, but were often unsuitable for tillage and failed to consider a family’s expansion and need for new terrains.

In addition, the Alcântara Space Centre (CEA) opened in 1994. It was planned to operate from a separate launch base but strong opposition by residents and social movements led to the operation of both from the same site, confirming opposition claims that the area of nearly 9,000 hectares already reserved for the CLA was more than enough to accommodate both.

While residents had been organising politically from the start, 1999 saw the creation of the Movement of those Affected by the Launch Base (MABE), which continues to be the principal voice of quilombolas to oppose the Alcântara Launch Centre and its plans for expansion. In 2008, after nearly three decades of tensions, forced evictions and battles fought by quilombolas, the National Institute for Colonisation and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) designated an area of over 78,000 hectares ‘unified quilombola territory’. This was a major victory for the quilombolas, as it was supposed to resolve the long-running dispute, with final titling to the collective territory expected in the following months. In June 2015, however, and despite the fact the contested area was still in the process of land regularisation, the Secretary for Racial Equality in Alcântara announced the state government’s plans for the ‘return’ of 42,000 hectares of quilombola land to the state.

Technology Safeguards Agreement

Michel Temer’s interim government, which was installed following the removal of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, initiated negotiations for the use of the base by the US government with terms that would potentially violate national sovereignty laws. While social movements were protesting against these plans, Temer’s administration appeared determined to give continuity to the Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA) signed between Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Bill Clinton in 2000. The TSA was met with strong opposition (including by then congressman Jair Bolsonaro) and was finally discarded by Lula Da Silva in 2003. After years of negotiations, and despite vehement opposition by quilombolas and allied movements, the new agreement, nearly identical to the previous one, was ratified by the congress in November 2019.

For its supporters, the CLA has, since its conception, been an ambitious plan to modernise a region of the eastern Amazon frontier largely undeveloped since colonial times. Besides filling the ‘demographic void’, the CLA was also hoped to make up for what many military officials and politicians alike deemed – with disdain and racism – as Alcântara’s ‘backwardness’. Army General Sérgio Etchegoyen mocked quilombolas who refuse to leave their communities for a future expansion of the base: ‘Oh, I don’t want to leave because this is where my granny died’, he said sarcastically during a speech in 2017. He further argued that the government should take ‘extreme measures’ to remove such ‘obstacles to the country’s progress’.

Quilombola land rights at risk

The decision to expand the launch base, regardless of the impact on local communities, is typical of an administration that has repeatedly signalled itself as an enemy of indigenous and quilombola populations. The MABE, public intellectuals and quilombola movements criticised the lack of consultation with the communities concerned, as stipulated by the 169 International Labour Organization Convention which Brazil has ratified, and condemned the government’s move as another blatant expression of institutional racism.

Facing the dreadful prospect of yet another expulsion after decades of collective struggles to obtain constitutionally-guaranteed land titles, Alcântara quilombolas are determined to resist, despite the absence of support from state or federal administrations. The leftist governor of Maranhão, Flávio Dino, has not opposed the expansion plans. Brazil’s democratic institutions urgently need to protect the rights of all citizens, especially of those most asymmetrically affected by structural inequalities. It remains to be seen, however, whether steps will be taken to prevent another blow from being inflicted on the quilombola population.