Dozens of traditional black communities, or Quilombos, in Northern Brazil are at risk of being removed from their ancestral land, due to an agreement that will give the United States access to Brazil’s Alcantara Satellite Launch Center. Families have vowed to resist.


Story Transcript

LOURENÇA VIEIRA: I’m Lourença Vieira. I’m descended of black slaves, mixed with Indians. I live here in the community of Mamuna.

SPEAKER: Mamuna is a traditional community on the Northeastern coast of Brazil. It’s recognized as a quilombo, which means its residents are descendants from black slaves. Their families have lived here for generations.

LOURENÇA VIEIRA: This place is special for so many reasons. It’s peaceful. It’s calm. It’s abundant. It’s productive. Everything is special. Everything is in harmony. You can grow vegetables or roots. Everything you plant here will grow. This land is enormously abundant. There’s water. The ocean. Everything connected to this land is beneficial.

SPEAKER: They plant watermelon, fruit trees and manioc, which they grind into a traditional Brazilian flour. They fish on the coast, just a short walk away.

DAVID PINHEIRO: The fishing. The planting. Everything we have came from our ancestors. If we know how to do it today, it’s because it came from our ancestors, the slaves and the quilombo residents who left this knowledge for us.

SPEAKER: But Mamuna and other neighboring villages are under threat. Last November, Brazil’s Senate approved a deal that will permit unlimited U.S. access to Brazil’s Alcantara Satellite Launch Center. The site is just across the river from Mamuna. The U.S. has been pushing to access the location for two decades, because of its proximity to to the equator, where rockets can carry larger payloads, because launches burn 30% less fuel.

The U.S. will be permitted to launch non-military and commercial rockets from the site. Brazilian officials say the new deal will bring in much needed revenue and jobs. Some residents in the nearby city of Alcantara are excited about the prospects.

FREDSON DO TERRES: I’m rooting for it to work out and for it to bring in a lot of employment.

SPEAKER: But the deal could also mean the expansion of the launch center, removing numerous communities and hundreds of families 

NAILTON LOBATO: Today, the launch center occupies this area here. This is the base here, but a federal decree approved in the 1980s increased the territory of the base on paper to this area here. So, these are the areas in danger of being evicted.

SPEAKER: Leaked documents reveal that at least 300 families could be removed by the end of this year. Quilombo leaders say even more are under threat.

DANILO SEREJO: Approximately 800 families and 27 or 28 communities along the coast are at risk of being removed.

SPEAKER: Mamuna would be the first to go.

DAVID PINHEIRO: What’s happening is that the Space Center, in this agreement with the United States, they want to come and just push us out like we were animals. They want to come and say look, this is ours, we need this land, and that’s it, ending our culture. Ending everything. Ending our community. If they remove us, we won’t have a beach to fish, we won’t have land to grow our plants. We won’t have certainty of anything.

SPEAKER : Quilombos across the region are concerned.

JOSE INALDO CORREIA RIBEIRO: At my age, 67 years, if I had to move to the capital city, Sao Luis, what would I do there? I have no guarantee of employment. Here, where I live, I farm and I fish. That’s what I know how to do. 

SPEAKER: This not the first time that one of Alcantara’s black communities here have been under threat. In 1986, more than 300 families living in several Alcantara communities were removed to make way for construction of the initial satellite launch center. They were sent to newly built inland communities. The government promised to compensate families and provide delivers of food for a year. Almost all promises were broken.

LEANDRA SILVEIRA: It was really hard when we arrived. Really hard. First, we didn’t have any estuary or river to fish. And you know you have to eat every day.

ANTONIO MARCOS: When we got here. We started everything over from scratch. We only received an empty house, which the new owner had to clean. There was no farm. No fruit trees. Nothing. And we had to start over completely from scratch. 

SPEAKER: The residents of the traditional black communities surrounding the launch site hope history does not repeat itself.

CLAUDIA ARAUJO: The United States has to understand that there are people here: families, adolescents, children. I want the people who come to put themselves in the shoes of the mothers and fathers who live on this land and care for it, who have been descended from this land, like my grandparents. There has to be an agreement that works for us. Because if there’s an agreement that we don’t agree with, I’m going to fight until the end for my rights, even if I die trying, I’m going to fight for my community.

SPEAKER: The story of Mamuma and the black communities surrounding the Alcantara launch site is not isolated. There are roughly 3,000 quilombos, or traditional black communities across the country. Like indigenous territories, many quilombos are under threat, as the process of land titling has been halted and the government of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro is pushing development and backing powerful interests in land disputes.

LOURENÇA VIEIRA: The government’s dream is to destroy the history of this people, because they believe we shouldn’t exist, because we are black, Indian, quilombo residents, descended from slaves. We are under threat today. And just like in the past, we are at risk of being extinct. We are living the same as in the past. Running the risk of being extinct, and removed from our origins, our communities, our roots, our identity, and our ancestral knowledge.