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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 November, 2004, 11:14 GMT
Brazil spaceport threat to villages
By Steve Kingstone
BBC South America correspondent

Hut, BBC
The community has been in existence for hundreds of years
Shrouded in dense jungle on the edge of Brazil's Amazon region is the Alcantara rocket base.

Its location - on the Atlantic coast just 240km (150 miles) south of the equator - makes it Mother Nature's perfect launch pad.

From here, rockets can enter orbit using less propellant and carrying larger payloads.

On 3 October, the Brazilian Space Agency successfully tested its VSB-30 rocket here, assisted by technicians from Germany. In time, the government hopes to sell the rocket to the European Space Agency.

We have a gorgeous beach, fresh fish and every fruit you can imagine. We have no wish to leave
Maria de Fatima Ferreira
Russia, China and the US have also shown interest in launching rockets and satellites from Alcantara. And last November, Brazil signed a partnership with the Ukraine, which will send its Cyclone-4 rocket into orbit from this remote, tropical site.

But just a few kilometres from the base is a very different Alcantara. Here, men go out fishing long before sunrise.

In a thatched hut, others painstakingly prepare manioc - the staple crop. An old man weaves a basket from palm leaves, while children return from nearby fields with sackloads of fruit.

Expansion threat

This simple lifestyle has thrived here since the village was founded by runaway slaves, more than 200 years ago. In Brazil, this type of community is known as a "quilombo".

"This is a beautiful, special place," says 49-year-old Maria de Fatima Ferreira, who lives here with her husband, five children and four grandchildren. "We have a gorgeous beach, fresh fish and every fruit you can imagine. We have no wish to leave."

Rocket, BBC
Brazil has declared its ambitions in space
But that's the threat hanging over this village and six others like it. About 200 families have been told they may have to move, so the rocket base can be expanded.

"We made a double decision about Alcantara," says Nilmario Miranda, Brazil's minister for human rights. "First, to respect the rights of the communities there; and second, to develop the base. If people are moved, our concern is to ensure that their ethnic, racial and cultural roots are preserved."

On offer to the threatened families is a new life inland, in what the government calls "agricultural villages". There, they will receive modest compensation and help making the switch from fishing to agriculture.

'Broken promise'

Some 300 families accepted a similar offer in the 1980s, when the rocket base was first built. And many now regret making the move.

"We were fishermen - and suddenly we found ourselves four hours walk from the sea," says Inaldo Faustino Silva Diniz, the father of eight children. "We were promised schools, health centres, treated water and paved roads - but none of it happened."

That was in the final years of Brazil's military government, which gave up power in 1985. Today, the left-leaning government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva insists things will be different. It says the needs and traditions of the quilombo communities will be respected.

Boy with fishing net
The people in the quilombo make their living from the land and sea
But what drives this debate is the twin lure of profit and international status that comes with operating a successful space programme.

Last month's test-launch was portrayed as a new start for Brazil, following a fatal accident at Alcantara in August 2003. Then, 21 technicians lost their lives when a rocket exploded on the launch pad.

Even those who may lose their homes take a curious pride in the country's technical achievements. Sitting on the beach, yards from her quilombo village Maria de Fatima Ferreira gazes at an antenna protruding from the launch site over the horizon.

"We know the base is very important for Brazil's future, and perhaps for defending us in war," she says. "And we know that some day we may have to leave. But for now we just want to stay."

Quilombo villagers are wary because of broken promises

Brazil launches rocket into space
24 Oct 04 |  Americas
Brazil's flawed space bid exposed
17 Mar 04 |  Americas

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