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Afro-Brazilian Communities in the Shadow of Space Facility

Vera Salles

ALCÁNTARA, Brazil, Jul 7 2010 (IPS) - A space launch centre built in their territory has altered the way of life that members of “quilombos” – village communities originally founded by runaway slaves – have maintained for a century and a half in this municipality in the Brazilian state of Maranhao.

An "agrovilla" in Alcántara. Credit: Roberto K-Zau/IPS

An "agrovilla" in Alcántara. Credit: Roberto K-Zau/IPS

Women quilombolas, as residents of the quilombos are known, participate alongside men in the struggle to defend the trampled rights of their Afro- descendant communities. They now face an additional battle to maintain women’s activities particularly affected by the space base, to improve conditions in their new environment, and to be included in the reparations demanded from the Brazilian state.

The quilombo communities in the municipality developed different cultures, dialects, production patterns and internal regulations, but they all have in common being located on lands chosen in 1983 by the Aeronautical Ministry to build the Alcántara Launch Centre – 22 kilometres from Sao Luis, the capital of Maranhao, on the northeastern Atlantic coast of Brazil.

An agreement between Brazil and the United States has allowed the U.S. to use the rocket launch site and satellite tracking station since 2000.

Nearly 80 percent of the 19,000 people in the urban and rural areas of Alcántara live in the quilombos and earn a livelihood from subsistence agriculture, fishing and extraction of forest products practised with traditional methods.

The local communities were never consulted about the construction of the space base and its later expansion, nor was it considered how they would continue their economic activities – even though the 1988 constitution recognised the right of quilombola descendants to “definitive ownership” of the lands they occupy.

There were 503 families living in 48 communities on land that was expropriated, and when the space base began to operate, some 312 families from 32 quilombos were relocated to “agrovillas” (agricultural villages), clusters of brick houses with basic services – school, church, social centre and a cassava flour mill. Cassava is a traditional staple food for quilombolas.

Since 1986, seven agrovillas have been built, where relocated families have suffered a complete change in their former social and economic organisation. Property division, for instance, put an end to their system of collective land ownership, and the plots assigned to each family are too small to support them.

Quilombolas alternative source of food, fish, are now virtually impossible to come by because of the distance from beaches and rivers and the space centre security cordon on the coast.

In 1992 the Movement of Rural Women Workers of Alcántara (MONTRA) was formed to raise the specific grievances of women with respect to the space centre.

Women leaders also helped found the Movement of those Affected by the Alcántara Space Launch Centre (MABE) in 1999, and participated later in the Forum to Support Alcántara Communities, in which a wide range of organisations joined to defend the rights of the descendants of escaped or freed slaves.

One of the consequences of the displacement of quilombola families has been rural-urban migration. Precarious stilt-house shanty towns and squatter settlements have sprung up, as well as violence, in the city of Alcántara – declared a national monument and cultural heritage city in 1948.

“Social and cultural breakdown in families has brought child prostitution, many teenage pregnancies and an increase in sexually transmitted infections,” especially among girls and adolescents from the quilombos, Fátima Diniz Ferreira, an activist and former coordinator of MONTRA, told IPS.

Cajueiro, 14 kilometres from Alcántara, is one of the seven agrovillas to which the displaced quilombo communities have been relocated. Here families grow cassava, maize and rice and fish in the nearest stream to survive.

Women contribute to family incomes, which average 110 dollars a month, by using traditional methods to extract oil from the kernels of coconuts produced by babassu palm trees – widespread in Maranhao, which quilombolas put to several uses.

Quilombolas sell the oil, used for food, cleansing and cosmetics, for 2.60 dollars a litre in Sao Luis or Alcántara. “There are 30 coconut breakers here; I’ve been one of them since I was 18, but young girls nowadays don’t want to do it because it’s very hard work,” said Zildene Torres Silva, a 33-year-old married woman with two children who came to the agrovilla as a child.

Each coconut breaker makes between 21 and 27 dollars a month from the oil. Basilia Diniz Silva, 58, complained that the work is excessively hard for such a low profit. “We get very hot, and often we get sick, because we have to pound the kernels hard and then heat them over the fire,” she told IPS at the agrovilla.

However, the young women of the Cajueiro agrovilla, where there is only a primary school, have the worst of it, they said. “Young girls here have no future; they work in the fields, helping their parents, and they get married young,” Diniz said.

Torres, who has a teenaged daughter, remarked that young people in Cajueiro who manage to finish primary school have to go to Alcántara for secondary education. Her 14-year-old daughter added that after secondary school there is nothing left to do unless one goes somewhere else.

Regina Lúcia de Azevedo Pacheco, the coordinator of the Citizenship Education Centre, has taken part in a project carried out in Alcántara since 2005 with the cooperation of the Black Culture Centre. This project trains teachers in the state’s towns and cities to appreciate African cultural history and resistance in Brazil, in order to encourage a critical view of reality.

Young women have few options. “University is a far-off dream for the majority, whose future will be housework, having children too early or migrating to urban centres to work as domestic employees or to swell the ranks of the unemployed or underemployed,” Pacheco said.

If they want to go for further studies, they have to leave, and that isn’t easy for the family economy in the quilombo. “Sometimes girls repeat the final grade of primary school several times, because there is no way they can leave the communities,” she said.

And now the space centre is preparing to launch rockets, and needs a larger area for its operations, which will reduce the space available for the quilombos even further.

The communities have applied to the Federal Court for a ruling to enforce the commitment not to expand the launch centre into areas where quilombos are operating productively.

Pacheco said that the quilombolas of Alcántara are facing extinction, as they live under permanent threat.

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