The United States wants to launch rockets from Brazil.

It could mean the eviction of several thousand descendants of enslaved people.

A story of slavery — and space

(Launch site photo: Eraldo Peres/Associated Press)
correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the government under which families were removed. Construction of the Alcântara Launch Center began during the Brazilian military dictatorship, but families were displaced under the ensuing administration. The article has been updated.

ALCÂNTARA, Brazil — In her home at the edge of the village, close enough to the launch base that she can see the rockets climb above her roof, Maria José Lima Pinheiro began to tell her story. It was about family. But it was also about space exploration, slavery, the world’s most powerful country and, ultimately, the looming destruction of her community.

They’ve lived here for hundreds of years, the descendants of enslaved Africans, fishing and farming a verdant paradise where land meets sea along Brazil’s north coast. For most of that history, the outside world had left them alone. Then came the Space Age.

By a coincidence of fate, the historically Black villages, called quilombos, sit on what the global aerospace industry considers some of the most valuable real estate on the planet. Less than 200 miles from the equator — the global sweet spot — Alcântara is one of the easiest places on Earth to launch satellites into geostationary orbit.

[They lost the Civil War and fled to Brazil. Their descendants refuse to take down the Confederate flag.]

She was still a child, Pinheiro said, when the government started removing her people to build the Alcântara Launch Center. Now, three decades later, she fears it’s coming back for the rest of them.

The United States in 2019 signed a technology privacy agreement with Brazil that allows the United States to use the nearby Brazilian launch center for commercial and other missions. But the deal, which then-president Donald Trump promised would save “tremendous amounts of money,” could also mean the displacement of nearly 2,100 of Brazil’s poorest people. The Brazilian government last year announced a plan to expand the base by more than 30,000 acres to make room for the additional business. The quilombos would be cleared, officials said in a decree, and their people removed.

The United States has signed a deal to launch rockets from a base in northern Brazil, close to the equator.

From there, spacecraft can reach geostationary orbit with less fuel and can carry larger payloads.

To accommodate the added business, the Brazilian government plans to expand the Alcântara Launch Center</span> by clearing an <span class="expansion key-label">area</span> twice the size of Manhattan.

The expansion could displace nearly 2,100 people from communities</span> founded hundreds of years ago by freed and escaped enslaved Africans.

This wouldn’t be the first time the government has targeted the quilombos. When the base was built three decades ago, more than 300 families were moved out of their communities to military-built homes</span> far from the sea.

The Washington Post traveled to the village of Mamuna</span> to talk with residents about how the proposed eviction would change their lives.

“Where would we go?” asked Pinheiro, 48. Home to her is a curving dirt road lined with thatched-roof houses. The quiet of the forest. Fishing dinner out of the sea. It is, she says, the only life she’s ever wanted. “What are we going to do?”

Marcos Pontes, the Brazilian minister of science, technology and innovation, said there are no plans to relocate families “right now.” And if the time comes to remove people, he predicted, they will go willingly.

“They are going to see development coming in, real development,” he told The Washington Post. “All of the resistance, that is going to be gradually disappearing.”

[He grew up White. Now he identifies as Black. Brazil grapples with racial redefinition.]

Under President Biden, the U.S. government has renewed a commitment to promote human rights around the world. But it has not backed away from the deal to use the Alcântara Launch Center.

The accord “does not discuss, or in any way endorse, Brazil’s plans for Alcantara or the Quilombola communities,” the State Department said in response to questions from The Post. “We encourage Quilombola and Brazilian government leaders to continue constructive dialogues to address any concerns.” Officials didn’t address whether they had pressed Brazil to protect the historical communities, which still have no legal right to land they’ve long inhabited.

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Pinheiro and her family, descendants of enslaved Africans, have lived in the quilombos for hundreds of years. An expansion of the launch center would be devastating for them. "Where would we go?” she asks.

The clash, now unfolding in local and international courts, is the distillation of one of Brazil’s most urgent and polarizing dramas. What is more important: Developing a vast country with unrealized potential and a lagging economy? Or protecting some of its most vulnerable communities?

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing nationalist friendly to business interests, has made clear where he stands. He has vowed to exploit the riches of the Amazon rainforest, supported illegal gold miners, ceased awarding land rights to Indigenous peoples — and has described quilombola residents in language so offensive that federal prosecutors sued him.

“I went to a quilombo,” Bolsonaro said in the widely condemned public speech in 2017, before he was elected president. “The skinniest African descendant there weighed seven arrobas,” the measure by which cattle is weighed. “They don’t do anything. Not even to procreate are they worth anything. More than $200 million per year we spend on them.”

[In Brazil, the death of a poor black child in the care of rich white woman brings a racial reckoning]

Alcântara’s quilombola communities have since dug in. They’ve begun to organize and joined legal actions. In Mamuna, the pillar of the forest communities, the resistance is led by Pinheiro. For years, she has organized collective action against the launch base, including building barricades to keep out space companies.

She understands her community has little power. They are sustenance fishermen and farmers. Many are illiterate. All are poor. But they’d been on this land long before Bolsonaro came to power. Long before United States took an interest in it. They aren’t going to give it up without a fight.

‘A perfect place’

To Trae York, the former space forces director of U.S. Southern Command, the problem was clear. The United States had become far too dependent on Patrick Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral, perched on a Florida barrier island battered by storms and endangered by rising seas.

“A choke point,” he called the facility in an interview with The Post. “There was no strategic vision.”

The solution was Alcântara. Geographically, it was nearly ideal. For space technology aiming for geostationary orbit — the location used in telecommunications, weather monitoring and navigation systems — blasting off near the equator is a huge advantage. It means rockets can spend less fuel and carry heavier payloads to reach their destination.

For decades, the Europeans have used a launch base in French Guiana for those very reasons. In Alcântara, York believed, the United States had found its response.

“A perfect place,” he said.

Not only does Alcântara have predictable weather and open ocean to the east, it is only 169 miles south of the equator. At that location, the Earth rotates at 1,039 miles per hour.

Cape Canaveral, Fla., frequently used for U.S. launches, is 2,000 miles north of the equator. The Earth there rotates 125 miles per hour more slowly.

The difference might seem small. But when comparing objects moving in the latitudes of Cape Canaveral, Alcântara and Greenland, for example, the difference in speed is clear.

The closer to the equator a rocket is launched, the more speed it gains from the Earth’s rotation. This extra boost — plus the sharper angle — reduces the amount of thrust and fuel needed for a rocket to take off, and increases the payload it can carry.

York was only the latest American determined to gain U.S. access to the base. The Clinton administration wanted to launch from Brazil in 2000. The countries signed a technology intelligence protection agreement, but the accord fell apart when Brazilian lawmakers began fretting over American imperialism.

Then a rocket exploded on the Alcântara launchpad in 2003, killing 21 people. Launches dwindled, even as some of the world’s most powerful countries — Russia, China, Israel, France — and leading aerospace companies continued to show interest.

Eventually, York and others turned U.S. space ambitions back toward Brazil. Everyone agreed on the potential: Companies would get a competitive advantage. Brazil and the United States would forge closer ties. And the region itself — one of the poorest corners of Brazil’s poorest state — stood to generate badly needed wealth.

But there were stories from Alcântara’s past: Tales of deception. Allegations of human rights abuses. The launch base was haunted by them.

A promise of a better life

Maria das Neves remembers the promises. The land where her family would be relocated would be fertile and plentiful. They would retain access to the sea and get running water. There would be pasture to raise cattle. And most crucially, they’d finally receive land titles.

So das Neves and her family loaded their possessions onto a military truck, climbed aboard, and were off — down a dirt road, heading to a new home they’d never seen, but hopeful it would be better than the one they were leaving behind.

It was Dec. 26, 1987. Brazil’s military dictatorship had recently entered the space race, and authorities were annexing nearly 130,000 acres in Alcântara. The city that had, until them, been largely reduced to a memory.

[The hidden suffering behind the Brazilian coffee that jump-starts American mornings]

First inhabited in 1612, Alcântara is one of Brazil’s oldest European settlements. Its story for centuries was largely that of the country: Slavery, the extraction of natural resources and the decadent colonial lifestyle it funded. But a downturn in cotton and sugar prices in the early 1800s drove the farms into insolvency — and the plantation barons did something unexpected.

They abandoned their mansions, their estates and their enslaved Africans, boarded vessels and sailed across the Bay of São Marcos for a new life in São Luís.

“This was completely unique in Brazil,” said Yuri Costa, a public defender in São Luís, the capital of Maranhão state. “Nothing like this has happened anywhere else.”

The newly free Africans disappeared into the forests. They formed fishing communities along the shore, joining earlier escapees. Soon thousands were living in nearly 200 quilombola communities throughout Alcântara — believed to be the most anywhere in Brazil.

Isolated by geography, forgotten by their enslavers, they settled into a comfortable, if poor, existence. “It was an interlinked economy,” the historian Maria do Socorro Gomes Araújo wrote in an academic paper on the communities. “One fished, another wove nets, a third made boats, a fourth did ceramics, and a fifth planted yuca.”

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Alcântara — pictured here with a cobbled street — is one of Brazil’s oldest European settlements. Slavery drove a decadent colonial lifestyle, but in the early 1800s, farms were driven into insolvency. Plantation barons abandoned their farms, and the newly free Africans disappeared into the forests and created their own communities, like Mamuna, pictured with a dirt road. Seated together are Maria das Neves and Maria de Lurdes, and Dozia de Torres Garcia, in orange, all of whom live in Marudá.

This was the history of das Neves’s family. The day the military arrived with their moving trucks, she was 18. Her parents had wept for days. They were leaving land that, she said, “had been passed down from generation to generation.” But they boarded the trucks and left the land where they’d found freedom, because they thought they had no choice, because it was a chance at plumbing.

“The models they showed us had an indoor bathroom,” Neves said.

When they reached their new home — one in a cluster of military-style block buildings plopped in the middle of the forest — she realized how foolish they’d been. The family’s barren square structure had no plumbing. The land was too sandy to farm.

[A wealthy doctor and a favela merchant were hospitalized with covid-19. From there, their stories diverged.]

Servulo de Jesus Moraes Borges, 58, was one of 30 soldiers enlisted by the military to convince the families to move. Borges, too, believed the promises. Raised in the quilombos, he’d believed a better life was coming for his people.

He has regretted that faith ever since.

“True deception,” he said. “It was not meant to help anyone’s life, because everything that was promised wasn’t fulfilled.”

More than 300 families lost easy access to the sea. They lost their plantations. Many went hungry. A people once forgotten were forgotten again. “The government took what it could and left us here,” das Neves said.

The rockets started shooting off. The land rights never came. And those left behind in their quilombos swore that what happened to the others would never happen to them.

‘Win hearts and minds’

Pinheiro walked toward the river, thinking of what would happen if the government took her land. She could picture herself: Another person in the favelas of São Luís, where other displaced families have ended up, fearing violence and spending every dime on food they’d once fished or grown.

“They don’t want our house,” she said. “They want our liberty. The liberty to keep our windows open at night, in peace.”

She doesn’t trust the government. Not after what happened with the other families. So she has committed her adult life to resistance.

In 2008, after the government signed a launch agreement with Ukraine, she built barricades to try to prohibit the space companies from entering the forests. She advocated for the removal of their heavy machinery and worked with public prosecutors to expose environmental destruction resulting from the launch site. She organized local meetings. Traveled to Brasilia to meet officials. And met Pontes, the science and technology minister, who she says explained there was no need to worry.

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The quilombo residents have settled into a comfortable, if poor, existence, fishing and farming for sustenance. Pinheiro does not trust the government to allow that to continue.

In April 2019, a month after Trump and Bolsonaro announced their accord, Pontes told Brazilian lawmakers the same: The government had no plans to expand the base. No more families would be displaced. “There is no discussion of expansion,” he said.

But according to internal documents obtained by The Washington Post, the government was actively discussing just that. A June 2019 PowerPoint presentation by the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights said communities would soon be informed of their displacement. In the language of war and counterinsurgency, it discussed tactics to win their support.

“Recover the credibility of the State with the communities: win hearts and minds,” the authors wrote. “Hear their frustrations, stories, expectations and anxieties. Dialogue about the population's expectations: The adult population wants to continue their current lifestyles. But they also want a better future for their children. The community is favorable to the base.”

Pontes’s ministry did not respond to a request for comment about the apparent discrepancy between his public comments and the contents of the internal documents.

Months later, the government announced its plan to seize the shoreline and relocate an unspecified number of families. “Communities inhabiting areas of state interest,” it called them. A federal judge suspended the order. The government appealed. And this year, Bolsonaro himself made plans to come to town.

“I wake up every day with this fear,” Pinheiro said last month, looking out across the river. “Now the president is coming.”

A surprising overture

The next day, Pinheiro turned on the television. From her sparsely furnished home, she watched the Brazilian elite stride across the nearby launch site. The delegation — Bolsonaro, cabinet members, members of congress — walked into a packed hangar, where dozens of displaced quilombo residents waited quietly.

More than 30 years after more than 300 families were pushed off their land, and brought to a different one than they were promised, the government’s top officials said they had returned to make amends. One-third of the families that were displaced in the 1980s would receive the long-denied land deeds at the relocation sites. Everyone, officials declared, was to share in the prosperity brought by the partnership with the United States. The poor would prosper.

“It will grow, and it will grow a lot,” Pontes said.

“A market for billions and billions of dollars,” Bolsonaro said.

He looked down at the villagers in the audience. A promise deferred, he declared, would now be fulfilled. They would have their deeds.

Officials cheered. Bolsonaro smiled. The families rejoiced.

But inside her house, Pinheiro felt more fearful than ever. The scene, despite its proximity, could not have felt more distant. Something was off. The government had ignored their pleas for 30 years — only to return now with gifts, when officials wanted more land?

“It’s hypocrisy,” she said. “They’re putting makeup on it.”

All this attention — she didn’t like it. Whenever the government lifted her people from obscurity, it led to no good.

She turned off the television.

She’d spent her life resisting powerful forces. But this time seemed different. They weren’t just up against the Brazilian government. She believed they were facing the might of America, too. She didn’t know how long they had.

So she went out to her vegetable patch and, feeling the sun on her face, tried to enjoy the quiet of her land while she still could.

About this story

Additional design and development by Armand Emamdjomeh, Atthar Mirza and Jake Crump. Copy editing by Laura Michalski. Photo editing by Chloe Coleman. Video editing by Alexa Juliana Ard.

Sources: Brazil’s Ministry of Defense, Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, Movement of Those Affected by the Space Base (MABE), NASA, Brazil’s Attorney General’s Office.

Terrence McCoy is The Washington Post's Rio de Janeiro Bureau Chief. He joined The Post in 2014 and has been a staff writer on the local, national and foreign desks.