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Currently, the National Congress is analysing an agreement between Brazil and the Ukraine for the use of the Alcântara base. As it is, the agreement has no mechanism to guarantee that the Brazilian government will have access to technology, restricted areas and inspection of materials on the base.

New Shadows Over Alcântara

By Maria Luisa Mendonça and Aton Fon Filho

The government of Luís Inácio "Lula" da Silva was cheered for suspending consideration by the House of Deputies of the Technical Safeguards Agreement signed by Brazil and the United States, allowing the U.S. use of the Alcântara launch site in Maranhão. The move was anxiously awaited because the agreement would have been in disaccord with Brazilian Constitution.

This decision was the result of a great national and continental mobilization by the Campaign against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the resistance of the communities of Quilombo people in Alcantara. Last year, a grassroots referendum on the FTAA included a question about United States control of the Alcântara Launch Site, which was rejected by more than 10 million voters.

Although it has not been formally withdrawn, the agreement with the United States has been publicly sidelined. As president of the Commission on Justice, deputy Luiz Eduardo Greenhalgh, protested, as long as he is in charge of that institution and can count on the support of his government, the proposal will not move forward.

If, on one hand, the treatment given the treaty with the United States can be saluted as an advance in the preservation of the rights of the Quilombo communities, on the other hand, the year 2003 launched new worries and shadows over the future of the Alcantara Launch Site (ALS) and the people who have inhabited the area for hundreds of years.

In the middle of the year, a serious accident with two dozen victims reignited the discussion about the Environmental Impact Plans necessary for the establishment of the space center. The ALS has been accused by the Federal Public Ministry (FPM) of violating law number 6938/81, which requires that Environmental Impact Studies and Environmental Impact Reports be carried out.

The Federal Public Ministry reports that the Environmental Impact Studies and Reports prepared and presented by the ALS gloss over ethno-historic and archeological aspects, directly affecting the culture of the Quilombo communities in the region.

In response to the accident with the Satellite Launch Vehicle in which 20 technicians and workers died, a renewed level of scrutiny was given to the issue. Preliminary investigations indicated that the accident was caused by the ignition of 18 metric tons of solid rocket fuel used for propulsion. In rapid combustion, it caused the same effects as an explosion.
Notwithstanding that the exams have not been able to, until now, determine the reason for the fiasco that caused the premature ignition, a new and serious deficiency of the Environmental Impact Study has been unmasked. The use and storage of these immense quantities of solid rocket fuel, similar to explosives, indicates a risk for the local population. In addition, it raises the question of whether the material was produced inside the ALS or transported in from another location.

The issue, originally argued by lawyer Domingos Dutra, deserves special attention. If the first hypothesis is true, and the fuel was manufactured inside the ALS, the studies failed to examine the impacts of the production of solid rocket fuel, from the risks of its storage to the impacts of the use of chemical products in its production process. If it was transported into the ALS, there was no study on the risks and impacts of its transport and storage. And this still does not take into account the question about the existence of other material and equipment just as environmentally aggressive as the rocket fuel.

The National Congress is currently analyzing an agreement between Brazil and Ukraine for the use of the ALS. This document was approved by a session of the House of Deputies and submitted to an emergency vote with favorable judgment by the spokesperson of the Foreign Relations Committee, deputy Jorge Bittar (PT - RJ) and by the spokesperson of the Committee on Justice and the Constitution, Aloíso Nunes Ferreira (PSDB-SP).

Senator Roseana Sarney, daughter of the Senate President, is the designated spokesperson for this accord with Ukraine, now being moved to the Federal Senate under emergency provisions. The agreement represents a new danger for the Quilombo communities. It also contains several restrictions for Brazil to control de base.

In the current proposal, there is no mechanism to guarantee that the Brazilian government will have access to technology, to restricted areas or to the inspection of material in the base. Therefore, if the government accepts the Ukrainian conditions, it will not have an argument to refuse a similar proposal from the United States.

The Ukrainian proposal is very similar to the agreement with the United States, which sought to proscribe restricted areas and prohibit the Brazilian government from inspecting the content of equipment. The proposal from deputy Jorge Bittar (Worker's Party - Rio de Janeiro) gives an alert about these problems. The clauses below establish merely that Brazil and Ukraine "will make their best efforts" to guarantee those rights.

The Alcantara region is located in the Brazilian Amazon area. It is populated by Quilombos - traditional Afro-Brazilian communities with unique cultures, forms of production and internal codes. Due to the historical importance of these communities, the Brazilian Constitution recognizes their territories. However, the installation of the ALS in the seventies, by the military regime, forced the expulsion of dozens of Quilombo communities from their lands. If the ALS should become fully utilized, other Quilombo communities will be displaced.

In the face of this dangerous picture, several grassroots movements are demanding respect for national sovereignty and for the rights of the Quilombo communities.

The amendment proposed by deputy Jorge Bittar (PT-RJ) proposes:
I - in regards to the rule in article IV, paragraph 3, the Government of Brazil and the Ukrainian Government will make their best efforts to ensure that Brazilian authorities participate as well in the control of the restricted areas, respecting the protection of Ukrainian technology;
II - in regards to that established in article V, the Government of Ukraine will make its best efforts to authorize its officers to release information about the launch of vehicles or space capsules, of radioactive material or of any substance which could be damaging to the environment or to human health, respecting the protection of Ukrainian technology;
III - in reference to that stipulated in article VI, paragraph 2, the Parties shall make their best efforts to ensure that the personnel authorized by the Government of Brazil participate as well, to the extent appropriate, in access control of the Launch Vehicles, Space Capsules and related Equipment, respecting the protection of Ukrainian technology;
IV - in reference to that stated in article VI, paragraph 5, the Parties shall make their best efforts to ensure that the identification documents to be used by the individuals in control of the restricted areas will be issued by the government of Ukraine for the Ukrainian personnel, and by the government of Brazil for the Brazilian personnel, respecting the protection of Ukrainian technology;
V - in reference to that determined in article VII, paragraph 1.B, the Parties shall make their best efforts to ensure that the sealed containers will be available to be opened for inspection by Brazilian authorities duly authorized for such by the government of Brazil, in the presence of Ukrainian authorities and in appropriate areas, without the implication of technical study of the contained materials and entirely dedicated to the protection of Ukrainian technology.
VI - with respect to the stipulation in article VIII, paragraph 3, line (a), the Government of Brazil shall ensure, in a time determined by the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space, of April 22, 1968, the return to Ukrainian Participants of all items associated with the Launch Vehicle or Space Capsule recovered by Brazilian Representatives, without examination or photographing of any type, excepting the cases in which the Brazilian authorities judge it appropriate to proceed in the interest of the public health and security and of the preservation of the environment, respecting the protection of Ukrainian technology.

* Maria Luisa Mendoça is a journalist and co-director of the Social Network for Justice and Human Rights.
* Aton Fon Filho is a lawyer, co-director of the Social Network for Justice and Human Rights, director of the Human Rights Department of the Commission on Human Rights of the OAB/SP.