An Out Of This World Industry In The Amazon (1999)

Rocket In The Jungle (1999): Deep in the Amazon rainforest, space rockets are breaking the silence. The satellite launch business here is booming; but at what cost?

For similar stories, see:
ESA Has Truly Taken Off (2001)

Gold Miners in Guyana Are Destroying the Amazon (2008)

Controversial Conservationism (1999)

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Trois, deux, un… a blaze of light, a stream of smoke, and voom! another million dollar satellite hits the skies. It’s a common site in French Guiana, France’s colonial outpost in the northern corner of South America. Space travel here is no longer relegated to the dreams of children, it’s big business generating high traffic. There are rockets launched every 28 days. More than half the world’s commercial satellites are shot into orbit here. Arianespace is the lifeblood of the French Space Agency, Germany’s DASA and Italy’s Fiat. Every launch day millions are at stake. Scientists in sealed suits inspect every nut, bolt and seal. For the technicians here, life is one long buzz. “It’s impossible to describe the happy feeling when everything turns out well,” gushes DASA’s head of operations.

But native Guianans are fed-up with not getting the jobs they crave. There has been virtually no development trickle-down from the station. People’s high hopes that the European space adventure would drag the whole of Guiana from the third world to the cutting edge of the first, were dashed. Thirty years on and the only other industries are fishing and logging. And while Guiana may be perfectly placed for satellite launching when it comes to more earthly exports the market positioning is poor. Fish caught and packaged here are expensive compared to fish originating in Asia and exports are limited. So today French Guiana survives on the subsidies it receives from Paris, a relic of the country’s colonial past. Irritation over the space station is the successful Independence Party’s main rally cry. “There is one thing working in French Guiana, and that is space. Guiana is not profiting from the launches like France and Europe,” says the Party Secretary.

With so many disgruntled locals around, Arianespace lives in fear of saboteurs. So to protect the base from potential terrorist threats the French Foreign Legion patrol the forests. True to their heritage they’re defending French interests and in the 90s that means business interests. To the legionars, Guiana is a good posting offering them the chance of a new life in a foreign land. Many change their name and identity the day they enter. Ask any legionnaire why he’s here and you’ll be greeted with an enigmatic response. “I joined the Legion because I had some problems back home, I can’t talk about it now. It was a day in December…” says one sergeant. The Legion continues Guyana’s role as a home for France’s banished men. The infamous Devil’s Island penal colony lies just off the coast here.

Environmentalists are also aggrieved by the space station’s insensitive attitude to the surrounding rainforest. At each rocket launching tonnes of aluminium and carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. Roger Solari, the President of Arianespace, defends the base’s record. “There is very precise environmental and safety regulation,” he says although environmental groups remain sceptical. Nobody has yet analysed the impacts of acid rain from the massive regular carbon releases over the forest.

Yet the business of satellite launching is too rich a prize to surrender to environmentalists or disgruntled locals. Digital TVs and mobile phones need their satellites so the launch day excitement in the jungle will continue. In the control room, the beads of tropical sweat collect on the space specialists. “My wife says I’m not the same person on launch day!” the flight safety officer tells us. “Trois, deux, un…” another fireball, another sonic boom and another satellite is catapulted into orbit to keep the business of TV alive.

Icaro Productions – Ref. 587

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