Rockets or rainforest

A commercial launch pad will bring jobs, but at what cost?

ONE of the Caribbean's last jungles could soon echo to the sound of rocket launches. Guyana has agreed to sell a large tract of pristine swampy rainforest to a Texan rocket-launch company, Beal Aerospace, for just $7.50 a hectare.

The deal, signed last month, replaces Beal's original plan to build its $250 million launch pad on the Caribbean island of Sombrero in Anguilla, which angered environmental scientists (New Scientist, 12 February, p 22). Guyanese prime minister Samuel Hinds hailed the project-which could see more than 20 commercial satellite launches a year -- as "a quantum leap for Guyana into the new millennium".

But critics say the country will gain little economically, while rainforest dwellers will be thrown out of their homes, swamps drained, forests cut down and ancient archaeological remains trashed.

In the US, Beal Aerospace is testing 70-metre rockets fuelled with a mix of aviation fuel and hydrogen peroxide, which will carry 5-tonne payloads. The vice-president of Beal, David Spoede, says the company hopes to be launching from the site in Guyana in three to four years' time. Guyana is close to the equator, which is the best place to launch satellites into geostationary orbit above the equator. The European Space Agency's spaceport is in nearby French Guiana. From Guyana, the launch route eastwards will be over open ocean in case of mishaps.

Beal plans to buy, then partially drain, 100 square kilometres of swamp on the north bank of the River Waini and lease from Guyana a buffer zone three times as large. Hinds calls the site "generally unproductive land never before commercially utilised". But the deal documents acknowledge that up to 54 families living there would have to be moved. Sharon Atkinson of the Amerindian Peoples' Association in Guyana says many others will lose their right to hunt, fish and gather thatch and timber there.


Contact: Claire Bowles
New Scientist

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