Is Brazil the inheritor of the Portuguese empire in Africa?

China has been under scrutiny as it invests in Africa, but another player has been largely ignored: Brazil.

To match Special Report BRAZIL-AFRICA/
Dilma Rousseff's predecessor, Luiz 'Lula' da Silva, increased relations and investment with Africa [REUTERS]

Though much ink has been spilt on Beijing’s rising economic presence in Africa, few have written about the continent’s most recent up and coming player: Brazil. It’s not clear why commentators have ignored such important geopolitical developments. Under Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva as well as his protégé Dilma Rousseff, Brazil has been conducting a big push into Africa which could have far reaching consequences.

Brazil’s rise on the international stage has not escaped notice by the American right. Recently, a columnist at Henry Kissinger’s National Interest wrote that one cannot overlook “Brazil’s inheritance of the Portuguese Empire’s mantle in Africa”.

To an extent, Brazil’s push into Africa is only natural. With the financial downturn taking its toll in most nations of the world, Brazil sees the Sub-Saharan region as one of the few bright spots for economic growth. Concerned that the eurozone crisis may pose a financial threat to her country, Rousseff has placed great importance on Brazil’s African expansion. Indeed, Brazil’s trade with Africa has snowballed, from just $4bn in 2000 to more than $27bn in 2011. In a sign of the times, Rousseff recently travelled personally to South Africa, Mozambique and Angola in an effort to shore up economic co-operation.

Brazil could one day challenge China in the scramble for Africa’s vast mineral deposits and consumer markets.”

Though certainly dramatic, Rousseff’s Africa pivot is nothing new: Under predecessor Lula, Brazil opened an impressive 17 new embassies in the continent. The South American juggernaut’s giant corporations, which now operate in 21 African countries, have plunged into such diverse sectors as mining, oil exploration and tropical agriculture. Traditionally present in the Lusophone, or Portuguese-speaking African countries, Brazilian firms are now pushing into Francophone and even Anglophone nations such as Nigeria.

With such an impressive and growing presence, Brazil could one day challenge China in the scramble for Africa’s vast mineral deposits and consumer markets.

New Portuguese Empire?

As it reaches across the Atlantic, Brasilia has pursued largely economic goals by propping up its own corporate agenda, though in time the South American juggernaut could develop political interests in the region as well. Will Brazil be perceived as an interloper or a benevolent presence in Africa? As the South American nation expands its African footprint, Brazil will have to tread lightly. 

Indeed, Brasilia’s political and economic elites are aware of the need for shrewd public relations. Former President Lula has remarked, “Africa cannot be looked at like it used to be seen, as a simple supplier of minerals and gas… We have to find African partners. We don’t want hegemony; we want strategic alliances.” The corporate sector, meanwhile, stresses the need for environmentally and socially sustainable policies. “We need to increase dialogue with local society, because we don’t want to come across as imperialists,” the CEO of Brazilian mining firm Vale has remarked.

In an effort to ingratiate themselves in host countries, Brazilian companies tend to hire and train local Africans and offer social projects to foster domestic development. In Angola, Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht is the largest private employer of local people in the country. During a recent trip to the African nation, Rousseff reinforced the need to hire such labour and to observe and respect domestic laws. Perhaps, it is no coincidence that Rousseff issued such statements in Angola, where Chinese companies have been criticised for not employing African workers.

Counting the Cost – China-Africa ties

Unlike China, which is enmeshed in a struggle to secure major resources, Brazil is already a resource-rich country and a major oil exporter in its own right. Brazil then sees Africa as a means of diversifying its export markets in such sectors as food, seeds and agricultural machinery while internationalising production of its major companies such as oil and biofuels giant Petrobras and mining colossus Vale. As it ventures into Africa, Brazil has also stressed its commitment to human rights, an issue which China tends to gloss over.

Corporate-banking nexus

For the time being, such PR moves may go down well but Brazil must be careful lest it be perceived as imperialist. Brazil’s national development bank – or BNDES – is thinking about accelerating its financing for projects in Africa, including possible hydropower projects in Mozambique.

Given the bank’s tawdry environmental record, that could spell bad news for people living in the crosshairs of Brazilian investment. The BNDES corporate colossus, which seeks to create strong Brazilian multi-nationals via below-market loans, is fast outstripping even the World Bank and has rapidly become the bane of South America’s indigenous peoples. 

Indeed, throughout vast areas of South America the left and indigenous peoples are just as prone to attack Brazilian imperialism as Washington’s foreign policy. From Paraguay to Guyana to Peru to Ecuador, local residents have protested Brazil’s large boondoggle projects.

In Bolivia, when BNDES announced it would support road construction through remote indigenous territory, the effort sparked protest from local Indians who characterised President Evo Morales as a foreign lackey. In Peru meanwhile, BNDES has been linked to the infamous Inter-Oceanic Highway, designed to connect Brazil to Pacific ports via Amazonian road networks.

Underside of energy colossus

In yet another sign which hardly bodes well, Brazilian state energy giant Petrobras is also making a big push into Africa.

A corporate colossus, Petrobras is the eighth-largest publicly traded firm in the world, and enjoys privileged political access at the top. Indeed, Rousseff herself formerly worked as chairwoman of the board at Petrobras, and the firm receives credit from BNDES. Currently, the corporation has operations in a whopping 28 African countries. On Africa’s west coast, Petrobras’ main goal is to find light oil in tandem with the company’s strategy to seek opportunities in ultra-deep waters. 

Though Petrobras is known as a world leader in deep water drilling technology, the corporation has seen its share of environmental disasters. In 2001, for instance, Petrobras lost the world’s largest floating oil platform off the Brazilian coast following a series of explosions which killed nine workers. Moreover, environmental groups like Greenpeace charge that Petrobras’ plans to develop deep water “pre-salt” oil reserves 200 miles off the Brazilian coast will add 35bn tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over the next four years.

In another ominous development, Brazilian company Eletrobras is considering building a $6bn hydroelectric power plant in Mozambique, possibly with the assistance of BNDES. Eletrobras has been a partner in developing the controversial Belo Monte dam along the Xingu River in the Amazon. Indigenous peoples are concerned that the project will dry up the river and drive them from their ancestral lands. Moreover, if Brazil assists Africa in constructing dams then this could exacerbate climate change. As I’ve noted before, hydroelectric plants lead to emissions of methane that are formed when vegetation decomposes at the bottom of reservoirs devoid of oxygen. That is troubling, since methane is 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Biofuel trap

Could biofuels help Africa out of the energy trap? To be sure, some African countries could use help as they are obliged to import energy. It is doubtful, however, whether Brazil can provide the continent with clean and sustainable alternatives, and in fact biofuels may exacerbate social tensions.

While sugarcane ethanol is certainly less ecologically destructive than some other biofuels, the industry’s boosters have overlooked one key fact: You’ve got to plant sugarcane somewhere. In Brazil, sugarcane crops have led to deforestation of the rainforest and, paradoxically, more carbon emissions.  

In Mozambique and Kenya, the aforementioned Petrobras has been pushing biofuels projects as well as ethanol and sugar enterprises. Meanwhile, in Angola, Brazilian firm Odebrecht and BNDES are investing in a project aimed at using sugarcane to produce sugar, ethanol and power.

By turning arable land over to biofuel production, however, Brazil may wind up taking food from the hungry. According to Friends of the Earth, biofuel demand in Africa is already driving a new land grab and protests in Tanzania, Madagascar and Ghana have targeted foreign companies which acquired rural property. 

Agribusiness juggernaut

Africa, a continent which has suffered from recurring food shortages and needs to feed its growing population, looks enviously at Brazil. Indeed, over the last 30 years Brazil has reversed its status as a food importer to become an important agribusiness producer of soybeans, amongst other products. As part of its big overseas push, Brazil set up a credit line to Africa to promote farmers’ purchases of agricultural equipment, and meanwhile, the Rousseff government is providing technical assistance in rural areas.  

There have already been some bright spots in this Brazilian-African agricultural exchange. In 2010, for example, farmers from Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa visited Brazil to learn about the planting and harvesting of Creole or native seeds. The farmers, who were interested in developing community seed banks and strengthening family farming, met with the Brazilian Landless Peasant Movement (known by its Portuguese acronym MST). During their visit, the Africans learned about biodiversity conservation and organic farming techniques.

Such advances, however, stand to be overshadowed by Brazilian agribusiness which has created a social and environmental disaster in the Amazon and adjacent areas (for more on the soybean industry and its activities, see my book No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet). Currently, the Brazilian soybean industry is already up and running in the Sudan and is poised to leap into Mozambique as well.

Blunting corporate message

If it wants to be perceived as something other than a mere corporate juggernaut, Brazil should find other, more progressive means of interacting with the African continent. To her credit, Rousseff has already pushed a social agenda which could wind up benefiting millions.

Take, for example, Brazil’s provision of cheap and generic anti-retroviral drugs to Mozambique which will help those infected with HIV. Brazil has longtime expertise in tropical medicine too, and Rousseff has helped to finance hemophilia and sickle-cell anaemia centres for Africa.

Furthermore, the Rousseff government has awarded scholarships to Mozambican students to study in Brazilian universities. Meanwhile, from Cape Verde to Guinea-Bissau, Brasilia has been building vocational training centres. 

“Having both suffered through centuries of colonisation, slavery, poverty and oppression, Brazil
and Africa share a common historical legacy.”

In the social arena, too, Brazil has much to offer. Under former President Lula, Brazil carried out the so-called Bolsa Familia programme which disbursed cash payments to the neediest. In less than ten years, Brazil lifted 20 million people out of poverty, and today countries such as Angola are seeking to replicate the success of such programmes. Finally, Rousseff has also provided grants to Africa to help ameliorate local food shortages.

It’s up to civil society

Up until now, Brazil’s foreign policy role in Africa has been a decidedly mixed bag. While Rousseff has championed a variety of social programmes for the Continent, such overtures could be overshadowed by Brasilia’s corporate agenda. In the short-term, there’s little danger that Africans will associate Brazil with other imperialist powers which historically played a nefarious role in the region’s affairs, much less China which is voraciously eating up resources in the present day. Yet, as Brazil deepens its presence in Africa, the South American nation may find that it needs to articulate a more over-arching vision. Brazilian civil society, which traditionally hasn’t played much of a role in foreign affairs, should try to steer the agenda in a more progressive direction.

Specifically, it will be interesting to see whether the Afro-Brazilian community seeks to shape the larger contours of Rousseff’s foreign policy. Presently, African cultural influence is extremely pronounced in Brazil. Indeed, it’s almost redundant to speak of Afro-Brazilian culture since almost 90 million Brazilians share African roots. During the colonial period, African slaves from Angola, Congo and Mozambique were imported into the port of Rio de Janeiro, and the new arrivals brought with them their religion, music, dance and cuisine. 

To this day, many Brazilians eat dishes based on palm oil, beans and okra; dance to samba; practice an African-based martial art called capoeira, and follow candomblé, an African religion. In recent years, the Brazilian “black movement” has come into its own, helping to push new policies such as the compulsory teaching of Afro-Brazilian and African history in public and private schools. What is more, several Brazilian universities have picked up on the shifting cultural mood within the country and have begun to target admissions toward Afro-Brazilians.

Having both suffered through centuries of colonisation, slavery, poverty and oppression, Brazil and Africa share a common historical legacy. “It’s time for Brazil to pay off its enormous debt with Africa, African blood was spilled in the plantations and the ‘quilombos‘ [escaped slave communities],” Lula remarked recently. Yes, but the South American giant has yet to decide how to pay off such a debt, and so it will probably fall to civil society to steer foreign policy toward a more just and fair social agenda as opposed to narrowly defined corporate interests.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet.

Follow him on Twitter: @NikolasKozloff