Why Russia Needs Brazil and Vice Versa

It has recently come to light that Russia is seeking Brazil’s help for backing in the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and the G20 group of top economies and other international fora and as a means of countering the devastating sanctions imposed by the West.

About two months ago, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil formally met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, just days prior to Rusia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many viewed Bolsonaro’s visit to Russia as posturing and to demonstrate to the world that Brazil is an international player in transformative foreign relations.

Yet, Brazil is far from being the international mediator it may want to be. It is considered one of the BRICS, one of the emergent economies along with Russia, India, China, and South Africa but without perhaps the economic and political clout of the likes of the United States or France or Great Britain, or even China, for example, these latter countries also being members of the Security Council at the United Nations. Brazil may want to be an international leader but it simply does not have the economic or military status for that mantle yet.

According to Reuters, the Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov wrote a letter to Brazilian Economy Minister Paulo Guedes in order to “prevent political accusations and discrimination” at international financial institutions and other multilateral fora. So, it is obvious Russia is desperate for international allies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and following damaging sanctions imposed against it by the West.

The letter states that “behind the scenes work is underway in the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and World Bank to limit or even expel Russia from the decision-making process”, while such allegations could not be verified by Reuters, nor did the letter mention the war in Ukraine.

A couple of days ago, Brazilian Economy Minister Guedes condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine but stated Brazil was against any economic sanctions imposed on Russia and demonstrated Brazil would not take a hardline position against its BRICS partner. In actuality, all of Russia’s BRICS partners, Brazil, India, and South Africa, abstained from voting against Russia, and China voted against the United Nations resolution to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. It proves, I think, there is not complete international unanimity in condemning Russia’s actions or imposing consequences against Russia.

Moreover, Brazil sees itself as a key economic player at the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) and as a central interlocutor between Mercosur (also, includes the countries of Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay) and the European Union (EU). While the trade agreement between Mercosur and the EU has yet to conclude, Brazil threatens to continue exporting to Asia and the Middle East.

Worse still, President Jair Bolsonaro is using the Russian war in the Ukraine as a pretext to exploit Brazil’s Amazon. “This crisis is a good opportunity for us,” declared Bolsonaro.

Worryingly, Bolsonaro has linked Amazonia to the Russo-Ukraine conflict. Because Russia is the biggest international supplier of fertilizers to Brazil and because of the war Russia has suspended exports of fertilizer, especially potassium, to Brazil. Thus, Bolsonaro plans to find fertilizer like potassium on Brazilian indigenous lands.

To many, Bolsonaro is using Ukraine crisis as an excuse to mine Native lands in Brazil.

Last year, Russia sold to Brazil $3.5 billion in fertilizer. Brazil is worried it may be confronted with a shortage of fertilizer, which it needs for its large agricultural industry. Brazil is the foremost global exporter of coffee and soy bean. Western economic sanctions on Russia has caused Russia to announce it will suspend the exportation of fertilizer like potassium.

President Bolsonaro believes that by passing mining legislation such as Bill PL 191/2020 and PL 490/2007 will allow Brazil to overcome the fertilizer predicament and to find the potassium it needs from coveted indigenous reserves. Furthermore, Bolsonaro has the backing of many in the Brazilian House of Representatives inclusive of the powerful Agribusiness lobby. Conservative Brazilian congressmen there want to fast-track this legislation. But environmentalists and indigenous people alike have nicknamed such bills as the “death package” because of the overwhelming destructive consequences such mining concessions would bring to Native lands and Native peoples.

The irony is that perhaps two-thirds of Brazil’s potassium reserve may not be found on indigenous reserves at all but elsewhere in the country as pointed out by researchers from the Federal University of Minas Gerais.

This maybe an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen. But Native Brazilians are not standing idly by either. They are actively protesting the possibilities of the passage of this legislation and actively protesting the administration of Bolsonaro as well. Some 15,000 people turned out at an environmental protest, the largest ever held in the capital of Brasília, with 150 indigenous people in attendance on March 10th.

In an interview with Mongabay, Native chief Aruan, President of the Pataxó and Tupinambá Federation, stated: “Opening indigenous lands [to mining] will harm the indigenous population and the environment…It will destroy our forest, the animals, the fish, and contaminate our sacred soil and waters…This bill [PL 191/2020] further encourages the genocide of Indigenous people, the invasion of our lands, and the exploitation of our resources…The Indigenous in Brazil preserve the environment. [The mining bill] is a risk to our planet and only serves Brasília’s and the mining companies’ interests.”

More recently, another protest was held in Brasília between April 4th and April 14th organized by indigenous people and APIB (Articulaçao dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil, Association of Brazil’s Indigenous People), its 18th year of existence, known as the Free Land Camp (ATL, Acampamento Terra Livre) with some 7,000 indigenous people participating.

One of the indigenous leaders Sonia Guajajara is quoted in Amazon Watch as stating: “We are tired of seeing our children being killed by mining dredges, we are tired of seeing our children being contaminated by the mercury and mud of the mining companies, which isn’t worth anybody’s life…We have accepted this challenge, because we are tired of seeing our forest bleed, we don’t want to see animals being burned, we don’t want to see the agribusiness destroying our lands and poisoning children who are still in their mother’s womb.”

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).