Brazil shares many similarities with sub-Saharan Africa, aside from ethnic connections and a shared, though very different, experience of the Atlantic slave trade. It is a former European colony with the legacy of a European language and legal system, while it has also had Christianity imposed upon it. Brazil has a wide array of natural resources that are also found in Africa, including timber, iron ore and hydroelectricity.
It has also benefited from the development of deepwater oil and gas technology in recent years. Brazil’s Campos Basin and Africa’s Gulf of Guinea are two of the main three deepwater hydrocarbon basins in the world, alongside the Gulf of Mexico. They were actually formed together as part of a combined supercontinent and it was the similarity between the coastlines of Brazil and the Gulf of Guinea that helped to drive the theory of plate tectonics.
There are also several environmental similarities. The Amazon and the Congo are the two biggest rivers in the world and sustain the world’s two largest rainforests. The Amazon and the Nile vie for the position as the world’s longest rivers. The industrialised world is concerned about logging in both forests, in large part because of the impact on the global climate. At the same time, Brazil has developed some of the biggest hydroelectric schemes in the world, often in the face of strong opposition from environmental and human rights groups.
The designation of Brasilia as the country’s new capital in 1960 started a minor trend for establishing new capital cities in order to geographically balance national development. The development of Abuja, for instance, was inspired by the Brasilia project. Brazil is perhaps several years further down the road in terms of urbanisation in comparison with most of Africa. An estimated 35% of the population of the two biggest cities, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, live in favelas.
Brazil shares many of the same socio-economic challenges as South Africa and some other parts of the continent, with an uncomfortably close correlation between wealth and ethnicity. Here, however, it is Brazil that has sought to learn from the South African experience. It has set up its own Truth and Reconciliation commission to seek to uncover more information about human rights abuses during the two decades of domestic military rule.
As with Pretoria’s black empowerment programmes, the government of Brazil is seeking to address racial imbalances. White people are still three times more likely to go to university than their black counterparts, so universities are now permitted to use racial entry quotas. In addition, an affirmative education action plan provides college scholarships to black and mixed race students. On the other hand, African states could learn from Brazil’s success in the field of medicine. Along with India, it has pioneered the manufacture and use of generic medicines in order to make them more affordable for low income families. Brazil and Africa have a shared experience as developing countries and so African governments could learn from Brazil’s efforts to ensure that the revenues generated by the production of such raw materials benefit the wider economy.
Brazil also exercises its influence in Africa through the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP), of which it is by far the biggest member. Indeed, about 80% of all Portuguese speakers in the world live in Brazil. It is in Lusophone Africa that Brazil has a clear advantage over other potential newcomers, particularly at a time when their common colonial power, Portugal, is struggling with its own painful economic crisis and is in little position to offer any largesse to its former African colonies.
Yet Brasilia interest is not confined only to other former Portuguese colonies. As the LSE’s Alden says: “A key aim of Brazilian foreign policy under Lula da Silva has been to ‘reduce Brazilian vulnerability on the international stage’ by engaging in a more ‘muscular foreign policy’ to pursue its interests. With respect to Africa, this has meant that Brazilian foreign policy has rediscovered its ‘Atlantic vocation’, framing it within this broader concern of responding more effectively to globalisation. Brazil’s Africa policy reflects this impulse in that the most significant diplomatic initiatives that involve Africa are multilateral while the substance of economic activity is played out at the bilateral level.”