Under Lula’s government, Brazilian scientists head for the Arctic | Polarjournal
It’s not the Arctic, but Brazil has been present in Antarctica for 40 years and feels that the time has come to look north. Image: Marinha do Brasil

Brazil is making progress on polar issues and its deployment capability. For the first time, it has published a ten-year scientific program that includes the Arctic. And this summer, the first Brazilian polar expedition dedicated to natural sciences took place in Svalbard. It’s just one more step on the road towards its candidacy for the Arctic Council, along with Portugal eventually.

With science expanding its frontiers, Brazil turns its attention to the Arctic. In mid-August, the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation published its ten-year Antarctic deployment plan. With one small addition, however, as the document closes with a chapter entitled “A New Frontier for Brazilian Polar Science”, dedicated to the Arctic. Building on 40 years of research at the Commandante Ferraz station on King George Island, Brazil’s polar science community believes it’s time to cross the equator.

The chapter in question may seem a little like a scientific plea, but it actually lays the foundations for a broader ambition. The Arctic’s remoteness from Brazil doesn’t seem to be an obstacle. On the contrary, academic officials from major cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande, Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo, the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – a signatory to the document – argue that climate change is occurring faster in the Arctic than in the rest of the world, that it is impacting culture, health, well-being and the global economy, and that it is already affecting Brazil’s tropical climate.

Scientific issues

Consequently, they point to the scientific interest in monitoring the changing face of the Arctic. For example, the development of the boundary between tundra and boreal forest, permafrost, methane sources and pelagic fish populations. Researchers are also looking at the atlantification of the Arctic Ocean and the opening of new shipping lanes, as well as tensions over oil, gas and mineral resources.

This ambition is not new. In 2021, Brazil set up a working group on Arctic activities, reporting to an inter-ministerial commission on maritime resources. Brazil is also a signatory to the Svalbard Treaty but is not an observer member of the Arctic Council. However, it is taking shape: “At the beginning of July, what can be considered Brazil’s first scientific expedition took place in the Arctic”, explains Raphael Fernandes Vieira, researcher at the South Atlantic Department of the Institute of International Relations at the National University of La Plata.

Brazil’s foothold in Antarctica: Comandante Ferraz station on King George Island, north of Bransfield Strait in the South Sheltland Islands. Image: Marinha do Brasil

Brazilian scientists already participate in polar research programs on Arctic subjects, but this time the organization and field coordination was 100% national and in collaboration with their diplomats. The expedition took place in Norway and Svalbard. Researchers conducted scientific studies on botanical, microbiological and glaciological issues. A first step towards gaining legitimacy in the Arctic and becoming an observer country. “This may not be the best time for Brazil’s economy, but climate change is such that we can’t wait. Current geopolitical developments may affect the stability of the Arctic, so now is the time before everything falls apart,” Fernandes Vieira believes. “It also depends on political will, which can change from one government to another, but scientists and the current government are interested.”

Political ambition

This is confirmed by Christophe Ventura, Latin America specialist at the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques, in France: “Brazil’s goal is to become a global environmental power, and to remind people that there is no global climate and food solution without Brazil. They have set themselves environmental objectives, without sacrificing social conditions. They want to become champions of sustainable development and tackle poverty and unemployment.”

To achieve this roadmap, which was one of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s campaign arguments against former president Jair Bolsonaro, the Arctic is essential. Polar issues are becoming increasingly important, and are intertwined with climate, resource and geostrategic issues. “A power is measured in its capacity for projection, military or soft power for example, but also in its geopolitical positioning,” points out Christophe Ventura. Thus, Brazil will need to find partners to deploy in the Arctic.

Finding partners

Portugal is also in the running for the Arctic: this year, the Resolution nº 76/2023 recommends the government to define an action plan for the Arctic and an interministerial working group is being set up. Its strategic position in the North Atlantic makes it one of NATO’s strongholds, with US naval bases in the Azores. Furthermore, the new maritime routes opening up in the Arctic will affect Portugal.. “We could be a partner for Brazil, and we also have bilateral relations with Canada, Iceland and Norway. Portuguese scientists are working in Canada and Greenland, for example,” explains Céline Rodrigues, research fellow from the University of Nova Lisbon and the North American and Arctic Defence and Security Network.

Brazil also maintains relations with Russia, and China – which helped rebuild their polar station after a fire in 2012 – and remains very close to other South American polar nations such as Chile and Argentina.

At the same time, Russia had announced plans to establish its own polar institute in Barentsburg and accordingly invited BRICS members to participate. This would certainly accommodate Brazil’s Arctic plans. Image : Sergey Dolya

China has a policy of deployment in the Arctic, with two icebreakers in operation and a third ice-capable oceanographic vessel under construction. Will it be able to bring Brazil along by creating Arctic links? Or will Brazil be able to create a diplomatic bridge between the West and the BRICS members in the Arctic? These are questions that depend on the will of the Arctic Council, for whom the immediate priorities remain dialogue, the environment, security and climate.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

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