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Brazil’s Most Rational Fear or ‘Limitless Imagination’? Understanding the French Threat

Despite widespread media attention on February, mostly tending to ridicule the 4 scenarios portraying France as a threat over the next 20 years, with the general public mistaking them as just another episode of Bolsonaro’s erratic presidency; over the years, the idea of an outsider’s intervention in the Amazon has remained untouched in Brazil’s foreign policy inner circle. The fact France is taken into account relies basically on the notion that none of its surrounding states is in position to compete with Brazil in terms of military, political and economic power; at least not the way the European country does, potentially affecting its core interests decisively. In fact, after several decades of mutual mistrust with Argentina —its last worthy South American competitor— both countries established in the 1990s a bilateral inspection agency (ABACC) to verify each other’s pledges to use nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes, fully committing themselves to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the Latin America nuclear-weapon-free zone (Treaty of Tlatelolco).

Similar to the rationale behind Varga’s Marcha para o Oeste (March to the West), the military felt the interior of the country was “empty” and started working to integrar para não entregar (integrate so as not to surrender), considering the possibility of  powers seizing the Amazon in order to gain possession of its wealth of natural resources. Brazil’s return to democracy reinforced this approach and, in 1985, Calha Norte project was created to intensify the military presence in the area amid serious concerns that the Yanomami Park in the Venezuelan-Brazilian border could evolve into an independent indigenous state, manipulated from abroad, due to the active participation of some international NGOs.

The threat of a potential foreign intervention on environmentalist grounds —and the consequent internationalization of its Amazon— is not new to Brazil, and became even more explicit in 1989 after several quotations from world leaders suggesting a broad interest in the area, such as: “Brazil must accept a relative sovereignty over the Amazon” (François Mitterrand), “Contrarily to what the Brazilians think, the Amazon is not theirs, but for everyone” (Al Gore), “Brazil should delegate some of its rights [over the Amazon] to competent international organizations” (Mikail Gorbachov). That same year, regarding debt-for-nature swaps, in a statement entitled Nossa Naturaleza (Our Nature) president Sarney declared: “One thing that we cannot accept is to exchange our sovereignty or a piece of our territory for any type of economic aid or the foreign debt. This would be abdicating our sovereignty”.

In 2009, Brazil and the French firm Naval Group signed a multi-billion-dollar deal for 5 Scorpène-class attack submarines, being its final unit a nuclear powered one. From the very beginning, the idea of the PROSUB program was to protect the pre-salt —a vast area full of oil reserves, part of the Amazônia Azul. By the end of 2018, after a Brazilian prosecutor warned of «ecocide», Brazil denied French oil major Total a drilling license for crude in five blocks close to an extremely large coral reef near the mouth of the Amazon River. After that, off the coast of French Guiana —France’s largest territorial holding in the Western Hemisphere— the Green Peace France’s oceans campaign leader talked about the need for a marine protected area to protect the coral reef from oil spills amid BP and Brazilian interests; something also mentioned in a statement in the NGO’s website, but this time taking into account its nature as “the breeding area for humpback whales”, citing studies from the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in collaboration with Greenpeace France.

France is seeking recognition as an Amazonian state after being unanimously excluded from the Amazon Cooperation Treaty at the early stages of its negotiation in the late-1970s. Therefore, catching up with foreign policy issues after referring to French Guiana as an island, amid massive fires in the region in August 2019, Macron said “we [the French people] are Amazonians” in an attempt to move away from its more controversial image as metropolis. To that end, he also took advantage of France’s enviable position in the United Nations and the G7, looking forward to setting a precedent as a valid interlocutor. Months before that, in line with this environmental approach to the Amazon, Macron revised its position regarding project Montagne d’Or in French Guiana —with an estimated potential of 167 tn of gold— which he previously supported as minister of economy.

The environmental agenda also comprises oceans, taking into account the importance of oxygen produced by phytoplankton. Surprisingly, even after the UN Secretary General Guterres raised the issue, there was not a single declaration nor call for joint action from the Macron administration amid concerns that the ‘Runit Dome’ in the Marshall Islands —containing Pu-239, among some other deadly substances— could be at risk of collapse as a result of rising sea levels and other effects of climate change, as well as the fact that some regions of that former U.S. nuclear test site have levels of radiation that are comparable to those found near Chernobyl and Fukushima. This may suggest the use of environmental issues as ‘flag of convenience’, considering French islands such as French Polynesia, Wallis and Futuna, and New Caledonia are also in the Pacific.

Beyond any populist rhetoric, while Argentina sees a threat to its strategic interests when it comes to the link between the British presence in the South Atlantic and its power projection to Antarctica; in the case of Brazil, the French menace has its center of gravity in a potential foreign intervention in the Amazon. Nevertheless, unlike U.K.’s overseas interests eventually facing difficulties in the years to come because of a lack of European support; the spaceport in the strategically located overseas department —and EU outermost region— of French Guiana remains a critical hub for Europe’s independent access to space.

It is short-sighted not to think about other things apart from the vast and strategic natural resources in the area, ranging from Alter do Chão aquifer to the world’s highest niobium reserves. U.S., Russia and China hegemonic space ambitions endanger European interests. Therefore, any threat to the activities carried out at Guiana Space Center of Kourou, 7000 km away from Paris, would mean an immediate response with an indefinite surge in military presence at the gates of Brazil’s Amazon (i.e., EUNAVFOR is still deployed off the coast of Somalia, even after total attacks downed from 176 to 1 in the past decade). The same way France did not hesitate to carry out operation Serval (2013) to protect Areva’s assets in Niger, and keeps operation Corymbe in the Gulf of Guinea since 1990; the 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment based in Kourou —the most decorated regiment of the French Foreign Legion and the second most decorated regiment of the French Army— is stationed in French Guiana, operating since 1973, even when it comes to deploy in Haiti (operation Carbet, 2004) or Saint Martin (operation Irma, 2017).

Arianespace carried out 11 launches in 2018 from the Guiana Space Center, including satellites for the Galileo constellation and BepiColombo, Europe’s first mission to explore the planet Mercury. It generated €1.3 billion in revenues. In the short term, France’s interests could be affected by the activities expected to take place in the Alcântara Launch Center in Brazil, which has the competitive advantage of being even closer to the equator, increasing payload capacity by reducing the amount of fuel required to achieve orbit. In fact, the U.S. already took notice of this and paved the way to further develop joint-ventures.

In light of the events in 1982, when the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Pact) denied crucial hemispheric aid to Argentina to fight nothing less than a nuclear weapon state; Brazil’s recently achieved Major Non-NATO Ally status would not mean anything but some interesting cut-price deals on arms sales. Are Brazil’s fears rational then? Intelligenti pauca.

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Federico Sarro

MA in Strategic Studies and International Security (Universidad de Granada). Freelance defense, military and foreign policy writer. Former Argentine Navy analyst. Deployed as UNFICYP Military Observer/Liaison Officer on both sides of the cease-fire line.

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