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Softening the Pain of the World’s Food Disaster: Brazil’s Ambitions in July


Ronaldo Costa Filho
Ambassador Ronaldo Costa of Brazil, July 1, 2022. He says that the Security Council, which he presides over this month, has been having a “dialog between the deaf and the dumb” on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its effects on food costs globally. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Brazil will try to push for a softening of global sanctions on Russia to free up essential food supplies and ease access to fertilizers internationally. Ambassador Ronaldo Costa, the country’s permanent representative to the United Nations, hinted at such action in an exclusive interview with PassBlue.

Costa said that conversations in the Security Council over the Russia-Ukraine war were akin to “dialog between the deaf and the dumb.”

Brazil holds the rotating presidency of the Council in July. Besides the numerous mandate renewals the Council must vote on this month — including for the UN “integrated mission” in Haiti — it faces another difficult food-related topic: renewing the single cross-border humanitarian aid channel, at Bab al-Hawa, from Türkiye into Syria. The annual mandate expires on July 10, but the latest plan is for a vote to occur on July 8. Russia has proposed its own draft resolution, insisting the mandate be shortened to six months, until Jan. 10, 2023; while Ireland and Norway, leading the agenda item, are proposing to keep the mandate yearly with six-month intervals. Russia’s text also requests that a further six-month extension will require a separate resolution.

In addition to these actions, Brazil will hold two signature debates: on strategic peacekeeping communications in the field, July 12; and on children in armed conflict, July 19, timed for the annual release of the UN report on the subject. Brazil is a founding member of the UN and has been a longtime troop-contributing country to peacekeeping. President Jair Bolsonaro is expected to come to New York City to attend its annual opening debate of the General Assembly in September, where Brazil traditionally speaks first among the 193 countries.

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“The issue — food insecurity — has been raised in the Council over the past few months already,” Costa said in the interview, held on June 24. “It is enormously frustrating that we are in a . . . what we say in Brazil, ‘a conversation between the deaf and the dumb,’ because nobody is listening to each other.”

In his interview and at a July 1 public media briefing, he did not pinpoint a date this month for the potential Council session on food insecurity, saying it depends on whether the UN-led negotiations for a grain deal among Ukraine, Türkiye and Russia will be agreed upon. The talks have been continuing for months with no details provided by the UN on the deal’s status.

Brazil’s four million-plus family farms fulfilled more than 20 percent of their fertilizer needs with imports from Russia in 2021, thanks to its high quality and affordability. That advantage has been lost by Putin’s decision to further invade Ukraine, on Feb. 24.

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Although the United States and other Western allies that have sanctioned Russia for its war say that food and fertilizer supplies are not affected by the restrictions, the logistical cost of importing urea and NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) fertilizers from Russia has soared.

The World Bank said in May that fertilizer prices have jumped almost 30 percent since January, triggered by several factors. Two are the disruption of trade related to the Russian naval blockade of the Black Sea and the mining of the waters by Ukraine as well as economic sanctions on Russia and Belarus. The latter country has been used as a staging ground for Russian troops entering Ukraine.

The US held an open debate on conflict and food security in March 2022, and Antony Blinken, its secretary of state, squarely placed the blame on Russia for the leap in global food prices and the paucity of fertilizer needed to produce essential commodities. The sanctions placed on Russia and Belarus due to the aggressive actions of their presidents, Vladimir Putin and Aleksandr Lukashenko, are making it difficult for fertilizer exports from their countries to be purchased. The European Union has cut at least 10 Russian banks and four Belarusian financial institutions from accessing the Swift payment system, forcing countries and traders transacting with these major lenders to reroute deals through territories where sanctions have not been imposed.

These payment constraints, alongside Russia’s decision to retaliate by restricting its own fertilizer exports, is hamstringing Brazilian farmers, nearly 15,000 kilometers away on a different continent.

“One group of countries will insist that there are no sanctions on food and imports, and other members say the secondary impact of the sanctions is affecting the operation of global food markets,” Costa told PassBlue, referring to the members of the Security Council.

The ambassador is a former trade negotiator for Brazil. He described the current food and fertilizer disruptions in detail to the media on July 1 while presenting Brazil’s program of work. The Council, he said, had failed to find a solution to the impasse in Ukraine.

“We have an evaluation that the Council has so far underperformed in the exercise of its mandate to maintain international peace and security on the issue of Ukraine,” Costa said. His country’s presidency will aim to kickstart “result-oriented discussions on finding a solution.”

“We feel that if we can get a step closer in this — increasing access to food and fertilizer imports from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, it’s one small step in relation to the conflict,” he said in his interview with PassBlue and repeated on July 1. “And just one small positive step where countries may come a bit closer together in looking for perhaps solutions in other more intractable aspects of the conflict.” (He also spoke on July 5 at a World Federation of United Nations Association public meeting.)

The sanctions-induced rigor of paying for imports from Russia and the country’s retaliatory restrictions are leaving Brazil’s estimated $72 billion farming economy in fetters.

The UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad), says Brazil is the fourth-largest agricultural producer in the world. The pain felt by its family farmers and commercial plantations will continue to be passed on to the millions of people dependent on its coffee, sugar cane and citrus exports if the cost of producing these goods is not diminished.

Farmers in Brazil were still recovering from a prolonged drought that started in 2019, long before the latest Russian invasion of Ukraine. As of January this year, some soy farmers in Brazil were anticipating a 90 percent decline in yield. Brazil sits on top of the soy-production pyramid, and forests in the Amazon region have been reportedly logged to cultivate more soybeans. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, has been accused of supporting commercial farmers to grab land in protected parts of the rainforest.

Adriana Abdenur is a Brazilian climate-change expert who co-founded Plataforma CIPÓ, a nongovernmental organization based in Rio de Janeiro, and sits on the UN’s Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc) policy development committee. She told PassBlue that Bolsonaro has “backed the legalization of environmental crime” in the Brazilian Amazon. Abdenur said there has been a recent boom in deforestation of the rainforest.

Behind the increased deforestation are soybeans, beef, timber and gold mining. From August 2020 to July 2021, a Brazilian research firm, Imazon, said the Amazon lost 10,476 square kilometers of forest coverage.

“We are under no illusion that the Bolsonaro government will do anything to revert [to] the current environmental destruction and suffering in the Amazon,” Abdenur said. She noted that environmental activists hoped that Bolsonaro would not win re-election in October’s contest. She also said that whoever wins should drive sustainable farming and accountability across the value chain of Brazil’s crop exports, including soy.

Bolsonaro faces numerous opponents in the Oct. 2 presidential poll, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The Twitter account of Brazil’s mission to the UN was temporarily suspended recently, as were other government social media platforms because of “election period legislations,” a spokesperson for the mission told PassBlue. But @brasil_ny_onu has been set up instead.

Although the Amazon is shrinking, it appears that people who can afford higher food prices will not starve. Brazil has imported 16.5 percent more fertilizer in the first five months of 2022 than it did during the same period last year.Brazil buys fertilizer from Russia and Belarus by rerouting payments through countries that have not sanctioned both countries. (Bolsonaro visited Putin a week before Russia’s assault on Ukraine began, reportedly to talk about energy and agriculture.)

The World Bank said that China placed a temporary ban on fertilizer exports to meet national demand and was expected to resume exports in June. But without easing the sanctions affecting the flow of fertilizer from Russia and Belarus into global markets, high food prices may persist, as will hunger. A new UN report found that 276 million people are experiencing extreme hunger, 860 million people are undernourished and more than 2 billion people are “food insecure.”

Joao Genesio de Almeida Filho, Ronaldo Costa Filho and Paula Barboza
João Genesio de Almeida, deputy ambassador; Ronaldo Costa, ambassador; and Paula Barboza, political coordinator, July 1, 2022, in the UN Security Council. The ambassador is a former top trade negotiator for his country. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as their countries assume the Council presidency. To hear more details about the goals of Brazil in July and to hear Adriana Abdenur’s assessment of the country, listen to PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, produced by Kacie Candela and Damilola Banjo, with research by Allison Lecce, on SoundCloud and Patreon.

Ambassador Costa spoke to PassBlue on June 24. His comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.

PassBlue: July is your turn to chair the UN Security Council. What signature events has Brazil planned? I don’t really like the term signature events, because it seems to diminish the rest of the work of the Council, which is equally important. But we have picked two topics that we want to focus on: One is a yearly event, in essence, which is the presentation of the report on children in armed conflict — something very, very close to our priorities. So we felt the report coming out now fits in well with our presidency. So we have the deputy foreign minister coming to preside at that event on the 19th. The other thing we have picked, which is also aligned with our priorities and related to the issue of efficiency of peacekeeping operations, is the theme of strategic communications. I’ll be honest with you, at first reading, I was not overly impressed with the choice. But when I delved into it, I saw how important it is, because it addresses the gains that can be made when members of a peacekeeping operation have better, more fluid and open communication with the local population. I’m convinced that everyone will see the need for us to work with this.

PassBlue: Brazil imports 85 percent of its fertilizer from Russia and other countries. How has Brazil dealt with the restrictions of fertilizer imports from Russia? Brazil has moved from being a net food importer 30 years ago to being a powerhouse in agricultural markets around the world. The latest figures say that products of Brazilian agriculture reach 160 countries and feed between 800 million and 1 billion people every day. So the fact that the conflict in Ukraine has caused such turmoil in the global food and fertilizer market is worrying for us not because our population is going to go without it as we can feed ourselves. That said, if we have to cut back on production because of the lack of fertilizer, then we will have less to supply to the rest of the world. Not to mention the immediate concern about people who are undergoing hardship. It has been very frustrating for us because the issue has been raised in the [Security] Council over the past few months. And it is enormously frustrating that we are in, what we say in Brazil, ‘a conversation between the deaf and the dumb,’ because nobody is listening to each other. One group of countries will insist that there are no sanctions on food and imports, and other members say the secondary impact of the sanctions is affecting the operation of global food markets. What we would like to see happen, and we are going to try and promote in our presidency, is that people can sit without being concerned about speaking into cameras, to their domestic constituencies, and put the accusations aside. It’s not important who’s fault it is at this stage in the game; what we have to find are solutions to the concrete problems that are happening; find a way to allow Ukraine to export the grain that is stuck there; find a way to see that other countries can purchase without suffering the sanctions imposed in transport and in finance curtailing their ability to buy foodstuffs and fertilizer. So we want to address the concrete day-to-day operations because if we can get a step closer to this, it’s one small step in relation to the conflict.

PassBlue: Brazil has a history of not aligning with any warring party during conflicts. Do you see this foreign policy being threatened by the war on Ukraine? I don’t look at it like that. I don’t believe my government sees it like that. It sounds like we’re always sitting on the fence. That’s not the point. We may have our evaluations of what is right and what is wrong, but we feel that the UN is not a forum for mud-slinging. It doesn’t help anyone to say, ‘This is your fault.’ We have to find a solution. The only way [to do that] is to get everyone around the table to talk in a civilized manner. So it’s not a question of sitting on the fence, we will always be on the side of first, evidently, Brazil’s foreign policy interests, but also in preserving the global multilateral order, which is very important to us.

PassBlue: Last year, researchers said the Amazon shrunk by 10,476 square kilometers. With the perception that President Jair Bolsonaro is a climate-change denier, what has it been like for you to act on climate commitments at the UN? The president is not a climate change denier. Brazil came to Glasgow [Climate Change Conference] in November last year and put forward its revised voluntary national reduction, and this was hailed as a real step forward by one and all. So we are constructively engaged. Brazil has perhaps if not the most, one of the cleanest, energy matrices in the world; 43 percent of our energy is sustainable. That compares to 18 percent, on average, in the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development]. If I take the transport sector out and speak only on electricity generation, we are talking 80 percent of sustainable renewable energy. The message we have been trying to get across is that the Amazon is not isolated from Brazil’s economic and social reality. And there’s one figure which very often knocks people back when I say that the Amazon is home to 20 million people. These are 20 million people who have to have a dignified means of living. So we have to think of ways to enable them to have employment and access to public services so that they can have a decent lifestyle. Is that easy? No, it’s not. And some people speak of deforestation. Yes, we know there’s a lot of illegal deforestation going on, but the Amazon is a territory that is larger than Western Europe, almost as big as Europe, all of Europe itself. It’s not easy to police such a large territory. There’s illegal stuff going on and we try to combat it to the best of our abilities. I shared this with the secretary-general [UN Secretary-General António Guterres] a couple of months back, that it was extremely frustrating as a Brazilian diplomat to read the press, the international press, and get the impression that the only thing that stands between the world today and climate Armageddon is the Amazon forest. That’s not true. Brazil is responsible for less than 3 percent of global emissions. There is an enormous amount of emissions coming from the developed world’s electricity generation, coal generation. Germany just announced that it was going to increase its use of coal for electricity because of difficulties in supplies of natural gas from Russia. So everyone has their own challenges with climate change.

Brazil’s Ambassador to the UN: Ronaldo Costa Filho, 62
Ambassador to the UN Since: February 2020 to the present
Languages: Portuguese and English
Education: Rio Branco Institute, Brasília

His story, briefly: Ambassador Costa started his journey into foreign affairs in 1988. Between 1991 and 1995, he was a diplomat with Brazil’s UN mission in New York City. He spent the next three years as a diplomat for Brazil in Quito, Ecuador. He was then seconded to Brazil’s mission to the UN in Geneva, from 2001 to 2003. Costa has represented his country in international trade negotiations for two decades, including with the World Trade Organization and served with Brazil’s delegation to the European Union from 2008 to 2011. His last post before becoming ambassador to the UN was as an under secretary for Economic and Financial Affairs in Brazil’s ministry of foreign affairs. He is married and has two adult children, both engineers in Brazil.

Country Profile

President of Brazil: Jair Bolsonaro
Minister of Foreign Affairs: Carlos Alberto França
Type of Government: Federal presidential constitutional republic
Year Brazil Joined the UN: 1945
Years in the Security Council: 2022-2023; and 10 previous terms, second only to Japan as an elected member
Population (2022): 215,575,481
Per capita CO2 emission figures for 2019 (in tons): 2.25 per person; US, by comparison, 16

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.

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Softening the Pain of the World’s Food Disaster: Brazil’s Ambitions in July
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