The epithet ‘beautiful football’ conjures up Brazil in the minds of Bangladeshis. In fact, for most Bangladeshis Brazil and football are synonymous. Beyond football, Brazil is little known to the people of this part of the world. For Brazilians, Bangladesh is quite an unknown territory. Since assuming office two years ago, the Brazilian ambassador in Dhaka João Tabajara de Oliveira Júnior has been working on taking the Bangla-Brazil affairs beyond football and towards greater cooperating and deepening bilateral trade relations. In an exclusive interview with Colors’ Advisory Editor Ziaul Karim, the South American diplomat candidly says he has found a homely dish of rice delicious and is amazed by the taste of biriyani and hilsha.
Ambassador João Tabajara de Oliveira Júnior has a completely fresh outlook about one of the fastest-growing economies in today’s world, Bangladesh. He sees great potential in bilateral relations that need to be realized –in trade, tourism, culture, defense cooperation and, of course, football. This eloquent Brazilian envoy also shows no hesitation in admitting that there is a ‘lack of information about Bangladesh and lack of information about Brazil’. He has set his priorities accordingly to make Brazil known to Bangladeshis and vice versa.
‘There is a wide range of areas where we can know each other better and develop and expand existing bilateral relations,’ he says, referring to some recent initiatives taken towards that end. The Brazilian diplomat is optimistic about more future cooperation in diverse areas between the countries of two distant continents – Asia and Latin America. ‘Distance is not really a great problem; it perhaps used to be the case in the past. The way Bangladesh is developing, that is not a problem… Bangladesh is among 40 richest countries in the world today,’ he adds.
And football, especially the popularity of the five times FIFA World Cup champion Brazil among Bangladeshis, has been an added advantage as the diplomat pursues his mission to introduce his country through newer initiatives. ’One thing that makes me positive is that Bangladesh is so receptive….Bengalis like Brazil. They have a nice feeling about Brazil mainly because of football, the kind of football that is not just a sport, but a spirit. We don’t compete for prestige. Brazil (through football) loves to be with people the way Bangladesh does,’ he observes.
The diplomat has no doubt that Bangladeshis have special talents to play good football like the Brazilians. He not only believes this but actually took initiative to send four young Bangladesh footballers scouted from BFF Development Cup and Bangabandhu Gold Cup U-17 Football Tournament in 2018 for a short-term training program at famous Gama Football Academy in Brazil. The young footballers from Bangladesh watched the final match of latest Copa America Cup between Argentina and Brazil at Mineirão Stadium. He says, ‘Tickets to the Copa America final was a gift to them.’
He is also trying to bring a delegation of 3-4 Brazilians to Dhaka as part of an exchange with Bangladesh centering on football. ‘If we work on the base and adopt a uniform structure throughout the country, Bangladesh can produce star footballers. They are culturally compatible (with Brazilians).’ According to a Brazilian coach, he recalls, a Bangladeshi young footballer who went for the training at Gama could even be part of the Brazilian national squad if trained properly.
The envoy believes Bangladesh can also be a travel destination for Brazilians, who, the envoy insists, are great travelers. ‘For their travelling, the farthest is the better…But they have to know…. Somebody has to promote Bangladesh there,’ he says.
On greater cooperation between the two countries, the diplomat maintains that Brazil pursues relations based on South-South cooperation and the concept of the solidarity of nations. However, he is candid about Bangladesh’s choices and priorities in this regard. As he observes, ‘cooperation is something that Bangladesh has to request (for)’. Asked if Bangladesh approached Brazil for such cooperation, he mentions that at a bilateral council meeting in 2017, Bangladesh authorities showed some interest in receiving broader cooperation in developing livestock resources and guidelines. In this context, he points out, Brazil has pure Asian breeds of cows for milk and beef, which countries of South Asia have lost in most cases. ‘If I were a Bangladeshi farmer, I would have used Asian cows. Bangladesh can increase milk production to 4 million litres a day from 1 million at present by adopting to Asian breeds called GIR and Guzara for higher productivity,’ he observes.
The Brazilian diplomat identifies major area of cooperation between the two countries in agriculture and agro-business, conclusions based on research and knowledge pursued in Brazilian universities. He cites the example of Brazil’s success in becoming a cotton exporting country from an importing country in a decade’s time. “Ten years ago Brazil was the third biggest importer of cotton in the world; today, it is the third biggest exporter of cotton, thanks to research and development and use of technology,’ he adds.
Since Bangladesh is a major readymade garment exporting country, it can import cotton and export apparel products to Brazil. ‘This may be a cycle….as garments may be exported back to Brazil.’ Two-way trade between the two countries is valued between US$1.2 billion and US$1.7 billion a year, with an approximately US$1 billion deficit for Bangladesh. The ambassador explains that as Bangladesh imports commodities like sugar via agents in Singapore or Hong Kong, the trade volume fluctuates. Bangladesh, for its part, has the scope to increase export of pharmaceutical products to restore balance in trade.
He is hopeful that a Bangladesh-Brazil Chamber of Commerce and Industry is going to be formed in two months. ‘As soon as it is created, we have a bridge,’ he says. A trade agreement is also likely to be struck soon to pave the way for reduced tariff on garment products. He expects that Bangladesh will reduce non-tariff barriers to trade and investment.
Although a high profile visit by leaders of either country is yet to be planned, the ambassador hopes that a bilateral dialogue at the level of foreign secretaries next year will explore the possibilities of state-level visits.
The envoy is all praise for Bangladesh’s strategic location in Asia. He calls it an economic powerhouse of the world. ‘Bangladesh had been the most important part of the Silk Route for thousands of years. That’s why the Portuguese came. They stopped here and saw Arab merchants, Dutch and others. We read in history book that Chattogram was a great port,’ he notes. Even today, he feels, its geographical importance remains. ‘China wants Belt and Road. Here, I believe, is a wonderful place to invest. You have all those big markets. China is a big market. You have India here and Southeast Asia.’
Coming from a family of diplomats, João Tabajara de Oliveira Júnior, too, wanted to be a diplomat to continue his family’s mission of serving Brazil and its people in the best possible manner by upholding their interest abroad.
They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Bangladeshi cuisine is what wins the heart of the Brazilian diplomat. He finds the taste of Brazil in Bangladeshi rice. But, it is biriyani what he likes most. ‘I like also very much hilsha, especially smoked hilsha.’