Ambassador Kees van Rij

At the end of the summer, Kees van Rij’s term as Dutch ambassador to Brazil will come to an end. He looks back at a period in office dominated in the past year by the coronavirus pandemic. But he’s also proud at what the embassy has achieved for sustainability and the environment. ‘The embassy is very actively involved in climate diplomacy and is engaged in a lively dialogue with the Brazilian government, to prevent deforestation in particular,’ he says. And there’s one thing he regrets: ‘That I haven’t visited the Amazon.’

Kees van Rij

Relations between Brazil and the Netherlands go back to the 17th century. How is our shared history reflected today?

‘Apart from the tangible evidence of our history – the remains of the forts built by the Dutch along the northeast coast of Brazil in the 17th century – you still find many Dutch communities here. These are mainly farming communities, founded by people who emigrated to Brazil in the 1950s. Many of them still speak Dutch and they actively promote Dutch culture - in Holambra, for example. This town is one of South America’s leading centres for the production of flowers and plants, and it’s a tourist hotspot, with Dutch architecture and Dutch festivals. The Dutch communities are often cooperatives, with an annual turnover of around a billion euros. So the descendants of the original Dutch emigrants really are major players.’

You get the impression that Brazil is a country that still hasn’t achieved its full potential.

‘That’s true. Essentially, Brazil is a very wealthy country with huge potential. It has enormous reserves of incredibly varied natural resources. Add to that the thousands of kilometres of coastline and vast areas of farmland, each as big as an average-sized European country, and you have an economic superpower.’

But the question remains, why hasn’t Brazil fulfilled its potential?

‘Brazil generally earns a good income from its natural resources. This is why it hasn’t carried out much-needed economic reforms. But its income isn’t stable. If prices on global markets fall, Brazil’s economy shrinks. These natural resources are both a blessing and a curse. The economy usually picks up, but the country’s income fluctuates too much for it to pursue sustainable social and economic policies. As a result, Brazil always drives with one foot on the brakes. And that’s not necessary.’

Brazil is one and a half times the size of Europe. How do you put the Netherlands on the map?

‘A diplomatic mission can never be active in every part of a country. Especially not if the distance between north and south and south and west is around 4,500 kilometres – roughly equal to the distance between London and Teheran. That’s why we’re putting the Netherlands on the map by focusing on the following sectors: Clean energy, Life Sciences & Health, Agrilogistics and innovation in the field of nano and blockchain technology. The Netherlands Business Support Offices (NBSOs) and the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO) play a major part in this, bringing specialist public and private parties from the two countries together.’

What challenges are Brazil and the Netherlands working on together?

‘Though the current government of Brazil has a different view of the causes and urgency of the climate crisis, we’re working closely with several parties in this field. We’re making progress with Brazil on for example sustainability, energy and deforestation. We’ve achieved that by keeping out of any ideological discussions on climate. We’re not afraid of getting into a serious debate on the subject, but many Brazilian businesses and state governors are aware of the opportunities and are happy to work with us in projects to prevent deforestation, generate wind and solar energy and introduce sustainable farming practices – achieving results by taking action.’

Can you give a good example of cooperation?

‘Just after I arrived here in 2019, a dam near an iron ore mine in the state of Minais Gerais burst. Mudflows and waste claimed hundreds of lives and led to an environmental disaster. The embassy wanted to help, but didn’t know how. Until we realised that there’s not much difference between water and mud when it comes to building defences. Together with Rijkswaterstaat we set up a technical mission to advise the state and the mining company. The mission was so successful that it led to orders for Dutch engineering companies.’

Is Brazil also an interesting market for starters and self-employed people?

‘Absolutely. There are many opportunities for innovative tech startups. To help them cash in on these opportunities, the embassy and Amsterdam-StartupDelta took part in two trade fairs. We connected hundreds of Brazilian entrepreneurs with Dutch starters and self-employed people.’

You’ll be leaving Brazil at the end of the summer of 2021. What can you be proud of?

‘I’m proud of the results my team and I have achieved in two specific areas. First, climate diplomacy. This was in its infancy when I started, but is now an established part of all our communications. We’re doing more and more in partnership with the Brazilians. Second, we’ve worked hard on cooperation between the police and the criminal justice authorities. The Netherlands and Brazil are now working more closely together to tackle the drugs trade (40% of the cocaine from Bolivia, Colombia and Peru finds its way to Europe through Brazilian ports), human trafficking and cybercrime. A police liaison will be stationed at the embassy in the near future.’

Finally, do you have any regrets?

‘Only one: that I didn’t visit the Amazon. I just never got round to it. But it was a privilege to live and work in this complex, diverse and fascinating country.’