In August 2016, a video went viral on YouTube. Shot at a mine owned by Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração (CBMM), a privately held Brazilian company, it featured Jair Bolsonaro, then a congressman running for president.
“The world talks a lot about Silicon Valley, right?” Bolsonaro says in the video. “I dream, who knows, that one day, we’ll also have a Niobium Valley.”
Niobium, a rare earth metal, is used in practically everything. Wind turbines, jet engines, airplane bodies, high-pressure pipelines, superconducting magnets, bridges, brake discs, and the steel frames of skyscrapers all become better, tougher, and more lightweight with a bit of niobium added. It has also become part of an unexpected geopolitical dispute between Brazil and China.
Tiny amounts of niobium can make the steel used in construction twice as strong and more resistant to cracking. It’s “the pinch of salt you put in your rice when you’re cooking,” Adalberto Parreira, the executive director of CBMM, told Rest of World.
At the time he filmed his video, Bolsonaro trailed in the polls, struggling to sell voters on his Brazil-first brand of nationalism, which hyped up anti-environment, pro-mining stances alongside anti-indigenous bravado. The CBMM mine presented him with the perfect symbol for his campaign.
Bolsonaro has staked his political career in advancing Brazilian mining interests and expanding extraction into the Amazon.
But this last fact points to a wrinkle in Bolsonaro’s plan for mineral dominance. CBMM was also the first company to introduce niobium to China. In the past decade, Chinese companies have bought a stake in CBMM and even its own niobium mines, much to Bolsonaro’s chagrin.
This illustrates the fundamental tension between the conservative desire for the free market and their nationalist fears of Brazilian resources being owned by foreign actors. For Bolsonaro, niobium represents Brazil’s might; for China, it’s merely a means to an end. Niobium is a feather in the cap of Bolsonaro’s Brazil-first messaging and is key to China’s infrastructure plans. In this common element, the two countries have found an uneasy balance.
In the last ten years, China has started acquiring stakes in Brazil’s niobium mines. In 2011, at CBMM’s invitation, a consortium of five Chinese companies acquired a 15% stake in the company for $1.95 billion. In 2016, the Chinese company China Molybdenum Co. Ltd. acquired two nearby mines, representing 10% of global niobium production.
The acquisition didn’t stop Chinese companies from purchasing more niobium directly from CBMM. Since 2007, China’s consumption of CBMM’s niobium has nearly doubled, according to Parreira.
In late October, the governor of Minas Gerais (the state with all the niobium) announced his intention to sell off a state-owned niobium mine, possibly to CBMM, although there’s the risk it may end up in Chinese hands.
CBMM views China as a beneficial partner. Bolsonaro sees it differently.
During a nationally televised interview in August 2018, Bolsonaro declared that niobium is “something only we have,” adding that the country “should invest in technology and research to use this mineral. … Instead we sell and deliver the mine to [China].”
After Bolsonaro was elected in 2018, niobium continued to play a central role in his economic messaging. Last year, he made one of his weekly broadcast appearances on Facebook Live, dangling a niobium necklace that he bought on his G-20 trip to Osaka.
“It has different colors. The advantage over gold is colors,” Bolsonaro proclaimed.
For the president, niobium was a magical solution that would represent Brazil’s dominance in tech and the economy. Yet, according to Bruno Milanez, a Brazilian academic who studies the mining of niobium, Bolsonaro didn’t know what he was talking about at any level of depth.
Bolsonaro “had this simple idea that Brazil is the main producer of niobium that other markets wanted,” he said. “It was an easy narrative.”
When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, Bolsonaro dropped his niobium necklaces in favor of hydroxychloroquine as his latest tech salve de jour.
Chinese companies, in contrast, haven’t wavered in their lust for niobium.
Dennis Ip, an energy analyst for Daiwa Capital Markets, an investment bank based in Hong Kong, told Rest of World that demand for niobium in China could pick up due to increased steel consumption.
Margaret Myers, an expert in Latin America–China relations at the Inter-American Dialogue, a U.S.-based think tank, said she expects to see China using niobium for large-scale connectivity projects, including 5G and smart cities, in addition to hard infrastructure, like buildings and bridges.
Niobium is also a key element in lithium-ion batteries used to power electric cars. CBMM and the Japanese auto company Toshiba are working to develop a niobium-titanium oxide anode that cuts the charge time for an electric-car battery in half. China dominates the global lithium battery market.
In February, Bolsonaro proposed a new plan to expand mining in the Amazon and has pushed forward, despite environmental concerns. After a brief hiatus for coronavirus messaging, on September 28, the Brazilian federal government launched the program, which included targeting niobium deposits. Bolsonaro said it would “revolutionize the world’s automobile industry.” Mining, as ever, is at the heart of his nationalist rhetoric.
Still, Brazilian politicians seem to be torn between their free-market ideals and jingoistic priorities. When it comes to niobium, selling to China makes economic sense, as the superpower continues with its infrastructure plans, baking niobium into steel buildings and bridges. Niobium is big — and it’s going to keep getting bigger. Pay attention to the little things in the supply chain. If you tug on one thing, you find it connected to the rest of the universe.