A Booming Business: Brazil and China in the Small Arms Trade


by Brazil China Relations

When we talk about Brazilian exports, often the image that comes to mind is that of ships laden with soya beans, iron ore, and footwear.  Yet Brazil increasingly ships out another competitive export: small arms. Revolvers, pistols and rifles leave Brazilian ports, typically under a shroud of secrecy. And the business is doing quite well: Brazil is the world’s fourth largest exporter of small arms, after the US, Italy, and Germany. Within this category of conventional weapons, Brazil exports more than Russia and China.  There’s probably a lot more going on, with sightings of Brazil-made grenades, tear gas canisters, and cluster bombs abroad. But when Brazilian arms and munitions exports do receive media attention, it tends to concentrate on major equipment, such as the A-29 Super Tucano airplanes (great not only for patrolling borders but also in anti-insurgency operations) that Embraer recently sold to Angola, Burkina Faso and Mauritania for US$180 million earlier this year.

According to Abimde, a major industry group that brings together 170 companies, around US$1 billion of the total US$2.7 billion generated by the industry comes from arms exports. The actual figures, as SIPRI and the Small Arms Survey point out, are likely much higher.  The industry benefits from the lack of arms trade regulation: the Arms Trade Treaty has generated more controversy than progress (the appointment of Iran as vice president of the conference didn’t help). The ironic result: trade in soybeans is regulated, whereas that of pistols is not.

Another boost to Brazilian arms manufacturer’s exports comes from government support. Not only does the arms industry receive significant subsidies and special rules, all arms exports must be approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and inspected by an Army agency. As for who ends up actually using these arms, and for what, both the industry and the government then washes its hands of any responsibility. That was more or less what happened when Brazil-made gas canisters were used by Bahrain’s repressive governments against pro-democracy demonstrators.Note the production/expiration dates on the canister picture below, right above the Brazilian flag: May 2011/May 2015.  These were freshly made, not long-stockpiled ammunition.

Much of the literature on Brazil’s small arms trade and related sales tends to focus on the major legal purchase of Brazilian arms, especially the gun-happy US market. But the industry has for years, probably decades, also sold arms to African countries. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact buyers, but there are some clues. Taurus, the major pistol manufacturer, mentions on its website that it exports to 70 countries, without listing the contracting partners. According to the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Trade (NISAT), from 1999 to 2009 alone, Brazil exported arms to South Africa, Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Ghana, Ghana, Kenya , Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritania, Morocco, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.  There were also sales to other friendly regimes elsewhere, including Iraq and Iran. (Incidentally, if you haven’t played around with NISAT’s excellent Arms Trade Mapperhere is the link).

These flows are likely to increase. The industry association has already identified Africa as its next priority for market growth; a delegation from half a dozen Brazilian firms recently went scouting for new markets at the Africa Aerospace & Defence (AAD12) fair held in Tshwane, South Africa. Thanks in part to the proliferation of conflict, Africa offers (here let me paraphrase an enthusiastic announcement) “an enormous opportunity for arms manufacturers outside the continent.”

Of course, Brazil is not the only small arms exporter to brave these emerging markets. Chinese arms manufacturers also have their eyes on the same market.  The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that China is responsible for 3% of the global trade in conventional arms, but it is difficult to know just how large and spread out is the export of small arms. China continues to supply small arms and ammunition to Sudan, which is used in Darfur by both government and militia groups.  UN investigators have found China-made small arms in some of the same markets served by Brazilian arms exporters, including the DR Congo and the Ivory Coast. And, like Brazil, China hasn’t been too keen on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), an initiaive started in 2006 in response to grassroots campaigns. During negotiations, the Chinese government has tried to both narrow the scope and water down the proposed treaty.

So the arms sales continue, who knows how at exactly what pace, or to whom.

A booming business indeed.


Click here for original article.


Related Materials:  


Wezeman, Pieter, Siemon T. Wezeman and Lucie Breaud-Sudreau (2011) “Arms Flows to Sub-Saharan Africa” SIPRI Policy Paper 30, December 2011.

Dreyfus, Pablo,  Benjamin Lessing, Marcelo de Sousa Nascimento, and Júlio Cesar Purcena (2010)”Small Arms in Brazil: Production, Trade, and Holdings” Small Arms Survey Special Report.

Santini, Daniel e Natalia Viana (2012) “Brasil: Produtor e Exportador de Armas Publica.


Washington Post (2012) “China’s arms exports flooding sub-Saharan Africa

Small Arms Survey: Exporters


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