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Opinion

Environmental accountability must be promoted during the construction of the Belt and Road Initiative

Photo by Greg Montani/Pixabay

“Environmental accountability must be promoted during the construction of the Belt and Road Initiative”

Jingjing Zhang, Lecturer in Law, University of Maryland School of Law

[This piece was first published in German and appeared on Böll. Thema 04/20: Die Natur braucht Schutz, September 2020]

Although being postponed, the 15th Conference of Parties (COP 15) of the Convention of Biology Diversity (CBD) will be held in Kunming, China in 2021. The official theme of the COP 15, Ecological Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth, incorporates two official slogans of China’s ambitious international development plan-- Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): ecological civilization and a shared future for human beings.

In 2017, the Chinese government issued a policy document Guidance on Promoting Green Belt and Road, which expressed a need to “share the ecological civilization philosophy and achieve sustainable development.” Subsequently, there have been many other policies issued to build a so-called green and clean BRI. Still, China didn’t slow down its outbound investment and lending in projects with a high impact on the environment and biodiversity. Problems include that: the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment doesn’t have an official mandate to screen outbound investment projects during the administrate registration and review processes; China’s Environmental Impact Assessment Law only applies to environmental matters within China; and, that there is no law could be used to hold Chinese companies accountable for their conduct outside China.

From Kenya’s SDG railway to the proposed Amazon Waterway project in Peru, from Zimbabwe’s Sengwa coal-burning plant project to the Baganuur coal power plant in Mongolia, many projects with significant environmental and biological impacts share something in common: Chinese banks and companies acting as investors or contractors. Two examples highlight the impacts on biodiversity caused by China’s outbound investment in infrastructure and extractive industry under the BRI.

  1. The Atewa Range Forest in Ghana. It was established in 1926 and has since been designated as a Globally Significant Biodiversity Area (GSBA) and an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA). In addition to being a critical water source for people locally and in Accra, the Atewa Range Forest is home to many endemic and rare species, including several butterfly species and the critically endangered frog Conraua derooi. But in addition to rich biodiversity, it has significant gold and bauxite deposits.

In 2018, the Ghanaian government signed a US $2 billion infrastructure-for-natural-resources deal with Sinohydro Corporation Ltd, a subsidiary of Power China, one of China’s largest state-owned companies. Under the agreement, Sinohydro will develop infrastructure projects, including roads, bridges, hospitals, housing, and rural electrification. The Ghanaian government will repay these costs with the refined bauxite (aluminum or alumina). In December 2019, Sinohydro started constructing the first four infrastructure projects. In July 2020, Sinoyhdro signed a loan agreement with China Construction Bank for the second group of six infrastructure projects in Ghana.

In the same month in July 2020, the High Court in Accra accepted a case filed by A Rocha Ghana, an environmental NGO, together with six other NGOs and individual citizens. These plaintiffs claimed that the government allowed the bauxite mining in the Atewa Range Forest so it had violated citizens’ right to a clean and healthy environment and the right to have the environment protected for the benefit of the present and future generations.

  1. The Simandou Forest in Southeast Guinea. Guinea, the neighbor of Ghana, has two-third of global bauxite reserves. The Chinese company Shandong Weiqiao Group is the world’s largest aluminum manufacturer and, in 2014, formed the SMB Winning Consortium (SMB) in Boke Guinea. In 2017, China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the Guinean government signed the China and Guinea Framework Agreement for Resources and Loan Cooperation, a $20 billion infrastructure-for-resources arrangement. Communities near the SMB open-pit bauxite mines have suffered from loss of lands and livelihoods, heavy dust from poorly built mining roads, water shortages, and polluted groundwater. Even after constant complaints from affected communities, SMB has not improved its environmental management.

SMB recently won a $14 billion tender to develop block 1 and 2 of Simandou iron reserve, the biggest high-quality iron reserve in the world, in southeast Guinea. It will be the largest industrial mining project to date in Guinea, including open-pit mines, a 650 km railway, and a deep seaport. The Pic de Fon Classified Forest is in the middle of the mine concession area. This biodiversity hotspot provides refuge for two groups of endangered chimpanzees, four endangered monkey species, hundreds of endemic mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles, and over 1,800 endemic plant species. The southeast Guinea highlands have also been described as the “water tower of West Africa.” Removing estimated 2.25 billion of tons of iron ore from open-pit mines at the top ridge of the Simandou mountains will inevitably destroy the ecosystem and natural habitats and damage local communities.

The Convention of Biology Diversity COP15 theme Ecological Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth sounds promising, however, if China, doesn’t take action to prevent the adverse impact of the BRI on ecosystems beyond its borders, there is a big question mark as to whether we can build a world for all life on earth and achieve a truly harmonious ecological civilization with other species.