Why is China polluting Africa

The ecological footprint of the new Silk Road - ignored and forgotten?

The environmental impact of the new Silk Road, the major Chinese infrastructure project, is too often overlooked. Many NGOs are alarmed: China's investments do not adhere to the principles of sustainable development to curb climate change.

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It seems that most of the Central Asian countries are excited to be participating in the ambitious New Silk Road project, also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The aim of the infrastructure project, launched in 2013, is to connect China with Europe and Africa both by rail and by sea. Within a few years, the BRI exceeded its own standards and developed into the showcase project of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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However, experts and representatives of civil society in the participating countries express concerns with regard to the environmental impact of the Chinese investment projects. During the webinar "Environmental Aspects of the BRI in Central Asia", which was organized on June 3rd by the Kazakh NGO "Social and Environmental Fund", environmental activists from four Central Asian countries gave examples of the negative effects of the initiative.

A "war on pollution"?

In 2014, China declared a "war on pollution". An ambitious commitment that was made clear in the adoption of stricter environmental standards for industry. The campaign resulted in the closure of thousands of factories. China is still interested in the extraction of raw materials, the development of which has a negative impact on the environment and the health of the people involved. Not only the construction of rails and roads, but also this type of investment is part of the BRI.

Cement production is a typical example of environmentally harmful production facilities that China is relocating to Central Asia. “In Tajikistan, 85% of the shares in the country's 18 cement plants are in the hands of Chinese investors. The pollutants they emit turn the clothing of the residents of the surrounding villages black, ”says Umidjon Ulugov, project manager of the NGO Pehsaf and participant in the webinar“ Environmental Aspects of the BRI in Central Asia ”.

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Evgeny Simonov, coordinator of the "Rivers Without Borders" association founded in Russia and active throughout the post-Soviet space, mentions 60 investments that pose a risk to the environment in his column for Sibreal (Siberian branch of the US medium RFE / RL). Twelve of them endanger UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 34 of them threaten nature reserves with a total of 600 species of flora and fauna. The local population was not consulted for any of the projects. Nevertheless, with 49 projects, the vast majority of those investments are in conflict with local authorities and indigenous peoples.

Inadequate mechanisms against environmentally harmful productions

The BRI as a whole is developed and implemented without a strategic environmental assessment to evaluate ecological and socio-economic impact. China introduced investment standards for the BRI's projects, but these are just recommendations, Evgeny Simonov said during the webinar. The BRI is neither subject to an environmental authority nor a dedicated “green” policy. The corridors of the BRI are determined without prior strategic planning. There is no overall overview of the cumulative environmental impacts, as the expert notes.

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In Central Asia, environmental phenomena often have cross-border effects, said Natalia Schulepina, an Uzbek media journalist who works for Sreda.uz and specializes in environmental issues, during her presentation for the webinar. She cites Peng Sheng's multi-purpose manufacturing facility as an example. 70 kilometers from Tashkent, a tributary of the Syrdarja is polluted from the 102 hectare work area equipped with Chinese technologies. According to the journalist, the brackish water channeled from the production facility into the river is used to supply water to neighboring towns. For years, industrialists preferred to pay fines rather than modernize their water treatment systems.

Inability or unwillingness: are local authorities the real problem?

The participants of the webinar agree that the problem is not so much the bad intentions of the Chinese investors, but rather the inability or unwillingness of local authorities in the partner countries of the BRI. As Natalia Schulepina notes, unscheduled inspections of companies in Uzbekistan were abolished on January 1, 2017 so as not to hinder their activities.

The states of Central Asia are not prepared to undertake the necessary legal and institutional efforts to guarantee an ecological minimum in new construction projects, according to Vadim Ni from the Kazakh “Social and Environmental Fund”. “The population is not adequately informed about the effects of the projects. Governments do not offer support for popular protests. In the few construction projects in Kazakhstan where the opinions of the local population were sought, the results were presented in a distorted way, ”says Vadim Ni with regret. A total of 55 Chinese investment projects are planned in Kazakhstan, most of which are intended to promote the expansion of conventional energy resources. Only ten of them promote renewable energies.

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Corruption is another hurdle for the greening of the BRI, according to the participants of the webinar. As irregular and lax environmental inspections at the construction sites are, even these results are falsified or even swept under the carpet. Industrialists ruthlessly violate ecological and hygienic standards and write euphemistic reports.

Using the example of the Kyrgyz gold industry, in which a number of Chinese investors are also involved, Oleg Peschenjuk from the Kyrgyz NGO “Independent Environmental Expertise” points to the problems of corruption and the shadow economy. During the webinar, the opinion of the expert became clear that a lack of exchange between companies and the local population is the cause of the sometimes violent protests by local residents. In the summer of 2019, for example, the Solton-Sary mine in the Naryn region and operated by the Zhong Ji Mining company was accused of causing the death of cattle through pollution. About 20 Chinese miners were hospitalized after a clash with villagers. In addition, the mine administration was at the center of a fraud and corruption scandal at the beginning of the year.

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Ecological activism in the shadow of geopolitical games

Between the violent clashes, petitions and open letters to the government, civilian responses are aimed at alerting national authorities to their affiliations in Chinese investments. After all, investments are also political and go beyond purely economic interests.

The struggle for the greening of the new Silk Road primarily requires political reforms that fight corruption, enshrine environmental protection in law and make environmental controls binding within companies. After all, audits of environmental protection are not the responsibility of the investors, but that of the state authorities, said Evgeny Simonov during the webinar "Environmental Aspects of the BRI in Central Asia".

A cross-border coordination of ecological efforts by civil society is, just like intergovernmental environmental protection, an ambitious challenge for the region, in which natural spaces have been divided by arbitrary demarcation. Central Asian civil society is preparing for dialogue with their respective governments and with Chinese companies. Webinars, such as the one described in this article, bring people together and train them in terms of their design options. Associations such as “The Green Silk Road” are founded with the aim of coordinating civil society efforts and putting pressure on companies and state institutions.

Anna Chtorkh, Editor for Novastan

Translated from the French by Robin Shakibaie


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