Our Burning Planet


China in Africa: Unpacking ‘crimes’ against the Earth

China in Africa: Unpacking ‘crimes’ against the Earth
From left: Human rights lawyer and social justice activist Pooven Moodley, Daily Maverick journalist Kevin Bloom and Distinguished Research Professor at James Cook University, William Laurance. (Photo: Supplied)

The People’s Republic of China has launched radical environmental interventions to clean up its own backyard. In Africa, its Belt and Road Initiative has brought some economic development, but was destroying ecosystem immunity with apparent impunity, experts said in an Our Burning Planet webinar. Local activism offered hopeful precedents.

China’s projects are wreaking havoc with natural capital in Africa, according to two top environmentalists. Last week, in an Our Burning Planet webinar moderated by investigative journalist Kevin Bloom, he talked to frontline activist Pooven Moodley and acclaimed conservationist William Laurance about the damage and how to arrest it. 

“China has had escalating economic growth even in this last Covid year,” said Laurance, a distinguished research professor at Australia’s James Cook University. The superpower is leading in installed renewable energy capacity worldwide, yet “it is overwhelmingly the biggest carbon polluter and produces about 2.5 times as much carbon emissions as the United States”. 

Launched by the Chinese Communist Party in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a global infrastructure development strategy in about 140 countries, projected to boost world GDP by more than $7-trillion per annum by 2040. The initiative has bankrolled development to the tune of billions of dollars in Africa.

“It is absolutely a global planet-changer,” Laurance said of the environmental impact associated with the infrastructure project, also known in China as “One Belt, One Road” — a reference to the economic belt and transport nodes by land and sea of that country’s ancient Silk Road trade routes.   

“The BRI is bringing in massive developments, roads, highways, coal-fired plants, hydroelectric dams, extractive industries and other kinds of infrastructure and development,” he said.

‘Not hearing anything close to a realistic picture’

Laurance also flagged the country’s toxic track record in wildlife trade, as well as its authoritarian communications policies repressing awareness of true impacts.

“China is overwhelmingly the world’s biggest consumer of illegal wildlife and wildlife trade. The problems within China are really exacerbated by the lack of an open media there, and by President Xi Jinping’s iron rule, which does not allow much latitude for free thinking within China,” he said. 

“This really prevents Chinese people from understanding the implications of everything they are doing on this planet right now. They are simply not hearing anything close to a realistic picture of what’s happening.”

Released last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new “Code Red for Humanity” climate report was a confirmation of an “extraordinary time” for the human species, said Moodley, executive director of Natural Justice, an organisation of lawyers working for communities and the environment.

“This has to be an extraordinary conversation… we know we will never go back to normal.”

Fitting China into these rapidly evolving scenarios was important, Moodley pointed out. As an activist, he has worked in more than 20 countries and recalled how he first became aware of the scale of Chinese extraction in Africa.

“Every hour I would see these trucks going past,” he had observed during lunch with community members in Manica province, western Mozambique. “I asked people, ‘Where are these trucks going?’ And the answer was that the trucks were being filled with logs, going to the port, and from there to China. I have seen this in most countries that I work in.

“It is everything from forests to sand to stone to fossil fuels that are being extracted. 

“The key part here is obviously the environmental devastation, but it is also presented as something that is economically good for the continent. If you look at many countries, the financing is coming in the form of loans; every country on this continent has been affected” by such financing schemes.

‘Hugely destructive’ road networks

A major bone of contention, according to Laurance, was an expanded Chinese-backed road network in Africa — with “hugely destructive” ecological synergisms.

In 2019 Laurance co-authored a paper for the journal Nature Sustainability on how “roads facilitate development in remote forest regions”, particularly in the Congo Basin. This “often” had “detrimental consequences for ecosystems”.

The study noted that, “across the Congo Basin, we found that total road networks increased in length by 61% since 2003, from 143,654km to 230,809km”, while “road expansion was most pronounced in logging concessions, in which total road length doubled from 49,956km to 100,289km”.

The African tropical rainforest basin is the second-largest in the world after the Amazon.

“Patches” of leftover forest were “extremely vulnerable to droughts and fires”, Laurance explained. “These potential future interactions between climate change and land use can cause such complex, and in some cases, unanticipated changes.”

Troubling land use examples involved local farmers moving into the forest and “causing lots of problems”, for instance, by clearing land for agriculture through “slash-and-burn” methods, said Laurance. 

“You also have hunters, but unfortunately the hunters have much more lethal technologies than they ever did traditionally — automatic rifles and cable and wire snares. African forest elephants who only live in the Congo Basin have collapsed by two thirds over the past 10 years.”

Pandora’s box: An ‘infrastructure-for-resources’ swop

Highlighting major transport projects through biocritical areas in West, Central-West and East Africa, Laurance explained that, “in a lot of frontier areas, new roads can open up a Pandora’s box of environmental problems”. 

These included, but were not limited to, poaching activity, illegal mining and “great impacts on local indigenous peoples and rural residents”.

The toxic ripple effects pointed to an “infrastructure for resources model”, as it was described by Bloom, who, with fellow Daily Maverick writer Richard Poplak, had travelled the continent between 2009 and 2016 to write Continental Shift: A Journey into Africa’s Changing Fortunes. “We were interrogating Africa 3.0 — it was an investigation into the continent in the 21st century.”

A “major theme” had to be China, said Bloom of writing a book about Africa in the 21st century.  

The IPCC’s newly launched Sixth Assessment report has yielded devastating news of humanity’s failure to act against rising temperatures, in some cases causing changes that were “irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years”. 

“It is simply the worst news that humanity’s ever got,” said Bloom, and yet no nation states had been implicated, he noted. 

China, with carbon emissions of at least 14-million metric tons per year, was currently responsible for a considerable swathe of ongoing human-induced damage, Bloom reported. 

“In 2020, while almost every other nation dropped its emissions thanks to Covid-19, China’s rose by 1.7%,” the investigative journalist remarked.  

“China’s foreign ministry stated it would not be making any changes to its policy: coal consumption would continue to increase until 2026, peaking in 2030 — with a net-zero target by 2060 still in place,” said Bloom. In 2021 alone, the world has been assailed by wildfires, floods and a killer heat dome over the Pacific-Northwest — these are the deadly weather events caused by fossil fuels that scientists say we can expect to see from climate change.  

‘Negotiations cannot keep up’

Amid the steamroller of climate fall-out, Bloom asked if it was even possible to hold nations like China to account. 

Despite the ongoing pandemic, UN states are still set to gather for the highly anticipated, pivotal COP26 climate conference in Glasgow this November. For his part, Moodley sits on the COP26 president’s advisory council. He warned that “ambition is really low; it is a negotiation between different parties” and it was the “lowest common denominator” that dominated such talks. 

“There is an acceleration of [climate] breakdown and I think these negotiations cannot keep up,” he said, but he also praised developments coming out of the G7 group of rich nations in recent months, such as pressing coal divestments. 

“The challenge as we have seen in the build-up to the next COP is that already certain countries — China, Russia and India, for example — are completely against this idea for coal to stop any time soon,” he added, speculating that “China will not agree to concrete deadlines, given the amount of investment in Africa in terms of coal and other types of fossil fuels”.

‘So far it has gone quiet’

Still, benchmark cases by activists offered promise. This was articulated, said Moodley, by a coal plant-seaport nexus led by Chinese multinationals on the Lamu archipelago World Heritage Site off the Kenyan coast.

The “Save Lamu” case had evolved from vintage BRI challenges, said Moodley. 

Considered by the UN World Heritage Committee as the world’s oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement, Lamu had been earmarked as a development node for resources coming via multiple neighbouring countries, including Somalia, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

“One day there was a bulldozer on the farmer’s land. The community did not know what was going on,” said Moodley. 

“It was a David and Goliath kind of story” that escalated into a national campaign — Save Lamu, bolstered with legal backing by Moodley’s Natural Justice organisation. He had previously helped lead the successful campaign to stop South Africa’s proposed $76-billion nuclear deal with Russia. The Lamu development plans ultimately fell apart after the African Development Bank pulled out, according to Moodley.

“That put a line in the sand,” he said. “It has given other communities across the continent hope that some of these things can be challenged.”

Beneath Lamu’s hopeful aftermath is a sinister undertow. 

“One does not know what is happening behind the scenes in Beijing or somewhere else,” he said. “So far it has gone quiet and we are keeping a close eye…  But what happens, you know, is the money goes somewhere else for the next investment.”

Communities are ‘organising themselves’

In South Africa, the focus of environmental activists has moved to the gargantuan Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone (SEZ), on which Bloom has reported extensively for Our Burning Planet. 

Starting with Killing the Holy Ghost: Inside the R145bn plan that would destroy the Limpopo River, Bloom’s series digs into the characters and contracts behind the SEZ, the largest source of foreign direct investment from China into South Africa. 

Construction plans, noted Bloom, included the 8,000-hectare SEZ and industrial facilities, as well as a ferrochrome plant, a smelter and a coal-fired power station “pretty much on the Limpopo River’s banks”. 

The bid for environmental approval was illegal and is now being taken on high court review for a range of reasons, Bloom noted.

With NGO backing from well-known civil society organisations Earthlife Africa and the Centre for Environmental Rights, “some amazing work is being done by the communities who are mapping the area, looking at the sacred sites and really organising themselves”, said Moodley. “It has become clear we absolutely cannot afford any more coal. And we have to get to the point where it is criminal…

“Human rights and environmental defenders are being killed across the continent based on these kinds of projects going on.”

Friends in high places

Democratically elected governments, voted into power with a responsibility to steward a beleaguered continent, had a critical imperative to defy short-termism, audience comments during the webinar suggested.

Participating as an audience member, environmentalist Peter Borchert remarked that “there seems to be a lack of will on the part of highly corruptible African governments to resist Chinese exploitation”.

There were exceptions, said Bloom, but on balance “we need African governments to push back”. 

Journalists Jeffrey Barbee and Kerry Nash in OBP last year exposed controversial oil and gas explorations, among other operations, near Namibia’s Kavango River and Botswana’s Tsodilo Hills. Apparently partnering with the state-run Petroleum Company of Namibia, a Canadian company had set its sights on “oil and gas and other forms of fracking in the biodiverse Okavango Delta, which is obviously a massive problem being challenged now”, said Moodley. 

“You see a lot of these multinational companies being like the fourth arm of government, because often they are calling the shots,” he said. “What we have seen are high levels of inequality… It is a continued form of slave labour, essentially, in the name of development and jobs.”

Aside from the phalanx of states that have reportedly endorsed the BRI, the initiative appears to have its friends at the UN, regardless of contentious optics associated with its output.  

In 2017, at the opening of Beijing’s Belt and Road Forum, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that sustainable development was the BRI’s driving force.  

Comparing the BRI with the UN’s sustainable development agenda, Guterres said: “While the Belt and Road Initiative and the 2030 Agenda are different in their nature and scope, both have sustainable development as the overarching objective.” 

At the time of publication, the Chinese embassy in South Africa had not responded to OBP’s request for comment on concerns voiced about the BRI’s environmental legacy. DM/OBP

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    South Africans can observe all this in Phalaborwa adjacent to the Kruger park. Massive mining degradation a constant stream of ore trucks wrecking the road to Richards Bay and little benefit t
    Any locals. Plus consistently glorious sunsets symptomatic of heavy air pollution

  • John Cartwright says:

    ‘Sustainable development’ is either wishful thinking or deliberate deception – either way, it’s a nice-sounding excuse for more of the same extraction and destruction.

  • Marianne McKay says:

    Be nice if the Chinese left African resources for Africans, thank you. You don’t see us going into their territories extracting, pillaging, looting, polluting their lands under the guise of ” helping” them.
    You stuffed up your own continent, leave ours alone. B*gger off.
    Gosh, I don’t often feel this territorial.

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