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Environmentally Aware
Criticism of the Belt and Road projects in Africa on environmental degradation is unfounded
By Benard Ayieko | VOL.11 May ·2019-05-06

A zebra crosses a tunnel under the Mombasa-Nairobi Railway. Many such tunnels were designed along the railway to maximize the impact on movement of wild animals (SUN RUIBO)

There is no doubt that the entry of China into Africa has left an inde­lible mark on the continent's deve­lopment, especially on the state of infrastructure. The Belt and Road Initiative, a massive trade and infrastructure program that aims to link China physically and financially with other countries worldwide, is a big part of this development on the continent.

Along with development, the initiative has also brought criticism that it poses serious ecological risks to benefiting countries. Nothing could be further from the truth and while the critics of this transformational initiative must have their say, they should not have their way - for this will crush the dreams of nearly 1.2 billion people in Africa.

Tangible benefits

In April this year, China hosted the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing. Despite critics painting a not-so-rosy dogmatic ecological view of the initiative in Africa, it is without doubt that Africa remains one of the biggest beneficiaries of China's development. In fact, the initiative is advancing steadily, guided by the principles of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits and aimed at promoting the connectivity of poli­cies, infrastructure, trade and finance, and people-to-people exchanges.

It's because of the projects under the initiative that Africa has witnessed steady growth in infrastructure, achieving key milestones in the construction of gas and oil pipelines, shipping lanes, standard gauge railways, roads (in both rural and urban areas of Africa), ports, and economic corridors, among others. With this infrastructural growth, the continent is now at the "takeoff" stage in line with American economist Walt Whitman Rostow's postulation of the five basic economic growth stages.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has played a key role in promoting sustainable development on the continent. Through his deve­lopment policy actions toward Africa, Xi has been able to successfully host African leaders on the Belt and Road Initiative, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, and the China International Import Expo (CIIE), which aims at opening the Chinese market to imports from foreign countries. The CIIE's net effect is to increase Africa's exports to China to ameliorate the trade imbalance that is skewed in favor of Chinese imports over African exports.

Concerns addressed

With China playing an increasingly key role in the world economy, the initiative has unparalleled potential to bring about economic development across vast regions of the world - particularly in Africa. However, looming in the shadows of these progressive implementations are skeptics raising concerns on the environmental impact of these projects. They argue that the expansion and upgrading of transport infrastructure are being undertaken in environmentally sensitive areas and that it requires colossal amounts of raw materials to support the expansion, which is above what the benefiting countries can offer.

In 2017, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a leading organization in wildlife and endangered species conservation, published a report indicating that there was a significant overlap between the initiative and ecological factors. The report noted that as many as 1,739 Important Bird Areas and Key Biodiversity Areas worldwide were at risk of harm. It also pointed out that over 265 threatened species could be adversely affected, including endangered tiger species and the critically endangered saiga antelope. It noted that increasing access to undeveloped areas of forests will increase the likelihood of poaching and deforestation, a problem that is prevalent in Africa. The report concluded that unless proper safeguards were put in place, the ecological impact along Belt and Road corridors could be substantial.

But why are cynics wrong on linking the initiative's projects to adverse environmental impact? First, all of the projects under the initiative are subjected to the Strategic Environmental and Social Assessments (SESAs). SESAs provide a systematic evaluation of the environmental consequences of proposed projects at the planning stage by ensuring that they are appropriately addressed at the earliest stage of decision-making. This evaluation not only ensures that projects meet environmental standards, but also ensures that they are concurrent with the economic and social expectations of the benefiting countries. SESAs have been regularly applied in China, as they are a crucial requirement for major economic development activities. This is a practice that Chinese corporations have been adhering to.

Second, Chinese professionals work closely with local environmental regulatory authorities in African countries to ensure that before the initiative's projects are implemented, proper and credible environmental impact assessments are carried out and approvals granted in order to prevent irreparable damage and generate substantial conservation and social benefits, such as biodiversity protection, increased carbon storage and improved water quality for both humans and wildlife.

Thus far, most of the completed and ongoing projects are a perfect example of well-planned infrastructure projects that do not significantly interfere with environmental conservation, have negligible impact on protected areas, and are better aligned to benefit local communities and agriculture. An example is the alignment of the proposed Serengeti Highway in Tanzania that would circumnavigate the national park while better linking local communities and their businesses to larger cities, and improving access to schools and hospitals. In Nigeria, the proposed Cross River Superhighway will have minimal environmental degradation while offering greater local economic benefits by improving highway access for many existing villages, local government areas and agricultural lands. These are just some of the environmentally conscious initiative's projects.

Lastly, China is working closely with the initiative's partners in order to integrate local conservation programs and to support environmental sustainability initiatives as a form of corporate social responsibility. This is being done to promote an inclusive approach to SESAs. In fact, the initiative has raised the bar with regard to setting standards for best practices that link the design and implementation of infrastructure to environmental protection in African countries and around the world.

(The writer is an economist, consultant and regional commentator on trade and investment in Kenya)

(Comments to niyanshuo@chinafrica.cn)

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