The environmental damage the Chinese Communist Party is causing through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is immeasurable. According to Professor William Laurance of James Cook University in Cairns, Australia:
"Across the globe, on nearly every continent, China is involved in a dizzying variety of resource extraction, energy, agricultural, and infrastructure projects — roads, railroads, hydropower dams, mines — that are wreaking unprecedented damage to ecosystems and biodiversity,"
The most recent example of the BRI's environmental devastation is West Africa. The government in Sierra Leone recently sold off to Communist China 250 acres of protected rainforest and beach land -- an ecotourism spot with rare and endangered marine species. The plan, according to Sierra Leone, is to build a fishing harbor there. Critics, however, call it a "catastrophic human and ecological disaster". Several do not believe that the plan is for a harbor but rather for a fishmeal factory. Activists are seeking to stop the project.
Critics have reason to be concerned: In nearby Gambia, in 2016, the Chinese Communist Party company Golden Lead, as part of the BRI built a fishmeal factory in the coastal city of Gunjur. Fishmeal, ground fish made into a powder to feed fish raised in aquaculture -- fish farming -- across the world, including in China and Norway, is a billion dollar industry. Aquaculture, in fact, accounts for roughly half of the world's fish consumption. Shortly after the fishmeal factory had begun operating, wildlife in the lagoon of the local wildlife reserve, Bolong Fenyo, began to die of illegal toxic waste from the factory. Despite widespread local protests, Gambia, a country that depends on foreign investment reportedly continues to allow the waste.
"The fishmeal business is wreaking havoc on the environment, local employment, food security and the tourism economy, scientists, Gambian activists and locals have warned," wrote the Guardian in March 2019.
"What we are seeing is not development," Gambian biologist Ahmed Manjang said. "This is exploitation."
In addition to the fishmeal factories, China's distant water fishing fleet is depleting the fish stocks of Western Africa, adding to the pressure on supply.
To grasp the global challenge that the Belt and Road Initiative poses to the environment worldwide, it is useful to recall just how wide BRI's geographical scope is: Chinese President Xi Jinping launched BRI in 2013 to build a land-based "Silk Road Economic Belt," and a sea-based "21st Century Maritime Silk Road". The plan was -- and remains -- to build an enormous network of roads, railways, tunnels, dams, airports, ports, energy pipelines, power plants, telecommunications networks etc. that will connect China to Central and South Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The sea-based part of the initiative will connect China to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and even Latin America via major sea-lanes. The sea-based part now even includes what China has called its "Polar Silk Road", which would create new shipping routes linking Asia and Europe via the Arctic.
It is estimated that around 139 countries in the world have joined BRI to some extent or another, showing the tremendous geographical scope of the initiative.
The environmental damage, therefore, has not been limited to West Africa, but affects several other locations where BRI projects have been launched.
In Indonesia, for instance, China's largest hydropower construction company, Sinohydro, is building a huge hydropower dam in the Batang Toru rainforest in Sumatra. The dam threatens to destroy the existence of the rarest ape in the world, the Tapanuli orangutan, only 800 of which remain in the wild. The Batang Toru forest is also home to the critically endangered Sumatran tiger and Sunda pangolin.
Tigers, already a hugely endangered species, are also threatened in other locations by the BRI. In Asia, "Nearly 24,000 km of new roads will be built in TCLs (tiger conservation landscapes) by 2050, stimulated through major investment projects such as China's Belt and Road Initiative," according to an April 2020 study, published in the journal Science Advances.
A 2019 study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) noted that BRI's infrastructure projects have also caused changes and damage to various fragile ecosystems in Southeast Asia:
"Chinese-backed hydropower projects along the Mekong River – which spans Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam – have seen dams cause river flow changes and block fish migration, leading to a loss of livelihood for communities there which live-off the river. Fish stocks have declined in recent years due to hydropower dams built upstream in Cambodia and neighbouring countries...
"Apart from the loss of flora and fauna, deforestation in areas such as the Pan Borneo Highway – which spans Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei – also causes landslides, floods and other disaster mitigation concerns."
The WWF listed more than 1,700 critical biodiversity spots and 265 threatened species that would be adversely affected by the BRI.
The Chinese Communist Party also plays a large role in driving deforestation around the globe. Already in 2012, before BRI was officially launched, China was the world's leading importer of illegal timber, according to the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). According to the NGO FairPlanet, Chinese traders depleted Benin and Gambia of rosewood before moving onto Nigeria, where, in 2017, the EIA disclosed that 1.4 million illegally harvested logs of rosewood, with a market value of $300 million, were smuggled into China after bribes to Nigerian government officials.
Currently, according to a recent report in the Financial Times, Chinese banks are the second largest financers of commodities implicated in tropical rainforest deforestation:
"The state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China was the largest provider of loans and underwriting services in the database, at a total value of $2.2bn. Sinochem, a Chinese state-owned chemicals group, was the largest recipient, collecting $4.6bn, most of it for its rubber business."
BRI is not only threatening forests and animal species with extinction. Environmentalists also consider the BRI to have potentially negative consequences for the climate: the Chinese Communist Party is also using BRI "to perpetuate the use of coal and other fossil fuels – pretty much everywhere BRI touches... And that means increasing greenhouse gas emissions".
According to Jennifer Hillman and Alex Tippett, writing for the Council on Foreign Relations in March 2021:
"Since the creation of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), billions of dollars in Chinese funds have flowed toward fossil fuel projects around the world. These investments promise to make climate change mitigation far more difficult...
"Most of China's energy financing goes toward nonrenewable sources. Between 2014 and 2017, 91 percent of energy-sector loans made by six major Chinese banks to BRI countries were for fossil fuel projects. In 2018, 40 percent of energy sector lending went to coal projects. In 2016, China was involved in 240 coal plants in BRI countries, a number that has likely grown."
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.