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China’s global infrastructure push puts nature and Indigenous communities at risk


More than 60 per cent of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) development projects present some risk to wildlife or Indigenous communities, according to a new study.

Adopted in 2013, the BRI forms the central pillar of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s foreign policy. ‘Belt’ refers to the Silk Road Economic Belt, a network of overland road and rail trade routes through Central Asia. ‘Road’ describes the 21st century ‘maritime Silk Road’ – the shipping lanes connecting Southeast Asia to South Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Under the scheme, China has invested in infrastructure developments in 70 countries, including ports, skyscrapers, railroads, roads, airports, dams, coal-fired power stations, and railroad tunnels, designed to bring substantial economic benefits to participating nations and the international community.

However, with China’s rapid growth in global infrastructure funding “comes important implications for future global economic activity and the extent to which it can be expected to be socially and ecologically sustainable,” write the authors of ‘Risks to global biodiversity and Indigenous lands from China’s overseas development finance’, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

International development often results in environmental degradation and social conflicts, contributing to issues such as deforestation and illegal wildlife trafficking. According to the study, “Indigenous territories, in particular, are sensitive to massive development efforts” due to a lack of recognition of Indigenous people’s rights, which often leads to social, economic, and political conflicts.

Habitats and Indigenous lands in danger

Researchers used a new high-precision spatial dataset to assess the risks to biodiversity and Indigenous lands from 594 development projects financed by Chinese banks. These institutions committed more than US$462 billion in development finance to 93 countries between 2008 and 2019 (roughly equalling investment by the World Bank in the same period).

The study found “63 per cent of China-financed projects overlap with critical habitats, protected areas or Indigenous lands, with up to 24 per cent of the world’s threatened birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians potentially impacted by the project”.

The researchers found that China’s DFI project sites potentially impacted 1,114 (or 15.8 per cent) of the world’s 7,000 threatened amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles. Areas of critical concern include northern sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of South America.

The study compared Chinese-led development to projects funded by the World Bank, previously the primary source of finance for international development. “Overall, China’s development projects pose greater risks than those of the World Bank, particularly within the energy sector,” the researchers found.

According to the study, the negative impacts of development projects on local communities and ecosystems were often overlooked in favour of the potential for economic growth.

While the World Bank has received criticism for funding projects that has led to environmental degradation and social conflict, the organisation launched a new climate policy in 2021 that committed to aligning its funding to the Paris Agreement by 2023.

China is making progress towards addressing climate change, including committing to build no more coal-fired power projects overseas and a pledge to achieve carbon neutrality in its domestic economy by 2060. However, no such rules apply to BRI lending.

“By minimising harmful impacts from the projects it funds, we believe China could make the Belt and Road Initiative a win-win for itself, host countries and the global economy,” the researchers argue in The Conversation.

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