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China's environmental footprint in Africa

China's environmental concerns at home have driven Beijing's quest for resources overseas, argues Ian Taylor. The country must consider the ecological impact of its logging and oil extraction in Africa.

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China's exponential expansion into Africa is well known and has been the subject of numerous reports. But China's environmental footprint on the continent has not yet been fully addressed. And this is becoming an increasingly hot topic within Africa.

Examples abound where Chinese companies have been caught flouting conservation laws and collaborating with criminals in the exploitation of Africa's natural assets. While western agents also do the same, the lack of a powerful environmental lobby within China that can effectively critique Beijing's actions in Africa ­is a real worry.
In Gabon, the activities of the Chinese state-run oil company Sinopec have stimulated public outrage. In 2002, Gabon selected a quarter of the country as a nature reserve, protecting 67,000 square kilometres of mostly virgin rainforest. But it has emerged that Sinopec has been prospecting for oil in one of Gabon’s national parks. The company has been charged with mass pollution, dynamiting areas of the park and carving roads through the forest. And all of this was illegal, as the environmental impact study Sinopec was forced to conduct has not yet been approved. A Gabonese government delegation visited the park and corroborated that Sinopec was guilty of a whole variety of environmentally-damaging practices.

The scandal has sparked disquiet among Gabon's international donors, while Gabonese activists charge that corrupt local officials have been personally profiting as they look the other way. After considerable pressure, the national parks council finally directed Sinopec to stop its exploration activities. But a massive ore-mining project is soon to get underway in northern Gabon, also run by a Chinese company. There are real fears that further environmental damage may be caused by resource-hungry Chinese companies, facilitated by corrupt government agencies in Gabon.  

There is also growing evidence that China's strategy is based on protecting the country from further environmental damage, while obtaining resources from other parts of the world. After the Yangtze River floods of 1998 (which caused 2,500 deaths and billions of dollars in damage), the government directed that logging in the country had to be seriously regulated. Tree planting and the protection of forests was the new policy. Illegal logging was also cracked down on.

However, China still needs wood for construction, pulp mills and furniture manufacturing. And it is now getting huge amounts from overseas –­ particularly from Africa. Much of this is illegally harvested. Imports of industrial wood have more than tripled since 1993 and China now trails only America in wood consumption.

According to GlobalTimber.org.uk, China is sourcing huge amounts of wood from forests in Cameroon, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Liberia. What is worrying is the illegal nature of this trade, as well as the concomitant environmental damage.

Half of all wood imported from Cameroon into China is harvested illegally, while only 10% of wood exported from Congo-Brazzaville to Beijing is legal. The figure for Equatorial Guinea is the same. In Gabon, 70% of wood exports to China are illegal and, incredibly, 100% of the wood that China gets from Liberia is illegal, as timber exports are banned. It has been widely acknowledged that China's imports of Liberian timber helped fuel the bloody civil war there.

Problematically, the species of wood that China imports is not generally declared. As a consequence, there is no real way to verify the extent of China's involvement in aiding and abetting illegal logging in Africa. In addition, Beijing does not declare the weight of wooden furniture imported into China and thousands of tonnes of timber from Africa go through Chinese customs undocumented.

Photo by Chas Pope

China's quest for oil

China's top 10 trading partners in Africa are, with the exception of South Africa, oil-producing states. It is well known that a "resource curse" stakes out many African oil-rich nations; an embarrassment of riches in oil has tended to undermine many countries’ democracy and accountability. Regimes that benefit from oil receipts are not controlled by a need to generate revenues through taxation, and are thus more easily tempted to sideline calls for accountability or participation in government. The resulting struggle for access to the source of wealth dramatically increases political instability. Of course, in such a situation, the question of the environment is rarely very high on the agenda. Revenue generation becomes confined to small locales where the oil is, with the prime markets for the products being external (the international market). This makes the general economic health of areas outside the enclave quite secondary, if not irrelevant.
The case of Nigeria and its Niger Delta oilfields is well known as an environmental disaster area. Importantly, there is real concern within Nigeria about Chinese activities in the Nigerian oil industry. In April 2006, a bomb exploded near an oil refinery in the Niger Delta region, which was specifically aimed as a warning against Chinese expansion in the region. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) stated, “We wish to warn the Chinese government and its oil companies to steer well clear of the Niger Delta. The Chinese government by investing in stolen crude places its citizens in our line of fire.” 

It is important not to identify China as the sole exploiter of Africa, or of being unique in its disregard for Africa's environment. The history of western involvement in the continent is not a proud one on this score. Indeed, Chinese exploitation of Africa's resources pales into insignificance when compared to western activities both past and present. However, the nature of China's current involvement in Africa is problematic vis-à-vis the environment.

While Wang Yingping of the China Institute of International Studies asserts that, “Chinese businesses pay greater attention to protecting the environment,” others disagree.

Even official Chinese publications quote this assertion by Sierra Leone's Ambassador to China: “The Chinese just come and do it. They don't hold meetings about environmental impact assessments, human rights, bad governance and good governance. I'm not saying it's right, just that Chinese investment is succeeding because they don't set high benchmarks.”

It is time that China started setting high benchmarks and made its resource extraction in Africa a model for co-operation and mutual advantage, and not something that calls Beijing's recent upsurge of interest in Africa into question. After all, the very last thing that the African continent needs is another set of exploiters.

Ian Taylor is senior lecturer in international relations at the University of St. Andrews.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



China's role in Africa.

Yes. Indeed China's role in Africa, while underappreciated, is going to need a moment's pause to be considered...

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




-Lindsey Hilsum

Sierra Leone

The quote from the Sierra Leone Ambassador to China, Sahr Johnny, about China not doing environmental impact assessments etc. does not come from "official Chinese sources." It was in an interview with Channel 4 News in Freetown in June 2005, and broadcast on C4N during the Gleneagles Summit in July 2005. (I know bcs I did the interview.) I also used it in the New Statesman in July 05 and in Granta later that year. -Lindsey Hilsum

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Should China be the only nation held accountable for African environment?

I really hope that Ian Taylor could write more about the West's exploitation in Africa. Well, I reckon the situation won't be better than that when China is involved, as Ian wrote: "The history of western involvement in the continent is not a proud one on this score."

Hopefully, chinadialogue will not again focus on Chinese investment when reporting on environment damages in Africa.

Weak environment protection laws and corruption in Africa should be the key issues the continent need to face and resolve. Otherwise, whatever country invests in Africa, it will take advantages of these negative factors of the continent.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Confused by autor's concept of 'illegal nature ofthis trade (of wood)'

an interesting paper and with some good points. question is the above mentioned concept of illegal trade of wood. what does the author mean such trade is illegal? is timber trade banned by Liberian national law or some international standard? Or illegal logging according to national law or international non-regulatory standards? i am concerned the author was confusing regulatory systems and non-regulatory systems to some extent. i am surprised by the vailability of illegal trading anyway although i believe there is indeed such thing happening. Wallace

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我坚持我的有关塞拉利昂驻华大使关于中国没有进行环境影响评估引语的提法。Hilsum的采访被转发(引用)在2006的中非(北京)(媒体)上。所以,我说中国官方出版物引用了大使的话。不知道是错在哪了?? Ian Taylor

Re: Sierra Leone

The statement by me that "Even official Chinese publications quote this assertion by Sierra Leone's Ambassador to China" is correct and I stand by it. Ms Hilsum's interview is quoted in Chinafrica (Beijing), April 1, 2006, p. 4. Thus it is correct to say that official Chinese publications quote the S/Leone Ambassador's thoughts on the issue. Not sure what the problem is - Ian Taylor

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Ref China in Africa

The problem I find is that China doesn't actually seem to care about Africans - they just want to exploit Africa's potential. Not to say they're deliberately being "evil", but the low pay and unsatisfactory working conditions is not a good sign.

China's also being somewhat short-sighted. It supports people like Mugabe, despite the fact his terrible rule is making Zimbabwe a total basket-case and a bad long-term trading partner. If China wanted long-term stability and good trade, it would push for Sudan to let the UN enter Darfur, etc.

A cynic might say China is quite happy for a lot of Africa to remain a basket-case, because that means it can extract resources cheaply and export its own cheaper products, as there's no competition.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Is China only exploiting Africa?

I disagree with the comment above, saying China just want to exploit Africa's potential.

The commenter might forget what China has helped Africans in building their infrastructures.

Meanwhile, could you tell me why African countries give more investment chances to Chinese if they do believe China is just exploiting them?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Thin skin!

much has been written about the West's exploitation of Africa AND the Middle East. China still has a problem with "thin skin" in other words not being able to handle criticism for its actions that produce negative results. Perhaps Chinese factories in Africa could hire more locals and stop importing chinese laborers.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Michael Sata之所以在赞比亚大选中获得很多的支持是因为他对中国发展业务的方式不满。


有很多人认为中国已经在剥削赞比亚了。请在这里看这篇文章,http://tinyurl.com/29gn2k 它是一个好例子。

Reply to #7

"Meanwhile, could you tell me why African countries give more investment chances to Chinese if they do believe China is just exploiting them?"

It isn't as simple as saying "African countries" give more investment chances. It's more that where other governments want to see change if they are going to give aid, (because they tried giving stuff without strings before - it didn't work) China will step in without strings.

But that doesn't mean unconditional financial support is a good thing. Governments don't care how much pay Chinese firms give or their safety levels, if it means they get the money coming in for the short-term. But some people do object - Michael Sata got a lot of support in his Zambian Presidential bid due to unhappiness over the way Chinese have being doing business. Why else do you think Hu Jintao cancelled a visit to the Copperbelt region at the last minute? Because he found out there were a lot of unhappy people there, who were planning to embarrass him.

A lot of people think China is already exploiting Zambia - this article is an example of that.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous







在非洲已获得40年独立的今天,是应该不把非洲作为永久牺牲品的时候了。Ian Taylor

African countries do not give more investment chances to Chinese

"African countries" do NOT "give more investment chances to Chinese". African elites and leaders do. The anti-Chinese sentiment that is developing in parts of Africa is proof of the gap between the welcome elites are giving to China and the "ordinary" African.

Let us be honest here: many if not most African presidents could not care less about whether or not China is exploiting the assets of their countries. What they are concerned about is that they get a cut. The fact that the Chinese do not ask pesky questions about democracy, human rights and where the money is going is an added bonus and gives the PRC a competitive edge over Western companies. Of course, the West exploits Africa too. But the fault in Sino-African relations at the moment is not necessarily solely or even mainly with the Chinese - it is with the lousy African governments who allow exploitation to carry on and who have not promoted broad-based sustainable development. Given that we are now forty-plus years after independence it is time to move on from Africa-as-the-perpetual-victim mentality.

Ian Taylor, St Andrews