Africa is the continent least responsible but most vulnerable to climate change, which means that Beijing’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, the largest development plan of the modern era, could easily send its fragile ecosystems over the edge. Is the Chinese government truthful when it says the BRI is eco-friendly?
I The Road
The first time we saw the road was the day the Air Kenya Bombardier circled the airstrip at the Samburu National Reserve, where elephant conservationist Ian Douglas-Hamilton was running his research station. We saw it again on the day we went up in Douglas-Hamilton’s Cessna, to search for fresh carcasses. And we saw it up close on the day we paid a visit to a Turkana village, whose men had been recruited by Chinese construction workers to slaughter as many of the matriarchs as they could.
“The poachers are living out in the bush in gangs of between two and 10,” we were told by Francis Lorot, the only villager brave enough to go on-record. “An elephant can take pain, sometimes up to 40 bullets before she dies. The killers are scared to death, because they are not experts. An expert can kill with one bullet.”
In villages like this across central and northern Kenya, we learnt, men with no experience in elephant killing could earn a $55 sign-up fee, the equivalent of a labourer’s monthly salary. The fee was exclusive of meals and AK47 bullets, while the ivory split was dependent on the size of the tusks. When an elephant was killed, Lorot told us, a call was put through via cellphone to a middleman in Archer’s Post, Isiolo or Wamba. The middleman, always a local, would hire a taxi for the day and direct it to the point on the road closest to the kill. Only the tusks would be packed into the taxi, “no meat”. After enough tusks had been accumulated in his secret warehouse, the middleman would get ready to make his move.
“Then they’re taken to the Chinese,” said Lorot, “or to Nairobi.”
And so on that day, a Tuesday in June 2011, we were left in no doubt that the catalyst in our story—the chief protagonist—was this very same road. Back then, the state-owned Chinese construction company was close to completing the 505-kilometre stretch that would connect Isiolo in central Kenya to Moyale in the north. The stretch, which cut through the acacias and doum palms of the lava plains, was a new link on the Trans-African Highway that was supposed to make good on the long-deferred dream of “Cape Town to Cairo”. Beyond Moyale and the Ethiopian border, the stretch was destined to tack on to another critical link, the 197-kilometre run from Hawassa to Ageremariam, which would in turn complete the Addis Ababa-Nairobi-Mombasa corridor.
Seven years later the corridor is all but complete, with the final link on the Ethiopian side set to open in the first half of 2019. The African Development Bank, co-funders of the initiative along with the People’s Republic of China, has projected that trade between Kenya and Ethiopia will increase five-fold as a result, from $35-million to $175-million. Meanwhile, Kenya’s elephant population, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service, has dropped from around 167,000 in the early 1970s to 35,000 today.
Mombasa, the coastal terminus of the corridor, has recently been identified as a major transit route for illicit ivory from Africa into Vietnam. While China’s ivory ban, which came into effect at the beginning of 2018, has been a fantastic victory for conservationists, the market for tusks has simply shifted elsewhere—and so the East African road corridor, aside from bringing a boost to regional trade, will also continue to bring death and devastation to the continent’s vulnerable ecology.
II The Belt
“A new era of globalisation.” This, according to the People’s Republic of China, is just what the world needs right now. As the old era of globalisation caves in on itself, with report after report suggesting that our growth-obsessed economies have exhausted the capacity of planetary ecosystems to deal with the fall-out, Beijing has been doubling down. The grand project, termed by the Lowy Institute “one of the largest development plans in modern history,” was unveiled by President Xi Jinping in late 2013.
On land, Xi’s plan is to connect China’s underdeveloped interior to Europe through Central Asia, a route that has been dubbed the “Silk Road Economic Belt”. The second leg, which goes via the ocean, has been termed the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”—the aim is to link China’s southern provinces to South-east Asia, East Africa and eventually the Mediterranean.
Hence the “Belt and Road Initiative”— or BRI — a plan as monumental in scope as it is confounding in concept. There have been many awkward questions about the initiative of late, but by far the most important one is implied in the following review by the World Resources Institute published in November 2018:
“China’s Belt and Road Initiative is investing in projects developing infrastructure worth $6-trillion across many of the world’s fastest-growing economies. The Chinese government has taken initial steps to incorporate environmentally sustainable, or green, strategies and objectives into the BRI. However, our review finds that most bank loans and cross-border investments in energy and transportation over 2014-2017 were tied to fossil fuel projects.”
In other words, although they’ve committed themselves to a green agenda at home, the people behind the largest development project on the planet have been lying to the rest of us. The question is obvious: why?
A Chinese construction worker (L) walks under an overpass bridge, at a section of the ongoing construction to expand the Outer ring road in Nairobi, Kenya, 02 August 2016. EPA/DANIEL IRUNGU
On Friday 23 November, when he addressed an audience of academics, journalists and diplomats at Johannesburg’s Linder Auditorium, the assumption was that Lin Songtian, China’s ambassador to South Africa, would at least pretend to give an answer. The event, staged by Wits University’s Africa-China Reporting Project, was billed as an opportunity “to engage directly with African and Chinese experts on the BRI”. Session one, which saw Ambassador Lin take the floor after Wits Vice Chancellor Adam Habib, was supposed to focus on the BRI in “concept and practice”.
But where there was little in the way of “concept” from Lin, there was absolutely zero in the way of “practice”—particularly when it came to the practicalities of pumping hundreds of billions into fossil fuels when greenhouse gas emissions were just beginning to render the planet uninhabitable. There was no acknowledgement from the ambassador that climate change would hit the world’s poorest the hardest, and not a word about the fact that southern Africa, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is at extremely high risk. “Policy! Infrastructure! Trade! Finance! People!” These, apparently, were the “5 Connectivities”. In the end, Lin simply did what Chinese diplomats are programmed to do: repeat the Communist Party line. Instead of a detailed account of how the BRI would improve the lives of ordinary Africans, we got slogans. Habib, for his part, had paved the way by insisting that what Africa needed most from China was a lesson in implementation. “That is, we need the Chinese to teach us how to build stuff,” he’d said. “The species will disappear in the next 200 to 300 years if we can’t figure out how to do inclusive development.” How, one wondered, did the most high-profile academic in South Africa not get the memo—endorsed, among others, by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the World Bank and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre—about the species being in danger of disappearing in the next 100 years if it couldn’t mitigate against likely global warming (by century’s end) of 4°C?
How indeed. Poignantly, Friday 23 November also happened to be Black Friday on Planet Earth: the day that human beings everywhere were encouraged to go out and shop. While Vice Chancellor Habib and Ambassador Lin were scrupulously avoiding any mention of climate change at the BRI launch, President Donald Trump was trying to bury the release of the US federal government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment. But dropping the report on Black Friday only drew attention to it, particularly this part:
“The impacts of climate change beyond our borders are expected to increasingly affect our trade and economy, including import and export prices and US businesses with overseas operations and supply chains.” Did Beijing think it was immune? Did Habib and Lin think we were idiots? Most important — and once again — why was the BRI propaganda machine lying to us about the environmental sustainability of its overseas development projects?
III The Noose
Here is a possible answer, courtesy of a 2018 report by the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and CoalSwarm: “Internationally, Chinese financial institutions are the world’s largest funder of overseas coal plants, investing $15-billion in coal projects from 2013 to 2016 through international development funds, with another $13-billion in proposed funding. CoalSwarm estimates Chinese firms are involved in the construction, ownership, or financing of at least 16% of all coal-fired power stations under development outside China.” The BRI was designed in part to absorb China’s overcapacity in coal while cleaning up domestic pollution. And so, as it closes coal-fired power stations at home, Beijing opens them up in places like Pakistan, Vietnam, Indonesia and South Africa.
Vehicles are stuck during a traffic jam at a main road in Nairobi, Kenya, 13 July 2016. According to a government report the time wasted in traffic jams represents a cost of 5.78 million US dollars (about 580 million Kenyan Shilling) a day and more than 210 million US dollars a year in lost productivity. The economic loss caused by traffic is attributed to poor infrastructure planning not ready to the increase in population and vehicles, a report by the country’s Transport and Urban Decongestion Committee stated. EPA/DANIEL IRUNGU
Earlier this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed a deal with the Chinese government to build a 4,600-megawatt coal-fired power station in Limpopo. Although it’s not included in South Africa’s new Integrated Resource Plan, this doesn’t matter, apparently, because the plant—earmarked for development between Makhado and Musina—won’t feed into the national power grid. Instead, the energy it produces will be exclusively used by a massive new Chinese-controlled industrial park, called the South African Energy and Metallurgical Special Economic Zone, or EMSEZ.
The polluted air and water, meanwhile, will directly affect the communities in South Africa’s far north. Like the road that runs through Kenya’s far north, such infrastructure projects are a mixed blessing at best. The economic benefits of the Addis Ababa-Nairobi-Mombasa corridor were claimed last week as a BRI victory by Ambassador Lin, even though the project was launched years before Xi’s grand plan was ever conceived, but the dead elephants of Samburu did not get a mention.
At that event at the Linder Auditorium on Black Friday, perhaps the only honest assessment of the BRI came from Cedrick Frolick, house chairperson in South Africa’s national assembly, who spoke directly after Lin.
Referring to another of China’s famous slogans, he said: “We won’t have this win-win relationship if the environment isn’t protected.” So obvious, and yet so difficult to grasp.