China Trashing the Global Environment: ‘There Is No Fish in the Waters’

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China’s overseas infrastructure projects present high-impact risks to the environment, a new study has found.

The report — conducted by researchers from the Boston University Global Development Policy Center, the University of Queensland, the University of California Santa Barbara, and Colorado State University — focused on the risks to coastal and marine ecological systems posed by 114 of China’s overseas development projects between the years 2008-2019. According to the document, those 114 projects represent only 20% of all Chinese development finance projects in that time period, meaning that the results of the study are probably just the tip of the iceberg.

“Risks to marine habitats are most prominent in Caribbean island nations, such as the Bahamas and Antigua and Barbuda, as well as coastal waters across Africa, most notably along Western and Central African coastlines. In the Bahamas, Angola and Mozambique, more than 2,000 km2 of marine habitats face high impact risks,” the study noted.

Across Angola, Fiji, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, more than 50,000 square kilometers of marine habitats are “facing low but non-negligible risks from nearby projects.”

Ports built or financed by the Chinese, the study found, pose the greatest risks to marine habitats; the risks remain high even up to 30 kilometers from the port.

“These ports are present in the Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba, Mauritania, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Angola, Mozambique, Djibouti and Sri Lanka, and are a prominent driver of the regional hotspots of risk,” according to the study.

Ports, however, are not the only infrastructure projects built by the Chinese that pose risks to the local environments.

Several other types of development finance projects present high impact risks within 1 km of the project site, such as power plants, bridges, roads and other facilities,” the report concluded.

It also disclosed that one fishing port, the Beira Fishing Port Rehabilitation project in Mozambique, poses “the single greatest mean impact risk to marine habitats within 10 km of all projects considered in the study.”

China’s overseas infrastructure projects are not the only ones ruining marine habitats. China’s enormous fishing fleet is simultaneously contributing not only to the severe devastation of marine ecosystems but also to the destruction of the livelihoods of local fishermen. A South African think tank, the Institute for Security Studies, recently found that Chinese fishing boats are destroying the livelihoods of West African fishing communities on the West African coast. Due to illegal Chinese fishing, they could be losing more than $2 billion each year.

In Ghana, for instance, illegal fishing boats use Ghanaian flags, but, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation, 90% of those boats belong to Chinese owners. Fishing towns in the West African country of Benin stand empty, as locals are forced to leave their fishing trade for lack of fish and seek work elsewhere. One fisherman, Geoffroy Gbedevi, said that feeding his daughter and pregnant wife was getting harder: the number of fish are far lower than previously. “Nothing is going the way it used to,” he said.

In the Mauritanian city of Nouadhibou, when China built a port for its large industrial fishing vessels, the small local fishing communities did not stand a chance. China not only threatens the livelihoods of local fishing communities’ but also their ability to source food: it depletes local marine habitats of the fish on which locals subsist.

“If we don’t do anything about this problem, we’re really dealing with a challenge on two levels,” said Dr. Whitley Saumweber, director of the Stephenson Ocean Security Project of the Center for Strategic and International Security Studies in October 2021.

“We’re dealing with the challenge of developing coastal states, a challenge that affects their sovereignty, sustainability and security. Sovereignty because they’re losing access to their own natural wealth and control over that natural wealth. Sustainability because they’re losing the ability to manage those resources in a sustainable way. And security because of the potential damage that that lack of management will have for a resource that’s critical to their own food security needs and potential development opportunities.”

The ports and the high impact risks that they pose to the environment, however, are just one aspect of China’s damage to the environment. China invests in ports in Africa, mainly so that it can extract resources from the continent and export them back to China or elsewhere. Building the ports, therefore, is just the first step in a chain of environmental destruction. Fishmeal, for example — locally sourced fish that is ground into a powder to feed fish raised in aquaculture – is a billion dollar industry. In Gambia, shortly after a Chinese fishmeal factory had begun operating, wildlife in the lagoon of the Bolong Fenyo wildlife reserve began to die of illegal toxic waste from the factory. Meanwhile, as the Chinese fishmeal factories are depleting fish resources, the locals have totally lost the trade in fish.

“There is no fish in the waters. We used to catch up to 90 trays of sardinella fish a day and now we barely get five trays a day,” said fisherman Dembo Touray from Bakau, Gambia’s largest fishing community, in 2020.

The same scenario is happening in Mauritania, where Greenpeace documented 39 fishmeal factories in 2019, up from just one in 2005, although it is not clear if all of them were Chinese.

While China’s overseas ports have received some attention from world leaders regarding the security concerns that they pose, far from enough attention has been paid to the devastating environmental impact that China’s Belt and Road projects are causing around the world. In 2017, at the opening of the Beijing Belt and Road Forum, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that the Belt and Road Initiative was driven by the ambition of “global development,” and implying that sustainability was one of the driving forces behind it.

Even though, in 2019, Communist Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that the BRI would become “green and sustainable,” he did not say when.

According to distinguished research professor William Laurance of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, there is no hope that the BRI will become sustainable. Laurance previously wrote that China is “wreaking unprecedented damage to ecosystems and biodiversity across the globe.” In August 2021, he called China’s Belt and Road Initiative “a global planet changer.”

“China has said that it will be low-carbon, green and sustainable, but it is anything but that,” Laurance said in September.

“New roads will still decimate forests, transport routes will still destroy biodiversity on a grand scale. China says it will follow environmental guidelines, but history has shown these protections are nonexistent.”

According to Divya Narain, a researcher from the University of Queensland, the Belt and Road Initiative is potentially the “riskiest environmental project in history.”

“It will have extraordinary impacts on the environment as its corridors and other projects crisscross some of the most pristine and vulnerable ecosystems in the world,” she told the Guardian in September, adding that many finished projects had already been “hugely damaging.”

Some of the worst pollution of all comes from the extraction of rare earth materials, many in Africa, which holds some of the world’s largest deposits. Demand is soaring: rare earth materials are used in everything from mobile phones, computers, fighter jets, guided missiles, solar panels, and wind turbines to electric vehicles. Even though the extraction of rare earth materials is highly polluting, China has been securing mining deals throughout Africa.

Additionally, China already mines 70% of all rare earth materials, a situation that has made the world virtually dependent on it. The future of the African continent’s environment, in short, looks anything but sustainable.

This article was published by Gatestone Institute and is reproduced with permission.


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