Chinese ambitious multi trillion dollar Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), the largest infrastructure development scheme in history aimed at improving investments in transportation, communication & energy networks across 70 Countries continues to stimulate concerns among environmentalists over the potential devastating impact it may have on the environment.
Particularly venerable is the Southeast Asia region, a global biodiversity hotspot and a focus area of BRI development, where many of BRI’s major corridors pass through ecologically sensitive areas. These projects pose a serious threat to animal habitat and wildlife, while also harm the indigenous people and local communities that depend on them.
According to an early World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report, there will be considerable overlap between BRI projects and sensitive environments. As many as 1,739 Important Bird Areas and Key Biodiversity Areas at risk of harm were identified using data from international organisations.
Over 265 threatened species could be adversely affected including endangered tiger species and the critically endangered saiga antelope.
One particular example is the proposed construction of a dam on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, which according to environmentalists is a threat to the orangutans and jungle of the highly diverse Batang Toru ecosystem.
Prominent professors and environmental activists had written to the President of Indonesia in July of 2018 urging him to cancel the project.
A similar hydroelectric dam project in northern Myanmar has been stalled since 2011.
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.
Increasing access to undeveloped areas of forest is also expected to increase the likelihood of poaching and deforestation in those areas.
Apart from the loss of flora and fauna, deforestation in areas such as the Pan Borneo Highway, which spans Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei is also expected to cause landslides, floods etc. to occur frequently.
Despite call for a “green, healthy, intelligent, and peaceful” Silk Road by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing has continued to invest in fossil fuel energy projects across the region.
According to a study, fossil fuel investments between 2014 and 2017 accounted for 91 per cent of energy-sector syndicated loans by the six major Chinese banks and 61 per cent of energy-sector loans financed entirely by the state-backed China Development Bank or China Exim bank.
Investment into coal projects has substantially risen in Indonesia and the Philippines, while large hydropower plant projects in Myanmar and Laos are threatening regional ecosystems by diverting the course Irrawaddy and the Mekong rivers.
In addition, investments in infrastructure would also result in increased pollution, including greenhouse gases and waste.
Despite the Chinese government ministries releasing a series of “green papers” outlining lofty environmental and social guidelines for China’s overseas ventures and corporations, critics have slammed the same for being weak and lacking free prior and informed consent and consultation with local rights holders.
Concerns are also being raised that some Chinese firms may purportedly misrepresent the feasibility or sustainability of infrastructure projects in countries where weak institutions and bad governance prevail.