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.

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.

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.