African leaders and independent groups are pressing China to prioritize sustainable development in its trade with African countries. In Beijing, officials say they increasingly recognize the importance of sound environmental practices for building strong relations with the continent.
During meetings this month as part of Beijing’s China-Africa forum, World Wildlife Fund Director General Jim Leape said the growing trade between China and Africa presents a chance to create a new model of development in emerging economies.
“We see through this collaboration the opportunity to bring to life the idea of a green economy, the idea of sustainable development,” he said.
China is Africa’s largest trading partner. Bilateral trade between the two economies exceeded $100 billion in 2008.
Chinese investments in environmentally sensitive sectors, including forestry, agriculture, fishing, oil and gas, have spurred anti-Chinese sentiment in many African countries. Chinese mining projects have also caused serious environmental problems, and demand in Asia for rhino horn and ivory has spurred the illegal wildlife trade in Africa.
As Chinese investments grow, environmentalists say sustainable development is essential to maintaining and improving ties with Africa. Jiaman Jin, executive director of the Global Environmental Institute, says Chinese government leaders are taking notice.
“In my opinion the government listens to our advice,” Jin says. “All of us regard the issue of ‘investing abroad’ as a very serious problem. But I think, for the Chinese enterprises, they haven’t regarded it as a problem.”
To raise awareness among Chinese businesses investing abroad, China’s Ministry of Commerce and the State Forestry Administration issued voluntary guidelines for the timber trade in 2009. Jin says more such environment guidelines are needed.
She says, “At first [opposition to] these kinds of projects are about environmental dangers, but then that effects the diplomacy, politics and even the relationship between the two countries.”
The World Wildlife Fund has developed 40 such recommendations for China on how to create sustainable development. They include ways to responsibly source and trade timber; increase access to renewable and clean energy sources and stop poaching of endangered animals.
Leape says such guidelines are critical for agrarian-based communities in Africa that are dependent on the environment for their survival.
“These landscapes are of surpassing importance to the people who live there,” he said. “It is that natural infrastructure which supports the development and economy of those societies. So this is very much a conversation about the future of Africa.”
Anthony Nyong is manager of the Compliance and Safeguards Division at the African Development Bank, which sometimes works with Chinese investors.
“We are currently developing what we refer to as an integrated safeguard system for the bank, and our safeguard system says basically do no harm,” said Nyong. “Do no harm to the people. Do no harm to the environment. You can actually develop without creating harm. If you can’t avoid it completely you can minimize it, and that is very important for us as a continent.”
Some African leaders are putting environmental protection higher on their government’s agendas. In May, ten African governments signed a declaration to integrate the value of natural capital into corporate and national accounting. And, earlier this year, Central African countries agreed on a plan to combat illegal wildlife trade.
In dealing with Chinese investors, Nyong says developing aggressive negotiating skills may be the most important factor in ensuring environmentally responsible development.
“What we are committed to also doing is to strengthen the capacities of African countries to be able to negotiate properly,” said Nyong.
Nyong says that the continent’s future development depends not only on outside investment, but on African countries’ ability to ensure that outside investment is sustainable and beneficial to locals.
Shannon Van Sant