PRC’s scheme poses threats to environment, biodiversity

PRC’s scheme poses threats to environment, biodiversity

Tom Abke

Media reports have long chronicled environmental threats posed by the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) One Belt, One Road (OBOR) infrastructure projects worldwide. They range from deforestation in South Asia to increased coal pollution in Serbia to depleted fish stocks in the Mekong River.

Environmental degradation has already been directly linked to many specific OBOR development projects.

Now researchers warn that OBOR projects also threaten global biodiversity by increasing the risk of introducing alien animal and plant species that can overwhelm indigenous species vital to local ecosystems. This is especially troubling given OBOR projects often target developing nations that are home to important stocks of unique and diverse species, they said.

Tim Blackburn, professor of invasion biology at University College London, led a team of researchers from the United Kingdom and the PRC in 2018 that identified 14 hot spots worldwide where there is a high risk of invasive species adapting and thriving.

Along with Yiming Li of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other colleagues, Blackburn created a model that analyzed how OBOR projects might impact various regions by potentially introducing more than 800 foreign invasive species, including 98 amphibians, 177 reptiles, 391 birds and 150 mammals.

The team, which published its findings in the journal Current Biology in 2019, identified the hot spots that span 68 countries, including many in the Indo-Pacific. Most of the hot spots fall along six of the proposed OBOR economic corridors. Bangladesh, Brunei, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, as well as Pacific island nations such as Fiji and Samoa, all contain high-risk regions.

“Belt and Road countries are often home to high levels of biodiversity and lots of distinct and special species,” Blackburn told FORUM.

The research team determined that OBOR projects could also spread invasive species at an unprecedented rate.

Although such invasions already occur, the impact of OBOR “will be different, just because of the extent of it, and the volumes of trade potentially involved,” Blackburn told the AgenceFrance-Presse news agency.  

“The more movement of goods and/or people between locations, the more chance species are going to get moved too,” Blackburn told FORUM. “Species can stow away in shipping containers; seeds get stuck on people’s shoes; people take their pets; or just move species for profit, for example, the pet trade.”

Alien species tend to cause the extinction of native species through competition or by interbreeding or combining in such a way as to eliminate them, Blackburn explained. This can reduce biodiversity, wipe out evolutionary history and threaten local wildlife.

Countries such as Australia, Japan and New Zealand practice relatively strict biosecurity measures to keep out invasive species, he said. But Chinese-run OBOR projects tend not to practice biosecurity at such high levels, particularly in developing countries in the Indo-Pacific and Africa, Blackburn said.

“Of course, alien influence not only impacts biodiversity, it has negative economic impacts too,” he said. “The spread of a virus out of its native area in China, for example, has had global repercussions over the last couple of years.”

OBOR projects have already contributed to environmental degradation across the globe.

South Asian countries face increased air pollution and deforestation as a result of OBOR projects, the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, reported in August 2021.

By increasing industrialization without sufficient environmental controls or renewable energy, OBOR projects contribute to poor air quality in the region’s cities. In the area known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the construction of an extensive network of roads caused considerable deforestation and increased truck traffic that has created a large air pollution footprint, EFSAS said.

In Serbia, OBOR projects are bringing Chinese coal-powered technology to old industrial facilities with little regard for the environmental effects,  policy analyst Vuk Vuksanovic wrote in a July 2021 essay for Foreign Policy magazine. The plan includes PRC investment in a coal power plant in Kostolac, a steel mill in Smederevo and a copper mine in Bor. Residents protested the severe pollution generated by the mill and mine, Vuksanovic reported.

“While the Chinese profit from getting access to resources,” he wrote, “the main goal of the Chinese government is to sell the surplus of its coal-related technology and relocate coal-related labor forces abroad.”

Along the Mekong River, which spans Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, researchers have correlated declining fish stocks with the presence of OBOR hydroelectric projects, the ASEAN Post online news platform reported in December 2019. The declines were attributed to changes in river flow and blocked fish migration, the report said, and resulted in lost livelihoods. (Pictured: A family collects fish from their net on the Mekong River near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in May 2019).

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.