Later in history, we began to connect religion, war and culture to those traveling or living along the Silk Road. Really fascinating. And, by the way, we’re going back to 200 BC and even further. So, the Silk Road isn’t new. It’s been around for at least 2,000 years.
Further, the Silk Road was a long road, thousands of miles and went through so many different countries: from China to India to Iran and on to Europe. From Iran down to Egypt and down as far south to the “horn of Africa.” Of course, I was reminded of this during my Holy Land trip, but certainly this isn’t why I’m starting this column with an introduction to the Silk Road.
This column is about China’s BRI Belt and Road Initiative. How many of you are aware of this? It is hard not to stray into China’s ulterior motive. But, really, I’m interested in the environmental consequences of this gigantic project and have interrupted my normal column schedule to bring this to your attention. Let me explain.
Fast forward from 200 BC 2,000 plus years to 2013 when China’s President, Xi Jinping, announced a plan to connect Asia, Africa and Europe to China. Really, it’s as simple as that. The Belt and Road, or “Yi Dai Yi Lu,” is a global development strategy involving infrastructure development and investment in more than 70 countries. Belt refers to the overland routes for ROA and rail transportation, called the “Silk Road Economic Belt,” whereas Road refers to the sea routes, or the 21st century maritime silk road.
The Chinese government calls this initiative a “bid to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future.” Since I’ve traveled in many of these connective environments, I’m not sure I would agree with their definition (and let me be clear about this – I have many Chinese friends, and this column is not a reflection on those friendships. This is my interpretation of what I believe is the ultimate goal of the Xi Jinping China in the BRI Project).
The objectives of the BRI Project that Xi Jinping has, per Wikipedia, are:
To construct a unified large market and make full use of both international and domestic markets, through cultural exchange and integration, to enhance mutual understanding and trust of member nations, ending up in an innovative pattern with capital inflows, talent pool and technology database. The initial focus has been infrastructure investment, education, construction materials, railway and highway, automobile, real estate, power grid, and iron and steel. Already, some estimates list the Belt and Road Initiative as one of the largest infrastructure and investment projects in history, covering more than 68 countries, including 65% of the world’s population and 40% of the global gross domestic product as of 2017.
There are three proposed belts: the North Belt, which will run through Central Asia and Russia to Europe. The Central Belt, which will run through Central Asia and West Asia to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. And, the South Belt, which will run from China to Southeast Asia, South Asia to the Indian Ocean through Pakistan. The strategy, and the Chinese don’t like to use the word strategy, is to integrate China through countries that are resource rich.
The projects will and are going on simultaneously at a cost of trillions – not billions – trillions of dollars, and all is to be completed by 2049, which happens to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of the People’s Republic of China. Do you get the picture!
I am sure there are many positive aspects to the Belt and Road Initiative such as jobs, improved communication, transportation, and energy generation (both fissile and renewable). And, of course, there are many that criticize the initiative as a form of neo-colonialism and/or “debt trap diplomacy.”
There are already countless examples of investments where debt is not satisfied so China assumes the debt: dams in Ethiopia, power plants in Tajikistan, ports in Sri Lanka, and so on. The criticism is indisputable, at least from my point of view: grab assets by assuming debt. But my major concerns are environmental and ecological implications of unbridled slash and burn development tactics.
The ecological concerns are problematic for many BRI opponents. Many examples are available. 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.
Deforestation in areas such as the Pan Borneo Highway – which spans Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei – also causes landslides, floods and other disaster mitigation concerns. Coal-fired power stations, such as Emba Hunutlu power station in Turkey, are being built, thus increasing greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Glacier melting as a result of excess greenhouse gas emissions, endangered species preservation, desertification and soil erosion as a result of overgrazing and over farming, mining practices, water use management, air and water pollution as a result of poorly planned infrastructure projects are some of the ongoing concerns as they relate to Central Asian nations.
These are general comments, of course, but the fact is trains do not belong in swamps. Malaysia is a perfect example where a BRI Railroad project is being considered to run through or adjacent to Setiu Wetlands National Park. This is an ecological gem. Scientists believe this park may be the most interesting complex of wetlands in all of Malaysia. It has mangroves, forests, fresh water and salt water. Over the centuries, a balance between these developed through a natural hydrological process. Aquatic life flourished, fish and clams were abundant, and the natural balance worked. Time and the addition of palm-oil plantations, sand mining operations and logging seriously impacted this very special park. But it survived. Until the Malaysian Government made a deal with China’s BRI.
Now comes the threat of a 400-mile cross country railroad that would disrupt the fresh water flowing from the mountains. Changes in salinity would affect freshwater flora and fauna, while reduced waterflow would exacerbate erosion on the sandbar, allowing the South China Sea to encroach. This is one example. I’ve written about deforestation and palm oil in previous columns. Now we have industrialization in the guise of the BRI without a true commitment to the environment.
As William Laurance, an authority on the BRI at James Cook University in Australia, says, “The project is part of a global tsunami of infrastructure development that threatens to open a Pandora’s box of environmental crises, including large-scale deforestation, habitat fragmentation, wildlife poaching, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.”
Which is more important, jobs or protecting the environment? Which is more important, jobs or ecological balance? The really interesting point of this is that there are more continuous job opportunities in supporting renewables like energy, reforestation, sensible palm-oil farming and so on. Reforestation doesn’t work. Slash and burn doesn’t work, nor do railroads in swamps.
Another Letter from the Earth.
Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is