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Foreign investment not just about money Africans tell China

BEIJING (Agencies): Heads of government and environmental groups are pressing China to prioritise sustainable development in its trade with countries in Africa, while at the same time looking at their own need to be more aggressive in their negotiations with Beijing, the Voice of America reported on July 23.

The report says that officials in Beijing have responded by saying that they are increasingly recognising and taking into consideration the importance of sound environmental practices in order to build strong and lasting relations with nations on the African continent.

During meetings organised by Beijing during July of the China-Africa forum, the funding director general of World Wildlife, 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 US$100 billion ($7.752 billion) during 2008.

The Voice of America reported that Chinese investment in environmentally sensitive sectors, including forestry, agriculture, fishing, oil and gas, has spurred much anti-Chinese sentiment in many African countries.

Mining projects sponsored by Chinese companies have also caused serious environmental problems and in addition, a rising 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 between China and Africa.

Jiaman Jin, the executive director of the Global Environmental Institute, says she believes that Chinese government leaders are taking notice and beginning to understand that investment is not just about money.

“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 Chinese enterprises, they haven’t regarded it as a problem.”

To raise awareness among Chinese businesses investing abroad, the Ministry of Commerce and the State Forestry Administration in Beijing 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 in the sourcing of and trading timber; increase awareness of the need for renewable and clean energy sources and stop the 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 the 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,” Nyong explained.

“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 minimise it and that is very important for us as a continent,” he elaborated.

Some African leaders are putting environmental protection higher on their government’s agendas. In May, 10 African governments signed a declaration to integrate the value of natural capital into corporate and national accounting.

In addition, 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’ own ability to ensure that outside investment is sustainable and beneficial to locals.

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