Chinas BRI : Things are not as they appear

The Ministry of Justice, Courts and Administration House in Samoa is a beautiful building. It is majestic with tall Parthenon style columns that rise from the historical Mulinu’u grounds, where Samoa raised the first flag of independence. The building was funded by China, a gift to the people of Samoa. From 200 meters away, it is exactly as it appears, an aesthetically pleasing structure to the eye of a nation whose love for monstrous buildings is evident in the size of her Churches, Government buildings and homes for Church Ministers.

But, give it two hours of torrential rainfall, which occurs on a regular basis on the tropical island, and you will start seeing the cracks in the seemingly luxurious façade of the MJCA building. Three things happen, the water starts rising to cover the first two steps of the wide staircases that lead into the court rooms meaning one has to wade water to get into the building, the second is the slow but certain stench of human waste as that same rising water infiltrates the sewer tanks, and the third is a predictable consistent array dangerous falls and slips by members of the public, lawyers, Police Officers and Judges whose ever so gentle steps on the wide glossy creamed tiles are not enough to prevent the safety hazard.

That is just one building, with a set of problems that even minimum safety measures or safeguards would have prevented.

Environmental and social safeguards are built into the planning of development projects for a reason – to ensure that people, air, land, water and other essential ecosystem services are not severely impacted by such projects. A bridge for instance – shouldn’t compromise the livelihoods of villages downstream. A building – as an example, should not compromise key biodiversity areas and so forth.

Samoas buildings, like other Pacific islands funded by China, do not have to meet certain safeguards, as these are not necessarily built into the arrangements between China and recipient countries.

The Green Belt and Road Initiative of which Samoa is a signatory presents great risks to the environment – and according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), World Bank and others, if these are not managed in the process, it could have long lasting impacts.

The BRI aims to strengthen infrastructure, trade, and investment links between China and some 65 countries and will invest trillions of dollars largely in transportation, energy, and telecommunications infrastructure, industrial capacity, and technical capacity building. 

The BRI currently covers three continents and involving some 65 countries which represent approximately 40% of the earth’s total land area, 75 percent of known energy reserves and 55% of total carbon dioxide emissions. With such numbers – the collective impact of BRI is far reaching. According to UNEP the outcomes will therefore, have a profound impact on the planet and on human development. 

“With any such large-scale development come significant environmental challenges. In addition to immediate biophysical impacts, if Belt and Road investments lock countries into unsustainable infrastructure, technology, and resource extraction, they will have long-lasting negative impacts that could seriously undermine countries’ ability to meet the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

UNEP warns that with all BRI investments, care must be taken to ensure that decisions are based on sound knowledge and science and that social and environmental safeguards are in place so that projects include effective stakeholder engagement and that benefits are equitably shared. 

But the question is – to what degree is Samoa enforcing safeguards at the national level on BRI related projects. 

Like some Asian Development Bank development projects that have been queried by Chiefs in respect to due process on consultation – it is one thing to have the environmental and social safeguards, and quite another to implement. For the BRI projects in Samoa – there are no known environmental and social safeguards.

China has pledged to follow host-country laws and norms for all BRI projects – this therefore puts the onus on national Governments to ensure that safeguards are put in place. According to the Elizabeth Losos of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University – in principle these host-country policies represent the minimal protections against environmental risk afforded every infrastructure project (primarily risks faced by their citizens as compared to those of regional or global concern).

She said: “Yet host countries’ policies, and willingness and capacity to enforce restrictions, vary greatly and are often inadequate to address the risks. The safeguard requirements of multilateral lending institutions tend to be more stringent, but they apply only to the subset of projects that are co-financed by these banks.”

According to UNEP – with the right policies and safeguards in place, the Belt and Road Initiative has significant potential to help countries work towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda.

For Samoa and other small island developing states, the protection measures are necessary for the long term protection of our community and environment but also the sustainability of BRI investments in country. 

Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson

Editor, Pacific Environment Weekly

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