Interview: Biodiversity risks and scientific collaboration along the Belt and Road

As we edited this interview with Prof. Alice Hughes, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) released for comment a draft guideline on ecological and environmental protection for overseas investment and cooperation projects. The draft guideline is designed to replace the existing 2013 guideline jointly issued by the MEE and the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM). Biodiversity features prominently. In Article 6, it recommends developers to conduct baseline biodiversity surveys in advance to project construction. In Article 10, it instructs hydropower infrastructure projects to avoid nature reserves and important wildlife habitats. In Article 13, it suggests road and railway project developers consider the integrity of wildlife habitats. 

In the absence of any domestic “hard law” to hold Chinese overseas projects accountable for their environmental impacts (beyond host country accountability mechanisms), the guideline serves as an important piece of “soft law” that can be utilized to exert pressure on Chinese actors operating in environmentally vulnerable regions. Professor Alice Hughes from the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens (XTBG), a Chinese Academy of Sciences affiliated research institute, provides important insight into the diverse and complex ways in which ecological impacts may arise. She also spoke with us about attempts from within the scientific community to measure and assess biodiversity risks along the Belt and Road, as well as attempts to build up ecological and conservation knowledge.

Panda Paw Dragon Claw (PPDC): Risks to biodiversity, often overlooked compared to other immediate environmental risks and climate risks, have been slowly gaining attention, particularly with this year’s biodiversity COP in Kunming. What are some of the major biodiversity risks associated with the construction of infrastructure in the transport and energy sectors, which have consistently made up 60-70% of annual BRI investments? How are these risks playing out on the Belt and Road to date?

Alice Hughes: The biodiversity risks and impacts stemming from new infrastructure development are far further reaching than commonly thought. We need to consider three broad classes of impact – direct, supportive and offset. Direct impacts include the loss and fragmentation of intact ecosystems and roadkill of local species. Road and rail infrastructure, for example, form major barriers to species movements. This is especially problematic for migratory species which need to bypass these barriers to access resources. 

In parts of Central Asia, for example, the Convention on Migratory Species spent years working to remove fences and other barriers across the region in order to enable species to maintain their migratory routes.

Without care to ensure migratory routes remain intact, the current new wave of infrastructure construction threatens to undo this work. Failure to consider the migratory routes during project planning results in species having to make large circumnavigations during their migration, which can significantly impact on health and even survival chances. Research I conducted in collaboration with other scholars last year showed that 32 protected areas, 40 key biodiversity areas and 29 ecoregions are located within 1 km of terrestrial linear routes, such as road and rail, associated with the Belt and Road. The habitats of a worrying total of at least 26 critically endangered species are within 5 km of new rail lines.

PPDC: And what are “supportive” and “offset” impacts?

Alice Hughes: Supportive impacts are the knock on impacts of an infrastructure project, including the influx of workers and the communications and logistic infrastructure needed to support them. This means providing the means to produce food, power and access water for drinking and irrigation, the housing and other elements needed to support workers and subsequent new economic activity. This supportive infrastructure also has an impact in the areas around new infrastructure, and in the case of power generation often over much larger regions. This means rather than having just a linear route you have offshoots of industry, residential areas, power producing areas and so on. The result is that, even if the planned route is being developed simply to shorten the distance between two locations – that is, to increase the efficiency of transportation – it still requires a supportive footprint around it. Elements of this, such as agricultural development have obvious ecological consequences such as destruction and degradation of habitats, but also have impacts on the water-table, which can lead to drought and salination locally and in other regions.

Often forgotten and under-assessed are the offset impacts of large scale infrastructure projects. Infrastructure needs resources to build, and these raw materials also have associated impacts. For example, cement comes from limestone. Consequently limestone karsts in the Asia region are decreasing in area at almost 6% a year. The ecosystems that depend on limestone karsts often support unique species found only at a single site. This includes multiple species of limestone gecko, especially Gonuirosaurus and Cyrtodactylus geckos, and a wide array of invertebrates such as unique snails, trechine cave beetles with elongated necks, and specialised species of begonia, orchid, and in some cases even primates such as the Cao Vit Gibbon. Sand extraction for construction is another example of offset impacts. Thus this new infrastructure has rippling impacts across multiple levels. Biodiversity impacts, particularly supportive and offset impacts, often do not emerge immediately. In the summer of 2019 I and a group of interdisciplinary co-authors published a report looking at “frontier horizon issues” in Belt and Road infrastructure development. After consulting 250 relevant experts, we compiled a list of 11 such underappreciated horizon risks, including risks to groundwater supplies, the incidental spread of bacteria and viruses, the threat to coastal and polar ecosystems, the environmental consequences of geopolitical rivalry, and more. As we noted in that paper, one of the critical issues for biodiversity and ecosystem risks along the Belt and Road is whether or not China will extend its increasingly stringent domestic environmental protection measures to overseas projects, particularly the concept of “ecological redlines”.

Cyrtodactylus peguensis, Spotted bent-toed gecko – Erawan National Park, Thailand, Image by Rushen

PPDC:  How have biodiversity risks been addressed by stakeholders along the Belt and Road, including financiers, companies and policy makers? 

Alice Hughes: Currently, Belt and Road projects need only accord with national standards on environmental impact. But many developing countries have weak environmental standards. It has been estimated that only around 27% of Belt and Road projects have been required to implement any form of mitigation measures on biodiversity impacts. The result is that in many host countries, the level of environmental protection depends on the Chinese project developers and financiers themselves. Despite obvious incentives to cut corners here, we have seen some examples of project developers taking proactive mitigation measures, such as the inclusion of conduits for passing animals, based on research conducted in collaboration with the Kenyan government, in the Mombassa-Nairobi standard gauge railway project constructed by China Road and Bridge Corporation. 

New project development guidelines issued by China’s Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Ecology and Environment call for companies to adopt higher environmental standards in their overseas projects when host country standards are deemed insufficient. Though non-binding, the guidelines may start to have some impact on projects’ biodiversity footprint, though more oversight and monitoring will be needed. Other reports and policy suggestions are currently under-development and, if formulated into policy, could also have an impact on improving risk assessment, limiting biodiversity damage from projects and encouraging mitigation measures.

Green finance is also a growing topic and loans may become more contingent on sound environmental metrics. A number of development banks have consulted with conservationists to develop their policies.

View of the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway‎ crossing the Nairobi National Park, Kenya, image by Mfwicky

PPDC: How is capacity and expertise on biodiversity risk being built up along the Belt and Road?

Alice Hughes: The Belt and Road Science and Technology Cooperation Plan, part of the USD 32 million Digital Silk Road plan initiated in 2015, provides a huge amount of data (remote sensing etc) to facilitate planning and management. It includes data for projects along the route as well as complementary spatial data, creating a huge volume of spatial data to help inform planning and decision making. But how it is being used to minimise impacts is not yet clear. 

The science plan also includes thousands of scholarships and fellowships targeted at students from Belt and Road countries, including the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Alliance of International Science Organizations (ANSO) Scholarships for Young Talents. The aim is to create capacity for sustainable development into the future. Within the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) there are around 35 overseas CAS centres, many of which are associated with the BRI. The Southeast Asian Biodiversity Centre (CAS-SEABRI), for example is led by the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG) and has a base with the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry in Myanmar, as well as strong links to a number of partner universities across the region. 

As a result about 20% of students in the XTBG, where I work, are from overseas, largely from Southeast Asia, with particular representation from Myanmar and Thailand. Many of their projects involve fieldwork in their home countries, and many will return to institutes in their home countries following their degree to help further build capacity. All of their projects are related to ecosystem health and function, thus it is hoped that their work can generally help develop more sustainable approaches when they return to their home countries. This work and these regional partnerships have also involved a great deal of inventory in under-studied regions, such as Northern Myanmar where, in addition to describing multiple previously unknown species, they provide a baseline for mapping species ranges to facilitate better conservation prioritisation in the future. Whilst XTBG prioritises Southeast Asia, the CAS Wuhan Botanic Garden focuses on Africa (particularly Kenya), meaning a large legacy of conservation capacity across many regions the BRI transverses.

Unfortunately over the last two years since the start of the pandemic, many of these students and researchers, including ANSO scholars, have been stuck outside of the country, presenting a barrier to the flow of research, expertise and capacity building.

One of the projects we at XTBG have worked directly on is the mapping of ecological-conservation redlines for mainland Southeast Asia as a way to safeguard biodiversity and service provision efficiently, to roll out in concert with global conservation targets and follow the BRI. These recommendations aim to unite the needs of humans (ecosystem service provision), ecologically fragile regions, and key areas for biodiversity which can be applied to maximise gains and efficiency of targets used within global conservation targets. By providing concrete approaches to implement policy we aim to maximise the effectiveness of future targets. 

These, and other analysis shows that we have the data to build better targets, and that the BRI could provide a model for enacting them, but whether these recommendations are followed by policy implementation will be very variable.

PPDC: What are your expectations for China and for biodiversity protection along the Belt and Road going forward?

Alice Hughes: It’s a pivotal time with the climate and biodiversity COPs in close succession. I think there is a growing recognition, in China and internationally, that we need to look at issues and solutions more holistically rather than the piecemeal approach that has been common up to now. China’s awareness that being a biodiversity leader — as it would like to be seen — requires being responsible for outsourced and imported impacts from development is just starting, but it is significant. Hopefully the pause in development and renewed awareness of the need for environmental stewardship in the wake of the pandemic will bring stronger standards. But in all probability implementation will continue to vary across countries and depending on the motivation of different Belt and Road actors.

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