Social and Ecological Impacts of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

China now ranks among the largest lenders in the world for overseas development finance. China’s overseas development finance may bring significant economic benefits, but there is also the potential for significant social and ecological risks. Although development projects, such as roads, railways, and power plants, often drive biodiversity loss and infringe on indigenous lands, the risks implicit in China’s overseas development finance are poorly understood, particularly surrounding projects financed under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

This ongoing project examines the scale and distribution of risks to global biodiversity and indigenous lands from projects financed by China’s policy banks between 2008 and 2019 and compares these risks with those associated with similar projects financed by the World Bank. We incorporate critical habitats (habitats recognized by the International Finance Corporation to be of great biological importance), national marine and terrestrial protected areas, and hotspots of threatened species as ecologically sensitive territories to assess risk based upon their contribution to biodiversity and national (and international) conservation targets. Indigenous peoples’ lands are also included, as projects within these territories may bring greater risks of social and political conflict over indigenous rights and welfare.

To achieve this, we launched a new online interactive database of China’s Overseas Development Finance (CODF) that tracks lending commitments by China’s two major policy banks, the China Development Bank (CDB) and the Export-Import Bank of China (ExIm), from 2008-2019, totaling 615 development finance projects with known and validated physical locations, as well as 243 other development finance projects without specific geographic footprints that are not shown in the interactive map.

The database highlights where some of these risks may be present, based upon the projects’ overlap with social and ecological features that are sensitive to development activities. Of the 615 physical projects, 124 are within national protected areas, 261 are within critical habitats, and 133 are within indigenous peoples’ land. 150 projects, particularly those in Southeast Asia and the Amazon basin, overlap with multiple categories of sensitive territories. While it is promising that many of China’s loans do not overlap with these sensitive territories, the database reveals where risks may be greatest, and where stakeholders can look to ensure sustainable and ethical development, while mitigating potential impacts on biodiversity.

Watch this space for more updates on publications arising from this project.

this research in the news

“China Takes the Lead in Development Finance”Project Syndicate, Op-ed.

this research in the news

China curtails overseas lending in face of geopolitical backlash” – The Financial Times.

this research in the news

China pulls back from the world: rethinking Xi’s ‘project of the century’” – The Financial Times.