|Chinese workers at Merowe Dam
Recently, Chexim has agreed to finance the China National Machinery & Equipment Import & Export Corporation (CMEC), which plans to develop an iron ore mine in the Belinga region of Gabon . This region is located in the Central African Rainforest, the second largest rainforest in the world. According to Greenpeace, in as little as five to ten years, Africa 's apes, gorillas, and chimpanzees will disappear as forest habitats are degraded or lost. The Belinga region in particular has been identified as a ?riority Important Area?in the Regional Action Plan for the Conservation of Chimpanzees and Gorillas in Western Equatorial Africa. At one time, the area was not considered under immediate threat, because the lack of infrastructure made mining commercially unfeasible. But with the backing of Chexim, CMEC is also going to build a port, rail system and two dams.
Another major Chinese bank, China Development Bank (CDB), has traditionally focused on domestic financing, but is now internationalising its portfolio. CDB is one of the few Chinese banks with a public environmental-financing policy, but it seems to be limited to ensuring compliance with environmental laws in China . CDB finances oil palm plantations in Borneo (Indonesia), home to some of the world? most biologically important tropical moist forests and the habitat of endangered orangutans, and will likely be at the centre of deals between China and Russia to develop dams, pulp mills and oil pipelines in the environmentally-sensitive Russian far east.
Some international observers have already started to sound the alarm about Chinese banks.
For example, many Equator banks rightly complain that the lack of Chinese environmental banking standards creates an unfair playing field. But at the same time, many of them are buying significant shares of Chinese banks and have even joined the boards of these firms ?Royal Bank of Scotland owns close to 20% of Bank of China and Bank of America could own up to 19% of China Construction Bank. With this level of involvement, they have the ability to introduce environmental financing policies at Chinese banks, and should not just complain.
World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz recently expressed concern that Chinese lending, which is set to surpass the World Bank lending in Africa , could worsen African debt. What he has not acknowledged is that the debt crisis was largely created by careless World Bank lending in the first place (which largely benefited Western companies). Wolfowitz should not be surprised that Africa is turning to China for aid, since Western governments have not lived up to their own promises to cancel debt and extend more aid and concessional loans to Africa .
While NGOs should encourage Chinese companies and banks to adopt better environmental and social practices (for the sake of all affected communities ?both inside and outside China), they must not ignore the role of Western consumption. For example, a significant amount of the timber that China imports from countries like Cameroon, Burma, and Russia goes directly into producing bookcases, furniture, picture frames and other goods that are then exported to the rest of the world.
But ultimately, calls from the international community may not matter. Chinese banks will likely realise that it is in their own best interests to adopt world-class environmental and social lending policies. Not only will it help them manage credit risk and make better loans, but it will also help Chinese companies preserve their social license to operate by acting more responsibly. If securing access to natural resources is a key priority for Beijing , then securing international goodwill and promoting a harmonious society will also be paramount.
By Michelle Chan-Fishe - program manager of the Green Investments Program at Friends of the Earth ?US in San Francisco .