The People’s Republic of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, an opaque, trillion-dollar global campaign focused on infrastructure-building projects, is destroying habitats and threatening species, according to conservationists.

The brainchild of PRC President Xi Jinping, the One Belt, One Road initiative‘s stated aim is to build a network of railways, energy pipelines, highways and border crossings across some 130 countries. Several projects are already underway, and its purported completion date is 2049.

Conservationists say that these “investments” fail to meet environmental standards and will come at a cost to global biodiversity, despite Beijing’s claims in the initiative that the projects “strengthen cooperation on ecological and environmental protection and build a sound ecosystem.” Corridors comprising roads, power plants, ports, airports, bridges and railways will cut through fragile ecosystems, especially in tropical regions, such as the forests of the Indonesian archipelago.

“This is the tip of the spear for a lot of species,” says William Laurance, a professor and director of the Center for Tropical, Environmental, and Sustainability Science at James Cook University in North Queensland, Australia. “It’s just incredible disruption and degradation and destruction of habitats.”

Habitat threatened

Plans for a hydroelectric dam in North Sumatra, an island in Indonesia, threatens the habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, of which fewer than 800 survive anywhere in the world. The dam, part of a hydroelectric power plant backed by the Bank of China, will cause flooding in the Batang Toru Forest, where these great apes live. The construction of service roads will further harm the tropical forest, according to Laurance.

The Asia-Pacific region, he said, boasts an incredible diversity of species and a high proportion of species that are extremely rare and often endangered. “You have a global hotspot, and everywhere you look there are massive Belt and Road projects going in.”

The PRC is “running roughshod” from the South China Sea to the South Pacific to Latin America, Laurance said. “Now, [there is] huge investment activity in Africa, increasingly moving into the Arctic region.”

People wearing masks resembling orangutan faces (© Aditya Irawan/NurPhoto/Getty Images)
Environmental activists wearing orangutan masks protest during the International Action Day of Protest Against Bank of China on March 1, 2019, in Jakarta, Indonesia. The movement wants to stop Bank of China funding in the construction of the Batang Toru Hydroelectric Power Plant that would endanger the last 800 Tapanuli orangutans. (© Aditya Irawan/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

“Tropical forests are the lungs of the earth,” said Alex Lechner, a senior lecturer at the Lincoln Centre for Water and Planetary Health at the University of Lincoln in Lincoln, England. “Any development within these intact areas will have some kind of impact. We’re losing this amazing biodiversity and also opportunities to [pass it to] future generations.”

In a recent paper in the journal Conservation Biology, Alice C. Hughes, a professor at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and her colleagues modeled the planned routes of One Belt, One Road projects and predicted that more than 4,138 animal species and 7,371 plant species will be harmed. In Thailand and Cambodia, for example, proposed railways would cut through habitats for diverse mammal species.

“Because many of the regions that will be covered by the Belt and Road are areas that have seen relatively little development,” Hughes said,” it could have very big impacts on biodiversity.”

“It’s not just the footprint of the road or the rail, it’s all the spillover effects, like the new development that comes with the road,” Lechner said. “When it’s built, we can’t go back.”

Plan for environmental protection

It’s important in the earliest stages of a project to have plans that include considerations for environmental protection, Lechner said. Planners could “take a step back and ask, ‘Should these developments be there in the first place?’ because these are high conservation areas.” And if projects go forward, plans should minimize harm, he said. “If you have a bridge, wildlife can move underneath. If you have a tunnel, then they can go over. And you can actually have wildlife bridges and so on. If designed well, [harmful] impacts can be minimized,” Lechner said.

Poor planning, which plagues some Belt and Road projects, can be devastating to biodiversity, said Elizabeth Losos, a senior fellow at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Poorly planned construction can do grave harm, she said. “And by the time [such projects] are exposed through environmental impact assessments, it’s often too late to stop them,” she said.

Increasingly, organizations such as International Rivers and the Natural Resources Defense Council advocate for more environmental approaches to Belt and Road projects.

In many cases, it’s not too late to make changes, Losos said. Infrastructure building has slowed due to the pandemic, which gives countries time to reflect. “There is actually a huge opportunity right now,” she said.

“The Belt and Road has slowed down a lot. How it ramps up will have an enormous impact on biodiversity,” Losos said.

Freelance writer Linda Wang wrote this article.