While China is focusing largely on Africa's oil, it is also reaching deeply into Africa's forests. China imports half of all the tropical trees being logged around the world, making it the world's largest importer of tropical timber. In the past 10 years, China's wood imports have jumped more than 400 percent — much of it harvested under conditions outlawed by local and regional laws from forests around the globe.
Nearly half — 46 per cent — of Gabon's forest exports go to China, making it Gabon's largest timber trading partner. Although Gabonese law requires timber to be processed before exportation — increasing its export value — China, with its abundance of cheap home-grown labor, wants only unprocessed logs. As a result, China encourages “flagrant disregard for the law,” according to the Web site of GlobalTimber.co.uk, which compiles data and studies on the international trade of wood products. According to the group, 80 percent of Gabon's timber exports to China are illegal.
China's timber imports from other African nations are just as shady, according to the group. Eighty percent of wood exports from Cameroon to China are illegal, as are 90 percent of the wood exports from Equatorial Guinea and Congo, the group says.
Ironically, China's growing demand for wood stems from recent policies it has enacted to protect its own forests. After deadly floods along the Yangtze River in 1998, the Chinese government instituted environmental protections aimed at preventing future disasters, including new restrictions on timber harvesting and reforestation projects to combat erosion. While those strategies may be helping to protect China's forests, they are prompting China to look elsewhere for timber.
China's demand for oil also has caused environmental degradation in Africa's forests. Gabon recently forced China's Sinopec oil company to stop exploring for oil in a national forest after the company was found to be polluting, dynamiting and carving roads through the forest.
African governments often are reluctant to prosecute China for its environmental activities because they “want the investments,” says Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
But with pressure mounting from environmentalists, Beijing last August issued new guidelines to encourage Chinese logging companies working overseas to carry out their operations in a sustainable manner. In November, China and Brazil announced they would give Africa free satellite imaging of the continent to help it respond to threats from deforestation, desertification and drought.
And in June, B&Q — one of China's largest home-improvement retail chains — announced it would guarantee that timber products in all its 60 stores come from legal sources. Moreover, the company pledged that within three years all its product lines will come from certified, ecologically responsible forestry operations. The move won high praise from the environmental group Greenpeace.
But there is still concern that China will continue to put its need for resources above its concern for habitat protection, and that African leaders — desperate for Chinese investments — will ignore environmental regulations.
In October, environmental activists in Gabon expressed outrage over a deal they say could destroy one of the most beautiful natural waterfalls in central Africa. The watchdog organization Environment Gabon said the deal between Gabon and a Chinese iron mining consortium would exempt from taxes for 25 years the Belinga iron ore mining project — run by a predominantly Chinese company — and free it from responsibility for any “environmental consequences.”
The project is set to be powered by a hydroelectric dam built at the spectacular Kongou Falls. No environmental-impact studies have been conducted — as required by Gabonese law — but construction has already begun, authorized by Gabon's Ministry of Mines.
The Chinese firm reportedly is ready to conduct environmental assessments if authorities request it. But Gabonese officials say the socio-economic benefits of the project outweigh environmental concerns.
“Belinga just reveals the tensions born of overlapping interests between the necessary development of the country and protecting the environment, as well as Chinese penetration into Africa,” said a government official.