River in the Peruvian Amazon.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has defended a plan to build a railway across the South American continent as a way to protect the environment and grow the region’s economy, reports AFP.
Speaking upon his arrival in Lima on Friday, Li asserted that China’s investment in the $10 billion project, which will span Brazil and Peru, wouldn’t jeopardize the environment.
“The three countries agree on the fact that the viability of this project will not only be favorable to our common development but will also protect the environment,” Li was quoted as saying. “China respects Latin America’s biodiversity.”
“To create the infrastructure, it is necessary to protect the environment.”
Li’s remarks came shortly after he presided over the signing of dozens of deals in Brazil, including a $7 billion investment in Petrobras and $4 billion in finance for mining giant Vale. China also said it would lift a ban on Brazilian beef.
With the Brazilian economy reeling, the deals were welcomed by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
“China and Brazil are playing a leading role in the construction of a new global order,” said Rousseff.
However some environmentalists have concerns, especially about the railway project, which will run from the Brazilian port of Santos to the Peruvian port of Ilo.
“This massive project will cut straight into the heart of the biologically richest real estate on the planet—the western Amazon. It will also slice through endangered habitats in the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest and the rapidly vanishing Cerrado savanna-woodlands,” Bill Laurance, an ecologist at James Cook University, told Mongabay. “By penetrating into these remote regions, it could open a Pandora’s Box of environmental evils—including deforestation, poaching, illegal mining, and land speculation. Everything about it says ‘environmental disaster in the making’.”
Areas of high biodiversity, indigenous territory, and Chinese investment. Image courtesy of Ray et al., 2015.Click to enlarge.
Infrastructure projects in the region have often caused outsized environmental impacts. Poorly planned roads have been particularly problematic, facilitating colonization and invasions of once remote areas by illegal loggers, miners, and land speculators. Li hinted at those issues in his remarks, suggesting that the railway could avoid some of the problems associated with roads.
Still there are no guarantees. The railroad could exacerbate impacts indirectly by increasing the profitability of industrial agriculture, logging, and mining. Furthermore, the announced investments in heavy industry could promote road-building for resource extraction, especially if Chinese companies and Latin American governments don’t enforce operating standards that reduce environmental impacts. A recent report published by researchers at Boston University warned that an influx of Chinese investment in the region could indeed cause significant damage unless proper safeguards are in place.
“Although some Chinese firms have demonstrated an ability to adhere to best practices in the social and environmental arena, by and large and Chinese firms operating in Latin America thus far lack the experience or policies in place to lessen the impacts of their investments in the region,” stated the report. “It is in the interests of the Latin American and Chinese governments, as well as Chinese firms, to put in place the proper social and environmental policies in order to maximize the benefits and mitigate the risks of China’s economic activity in Latin America.”