Dear Li Keqiang: ‘Please respect our rights and environment’

a-Contenido informativo propioDear Li Keqiang: ‘Please respect our rights and environment’

Fuente:  The Guardian

Chinese premier’s visit to Latin America raises concerns about the impacts of mining, oil, agriculture and infrastructure projects

Chinese premier Li Keqiang, the deputy to president Xi Jinping, arrived in Brazil yesterday for a whirlwind Latin American tour that is set to deepen the already transformative role that China has played in the region over the last few years.

Multi-billion dollar investments and infrastructure projects such as a 5,300 km railway, agriculture, aircraft, currency and trade deals appear to be on Li’s agenda, which also includes visiting Chile, Colombia and Peru. But although such agreements may increase wealth for some and generate employment opportunities, many Latin Americans are deeply concerned about the potential social and environmental impacts.

What would you say to Premier Li if you could talk to him for a minute or two, particularly if you were currently involved in fighting, or struggling in some way against, a Chinese-backed project? I put that question to various people across Latin America. Monica Lopez Baltodano, from Nicaragua, says she would raise one particular project with Li: the increasingly infamous plan to build a canal across the country which involves cutting right through Lake Cocibolca, which she calls the “biggest and most important reserve of drinking water in all of Central America.”

“Chinese businessmen, together with our ambitious and unwise leaders, are proposing to build the canal that would cross the lake for more than 100 kms,” says Lopez Baltodano, from the Popol Na Foundation. “The canal will generate profits, but will cause irreversible humanitarian damage. What will be lost forever is the only source of fresh water for everyone in our region. What will prudent Chinese leaders think when, in less than three decades, whole generations in this part of the planet, amid chaos and desperation, die of thirst because of the so-called Chinese Canal?”

Margarita Florez, from Colombia’s Associacion Ambiente y Sociedad, would address a similar issue. Her main concern is the Chinese-backed plans for the River Magdalena, the country’s most important river on which many 1,000s of people depend, and one of the largest river basins in South America.

“Your visit at this moment in time is more than opportune as some of the planned works for the “Development of the River Magdalena” are going ahead,” Florez says she would say to Li. “This is being done with financing from your government, with the participation of Hydrochina and Powerchina. Dams and ports could be built by Chinese companies, with Chinese funds. These are issues of vital importance for every Colombian, and the people living along the Magdalena are particularly concerned about the possible social and environmental impacts.”

Others would talk to Li about mining, another of the sectors, in addition to dam-building, in which Chinese influence in Latin America is strongest. Cesar Padilla, from Chile, the first Latin American country to sign a trade agreement with China, would address mining companies’ lack of transparency and the difficulties in holding them to account.

“When we have problems with Western companies, we go to the UN, or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, or the OECD, although almost always without the hoped-for results,” says Padilla, from the Latin American Observatory on Mining Conflicts. “When it’s Chinese companies, we don’t know who to turn to, we don’t know who they answer to or what their principles of responsibility are. We don’t know if they even have them.”

Nevertheless, Padilla would tell Li that, in terms of operations, he doesn’t see any difference between Chinese companies and others.

“Irrespective of where the investment comes from, our experience is that mining companies don’t respect our rights,” Padilla says. “The Chinese companies increasingly present on our continent behave in the same way as other companies, imposing projects on our territories without consulting us and without respecting the fact that we’re opposed to mining. If Chinese companies want to invest in our territories, we don’t want it imposed on us. What we want is an open dialogue fully respecting our wishes.”

Julia Cuadros, from Cooperacion in Peru, where Chinese companies control 30% of all mining operations, says she would talk about two mines in particular. One is Las Bambas, recently-acquired from Glencore by the China Minmetals Corporation where local people are extremely concerned about the mine but not outright opposed to it, and the other, Rio Blanco, held by the Zijin Mining Group, which she claims “90% of the population” reject.

“They say, “We’re not poor, we have our lands, our animals and water despite climate change, and we don’t need mining,”” Cuadros would tell Li. ““What we need is healthcare, education and basic sanitation, and we need the government to fulfil its role in respecting our rights. Why are mining companies insisting on going ahead with this project?””

Manari Ushiga, an indigenous Sapara leader from the Amazon in Ecuador, where some of China’s biggest loans in recent years have acted as a lifeline to the economy, would also take the opportunity to tell Li that a Chinese company simply isn’t wanted. Two oil concessions bid for by Andes Petroleum called Lot 79 and Lot 83 include huge swathes of Sapara territory.

“We don’t accept, and we will not accept, the exploitation of oil in our territories because our vision of the world, our ideas about development, has no place for it,” Ushiga says. “It would be better if the Chinese company gave up on these lots. We are not going to accept the end of our lives and the end of the Sapara nation’s history and world.”

Flavia Camargo de Araujo, from Brazil, where China overtook the US in 2009 to become its biggest trade partner, would send Li a very different kind of message – that China, the biggest buyer of Brazil’s soybeans, has the chance to play a “major role” in promoting global environment sustainability.

“It’s estimated that 75% of Brazil’s exported soybeans come from illegally deforested areas,” Camargo, from the Instituto Socioambiental, would say to Li. “By requiring that Brazilian soy doesn’t involve illegal deforestation, China can play a key role in the conservation of the Amazon. This commitment has already been made by the European Union, and it’s essential that China does the same. This would be a commitment from the Chinese not only to Brazil, but to climate and biodiversity all around the world.”

Mexico’s Alejandra Serrano Pavon says she would talk about something entirely different: the Dragon Mart “mega-mall” in Cancun which would be the biggest distribution centre of Chinese goods in the western hemisphere and she says could have “serious impacts” on a protected natural area and water sources.

“It’s important the Chinese government detaches itself from a project that has caused so many conflicts and so much resistance in local communities and the country as a whole,” says Serrano Pavon, from the Mexican Centre of Environmental Law.

Researchers from the Natural Resources and Environment Foundation (FARN) in Argentina, whose president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner recently visited China, say they would raise a variety of issues with Li.

“The weakening of safeguards by financial institutions and the general trend in the region to lower standards of environmental protection, transparency and access to information means we’re closely following the development of bilateral relations,” FARN states. “What concerns us is the lack of information regarding contracts between Chinese companies and Argentina’s state oil and gas company, the direct award of infrastructure projects to Chinese actors without tender, and the proliferation of Chinese investments in energy sectors which have high social and environmental impacts.”