“The cooperation project not only created jobs for young people but brings business opportunities to Guineans,” chirped Kassory Fofana, Minister of State at the Chinese President’s office, as the first cargo ship containing 170,000 tons of bauxite arrived at China’s Yantai Port from Boke Port, Guinea.
In March 2015, China’s second largest aluminum producer, China Hongqiao Group announced that it had secured a mining and port investment deal in Guinea to develop and ship the nation’s bauxite, the raw component of aluminum. Working in a joint consortium with Singapore-based Winning Shipping Co Ltd, Yantai Port and Boke Mining Co, China Hongqiao Group underscored that investment would equal less than $200 million with expected capacity set to reach 10 million tons of bauxite a year.
Indeed, as China’s hunger for natural resources, including aluminum, has boomed over the years, the country has increasing look for new avenues to feed its growth. As Indonesia halted the export of all raw materials in 2014 and Australia put in place environmental restrictions, China has turned to Guinea and other nations to meet its 55 million ton bauxite demand. Guinea, an impoverished nation on the coast of Western Africa, holds some 26% of the world’s total bauxite deposits, or in other words 7.4 billion tons. While the project “marks a new era with numerous opportunities brought up by China’s Belt and Road Initiative”, the benefits for Guinea and its population remains unclear and could cause vast damage to the nation’s environment.
Lessons from the past
China has often been accused of exploiting Africa’s resources for its own benefit while offering little in return, with jobs often awarded to Chinese employees and skills rarely translated to the local population. Thanks to its very deep pockets, Beijing has secured advantageous contracts with local leaders, paying little heed to norms and rules. In particular, the Middle Kingdom has increasingly been prone to criticisms over its lack of respect for environmental and social regulations put in place for its mining activities. In 2013, Zambia’s Environmental Management Agency halted a $832 million Chinese copper mine project due to the alleged failure of China’s Nonferrous Mining Corporation to comply with environmental and labor standards, in particular with the resettlement plan for affected parties. While the project was allowed to continue in 2014, the incident underlines the ambiguous relationships Chinese firms have with environmental and safety issues.
Malaysia, which is currently producing bauxite at a breakneck pace to meet China’s demand, is set to export over 20 million tons this year. While the industry has indeed proved lucrative both for businesses and the government, the environmental impact has been catastrophic. While attempting to keep up exports to China, Malaysia’s government has largely failed in enacting the necessary social and environmental regulations, leading to the contamination of water sources with radioactive materials, including mercury, arsenic and lead. Similarly, the open trucks transporting bauxite from mine to port run though the towns and villages, leaving a cloud of suffocating red dusk behind them and leading to further health complications for Malaysia’s local population. Despite the quantity of bauxite supplied, China has done little to encourage the sustainability of the industry in Malaysia. Since the nation’s bauxite reserves are predicted to dry up within 5 years, China’s thirst for the red ore could largely be held responsible for long term environmental degradation. Similarly, China’s poorly regulated bauxite mining in Vietnam led to widespread river and marine life contamination, deforestation and reduced plant productivity.
In Guinea, Winning International Group and China Hongqiao Group have already confirmed that bauxite exports from the Boke region are set to rise to 30 million tons in the next two years, up from the initial 10 million ton prediction. While Guinea has welcomed the Chinese consortium with open arms due to the prospects of job creation, development in ports and railways, and a hope that Chinese investment in the mining industry will bring benefits to the country, Guinea’s leadership should be weary of the hefty costs such investment could bring. If past examples of China’s disregard for local laws and safety and environmental issues in Africa and worldwide are anything to go on, Guinea’s leadership must ensure that China’s development of the country’s bauxite is subject to stringent labor and environmental regulations. Without such measures, Guinea could become just one more notch China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.