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Home Discussion Papers Enviro Africa China’s environmental footprint in Africa
China’s environmental footprint in Africa
Written by Sarah Kiggundu (1) Monday, 04 June 2012 08:04

Africa is a prime location for mining natural resources, usually destined for the European and American markets.(2) Since the turn of the 19th century, China and Africa have expanded both their political and economic relations with each other, through trade and investment and China is now one of Africa’s development partners. China’s growing economy has created a booming demand for oil, gas, and other raw materials,(3) a number of which are found on the African continent, making Africa an increasingly important geo-strategic location for Chinese economic growth interests.(4) China’s Africa policy, including her higher education and research partnerships foster strong bonds, in addition to securing a share of Africa’s resources.(5) The resources required for development are often located within fragile ecosystems, and within African countries with weak governance systems.(6) As a result, the Chinese Government has developed governance-related guidelines for development projects in Africa and its other overseas investment ventures.(7)

Despite an increasing development presence in Africa, China still remains a relatively small player when compared with Africa’s historic relations with the West. In 2008, China is reported to have exported 9% of oil from Africa; whereas Europe and the US exported 36% and 33% respectively.(8) Furthermore, China’s investment of US$ 10 billion in African oil infrastructure is less than a tenth of the US$ 168 billion spent by international companies, such as Exxon Mobil, Shell and Total.(9)

This paper provides an overview and assessment of the level of success of the Sino-Africa relationship in terms of trade and investment within the current economic climate on the continent, highlighting Sudan and Zimbabwe as case studies. The extent of the Chinese footprint, in terms of increased development projects in Africa, is also examined.

Sudan’s role in Chinese expansion into Africa

In 1959, Sudan became the fourth African Government to establish formal relations with China. However, significant ties between the two countries were only established in the mid-nineties, when China began to pursue energy resources.(10) The Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) entered Sudan in 1995. By 2005, Sudan provided 5% of China’s oil imports.(11) China also invested in a pipeline, an oil refinery, a railroad and several thermal- and hydro-electric power plants. These investments have been necessary to guarantee “long term and steady supply of crude oil imports” for China.(12) These same patterns of investment and development can be seen in countries such as Angola, Congo Brazzaville, Ethiopia, Gabon and Zambia.

During the course of Sudan’s development, risks and unrest have plagued the country and hindered the speed with which development has been carried out. In January 2011, militants affiliated with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM-N) kidnapped 29 Chinese workers from a company located between El Abbassiya and Rashad.(13) The SPLM-N demanded that Beijing exert pressure on the Sudanese Government to cease military operations in the South.(14) In this particular instance, the importance of education and training for companies and staff operating in hostile environments are key factors that were highlighted, and were incorporated into the subsequent process of development. Though the Chinese Government does not directly involve itself in the decisions made by the enterprises it owns, it does, however, offer support in the form of financial and diplomatic relations.(15)

Chinese investment in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe faces a myriad of problems, ranging from hyperinflation, underdevelopment of infrastructure, political uncertainty, external debt, and high unemployment.(16) These factors have placed a heavy burden on its financial sector, thus affecting the value of its currency.(17) Furthermore, due to an ailing economy and the impact of sanctions, a need for monetary, political, and military alliance with China has been prompted. This has led to increased Chinese presence within Zimbabwe, from local businesses to national corporations, all under China’s management and supervision.(18)

In 2011, China’s Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, began his five-nation tour of Africa in Zimbabwe. During this time, there were reports that the two nations would sign a US$ 10 billion trade deal.(19) http://imagec18.247realmedia.com/RealMedia/ads/Creatives/default/empty.gifZimbabwe's Coalition Government is united in its support of this deal, insisting that Chinese investment in mining and agriculture could help boost the economy.(20) On Zimbabwe’s side of the deal, it has the world’s second largest platinum reserves, in addition to vast diamond reserves.(21) China on the other hand has developmental goals with regard to mining, agriculture, infrastructure, and communication technology that may assist the impoverished nation, while ensuring that a portion of Zimbabwe’s resources are placed under Chinese control.(22)

China’s footprint across the continent

China is a world leader in renewable energy technologies - a much needed energy technology for both urban and rural communities in Africa.(23) In addition, Chinese products - energy-related and in general - have proven to be more affordable than Western products. The Chinese development strategy, which focuses on extraction of resources for the global market, necessitates a centralised, capital-intensive approach. As a result, in most cases, strict guidelines can be enforced through totalitarian policies.(24)

The environmental risks associated with the extraction of resources through mining, oil, gas, timber and hydropower are high. By creating access to resources that are difficult to obtain, the associated risks are raised even further, making it increasingly evident that, in some cases, economic growth has been prioritised above environmental protection. In efforts to improve investment, African leaders have openly welcomed trade. China’s ability to work within any kind of atmosphere, amidst concerns of corruption or environmental degradation, has enabled her, as a developing nation,(25) to prosper within the African setting. The Chinese Government’s concerns over the impacts of its investments has prompted the introduction and implementation of guidelines and policies regarding workers’ rights, product safety, community relations and acknowledgement of environmental degradation, that can occur from poorly managed projects.(26)

The aid and assistance received from China eases the burden many African nations face, born partly as a result of the strict policies of international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.(27) Approximately 70% of the value of contracts that have been awarded to Chinese firms under multilateral projects were accounted for by four African countries - Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).(28) This figure differs in comparison to Chinese-funded projects, where more than 55% of the contract value has been accounted for by countries such as Angola, Sudan and Nigeria.(29) In terms of infrastructure and development on the continent, these figures indicate that Chinese contractors have a significant presence in many African countries that may not necessarily be big market players in terms of Chinese investment deals.

What’s next for African-Chinese relations?

Investment on the continent has facilitated economic growth, provided employment opportunities and has allowed for struggling nations to be eased, even partially, of their financial burdens. China is currently involved in expanding her interests in 35 African countries, with a concentration of projects in Angola, Nigeria and Sudan.(30) Furthermore, there are plans to implement a range of projects in the DRC.(31) These four countries possess vast mineral resources, and whilst development is a key objective within any developing nation, the questions of whether fair trade is occurring and mutual agreements are being reached must arise.

It is understood that the extraction of natural resources, as well as pursuing rigorous developmental agendas, with the associated impact on natural resource, can have damaging effects on the environment. Moreover, large-scale development programmes often tend to neglect environmental concerns in pursuit of meeting the projects’ objectives. As a result, investment can at times be seen to benefit China more so than the developing nations in which Chinese projects operate. In this light, investment and expansion into Africa can be viewed negatively and is increasingly becoming a serious topic of debate.  


(1) Contact Sarah Kiggundu through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Enviro-Africa Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) Ibid.
(3) ‘Once upon a coup: China's footprint in Africa’, PBS, 25 August 2009, http://www.pbs.org.
(4) Ibid.
(5) ‘China-Africa: A partnership with equal benefits?’, The African Network for Internalization of Education, 9 October 2010,  http://www.anienetwork.org.
(6) Bosshard, P., 2008, ‘China in Africa Policy Briefing’, SAIIA, http://www.saiia.org.za.
(7) Ibid.
(8) ‘Once upon a coup: China's footprint in Africa’, PBS, 25 August 2009, http://www.pbs.org.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Shichor, Y., ‘Sudan: China’s outpost in Africa’, The Jamestown Foundation, 13 October 2005, http://www.jamestown.org.
(11) Bosshard, P., 2008, ‘China in Africa Policy Briefing’, SAIIA, http://www.saiia.org.za.
(12) Shichor, Y., ‘Sudan: China’s outpost in Africa’, The Jamestown Foundation, 13 October 2005, http://www.jamestown.org.
(13) Miller, W., ‘Sudan kidnappings highlight risks facing Chinese expansion’, Willis Wire, 9 February 2012, http://blog.willis.com.
(14) Ibid.
(15) Bosshard, P., 2008, ‘China in Africa Policy Briefing’, SAIIA, http://www.saiia.org.za.
(16) Muresan, A., ‘China in Zimbabwe, an unsatisfactory alliance?’, Consultancy Africa Intelligence, 20 March 2012, http://www.polity.org.za.
(17) Ibid.
(18) Fisher, M., In Zimbabwe, Chinese investment with hints of colonialism’, The Atlantic, 24 June 2011, http://www.theatlantic.com.
(19) Smith, D., ‘China poised to pour $10 billion into Zimbabwe’s ailing economy’, The Guardian, 1 February 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(20) Ibid.
(21) Els, F., ‘A new kind of hyperinflation: Zimbabwe hikes mining fees by as much as 8,000%’, Mining.com, 20 February 2012, http://www.mining.com.
(22) Ibid.
(23) Bosshard, P., 2008, ‘China in Africa Policy Briefing’, SAIIA, http://www.saiia.org.za.
(24) Smith, D., ‘China poised to pour $10 billion into Zimbabwe’s ailing economy’, The Guardian, 1 February 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(25) According to the United Nations, the IMF, and the World Bank, the most important criterion to judge whether a country is developed or developing is its per capita income. By that yardstick, China is very much a developing country.
(26) ‘China in Africa’, Institute of Developing Economies Japan External Trade Organisation, http://www.ide.go.jp.
(27) Ibid.
(28) ‘China in Africa’, Institute of Developing Economies Japan External Trade Organisation, http://www.ide.go.jp.
(29) Ibid.
(30) Ibid.
(31) Ibid.


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