On October 21, a webinar involving the U.S. Institute of Peace, a group of experts from Washington and several specialists was held to study and share research on China-Africa cooperation projects in infrastructure and economic development. As a result, opinions were highlighted that marked the problems affecting local societies, the region’s macroeconomics, and the environment.

Alexa Tata, an economist who worked at the African Development Bank, gave Cameroon as an example. Smuggling and poaching is fueled by high demand from China, which is a major buyer. The huge profits generated by this business attract a poor population and local officials who do not hesitate to break the rules, corrupting the system from within.

Tata said, “These locals have no work and their only option is to sell what they know, which is their only source of food. Illegal mining and destruction of wild habitats have caused many conflicts between local residents and neighboring villages.” she continued, “The government does not make environmental and social governance issues its priority when doing business with China, it is more concerned about the investment, money and development it brings.”

Two of the products most sought after by Chinese buyers and whose procurement causes serious damage to the ecosystem are rosewood and ivory. China handles 70% of the ivory trade, and despite a ban imposed by Beijing in 2018, the market is still active and uses the Burma border to bring in illegal African ivory.

 According to Arnold Nciko, a researcher at the U.S. Institute of Peace, China holds absolute mining rights to extract cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its operations have significantly accelerated pollution and environmental degradation.

Nciko said, “Civil society in Congo must find ways, not only within the country, but also in regional and international regulations, to try to somehow change the way Chinese mining companies operate in Third World countries like Congo.”

Child slavery

Cobalt mining gained a huge boost from energy transition policies, being one of the main components in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles. More than two-thirds of the world market comes from Congo. China controls or finances 15 of the 19 cobalt mines in the country.

On July 14, U.S. House Rep. Christopher Smith, who chaired Tom Lantos’s Human Rights Commission hearing, stated, “At the expense of trafficked laborers and child laborers, China exploits the Democratic Republic of Congo’s vast cobalt resources to further its economy and global agenda.”

He continued, “The Chinese Communist Party’s quest for cobalt for batteries and lithium for solar panels to fuel the so-called Green Economy motivates human rapacity, as approximately 40,000 children in Congo toil in unregulated artisanal mines in dangerous conditions.”

Further details were provided by the testimony of Congolese civil rights lawyer Hervé Diakiese Kyungu. 

He said that artisanal mines “are often nothing more than narrow shafts dug into the ground, whereby children are recruited – and in many cases forced – to descend into them, using only their hands or rudimentary tools without any protective equipment, to extract cobalt and other minerals.”

Kyungu added, “They are unpaid and exploited, and the work is often fatal, as the children must crawl through small holes dug in the ground.”

He said, “The officially artisanal mines are supposed to be owned by Congolese citizens working in ‘cooperatives’. In reality, they are selling the product extracted from these to the Chinese and other foreigners such as Pakistanis or Indians. However, the vast majority of this ore is trafficked through Chinese middlemen.” Kyungu said, adding:

Kyungu said that the Chinese representatives active investors. They are on site, overseeing operations.

In March, a court in the Democratic Republic of Congo handed over to state control for at least six months of the Tenke Fungurume cobalt mine, owned by China Molybdenum, one of the world’s largest companies.

The government claims that the company failed to declare hundreds of thousands of tons of copper and cobalt reserves to avoid paying royalties to the state. In addition, workers have complained about the lack of security, aggression after expressing their complaints, and bribes to cover up accidents.

Debt trap diplomacy

In the 1970s, China began forming trade relations with African countries as part of a strategic plan to acquire raw materials and expand its influence. 

China’s so-called “Belt and Road” initiative aimed at stimulating trade flows offered infrastructure loans for road, rail, and port networks.

The loans at lower interest rates and without the requirements demanded by other entities, prompted several countries to accept the offers, without considering the consequences in case of default.

The United States and specialists around the world accused the CCP of using these credits as a tool of diplomatic coercion to seek support in case of conflicts (Taiwan) or to stop resolutions or investigations from the U.N. General Assembly (Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang). They call it debt-trap diplomacy.

The dark side of these loans can also be seen in some of the demands that the CCP forces on the governments that receive them. 

One of the best known cases was that of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. Despite being a project whose repayment was considered unfeasible, the CCP pushed the island’s government to borrow more money from Chinese banks, knowing the high risk of default. 

Unable to repay the loan, the CCP demanded the port as collateral. Sri Lanka had to hand over the facilities to a Chinese company.

Recently, the CCP decided to forgive 23 interest-free loans to 17 African countries. Knowing the true face of the Chinese regime, many analysts question this decision, framing it as yet another public relations maneuver after the successive accusations of extortive use of these loans, or as another case of debt trap diplomacy.

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