China investing heavily in Latin America, but human and environmental costs may be too high
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China investing heavily in Latin America, but human and environmental costs may be too high

Back in May we looked at China’s investment in Latin America with an eye on the region’s resources, but also as a new frontier for large-scale building contracts for Chinese corporations. When comparing China’s involvement to prior eras of European colonization and Cold War meddling, we see an absence of occupations, genocide or military intervention, but parallels in terms of resource plundering, environmental destruction and post-colonial trade relationships.

China is eclipsing the U.S. in Latin American trade and investment

Case in point: China has become Brazil’s largest trading partner, with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) representing 41 percent of Brazilian exports and 34.2 percent of imports as of 2012.

In addition to a massive $50 million trade and investment deal in May between the two countries was the negotiation of a 3,500-mile trans-Amazonian railway from the Brazilian Atlantic coast to Peru’s Pacific. The project, to be financed by the China Development Bank, is naturally unpopular with indigenous groups and environmental activists, but also among some politicians and business interests, which see their river ports and soy industries as threatened by the railway.

Brazilian scholar José Eustáquio Diniz Alves believes that China’s trans-Amazonian highway project:

…will be a crucial test of China’s mettle as a global power and the potential for greater acquiescence in South America to the designs that China has on our resources . . . We’re experiencing the downside of our overreliance on China now that the opaque Chinese economy is in flux. Imagine what will happen if this railway somehow advances, bringing with it environmental devastation and even more leverage for China in our affairs.

(via the New York Times)

A region-wide phenomenon

China isn’t just focusing on Brazil and Peru as sites for development deals. Major planned rail projects in other Latin American countries include:

  • A Colombian rail alternative to the Panama Canal linking the Caribbean to the Pacific
  • Two ports and a coast-to-coast railroad in Honduras
  • A cancelled $4.3 billion high-speed rail system in Mexico
  • A 290-mile high-speed railway in Venezuela on which construction began, but has since faced multiple delays

And then there is the controversial 172-mile, US $50 billion canal project in Nicaragua, another potential alternative to the Panama Canal, which could devastate Lake Nicaragua, a major fresh water reservoir. The country’s indigenous communities, along with environmental groups, have opposed the project since its announcement in 2012. A recent protest against the canal attracted some 15,000 participants.

Colonialism’s traditional victims are the victims of today’s neo-colonials

Indigenous communities and environmental activists — which, by virtue of necessity, are often one and the same — are at extreme risk in Latin America when opposing such major development projects as those involving Chinese investors and construction firms. The race for resources among the world’s major economies does not bode well for those who actively oppose environmental destruction and support indigenous rights in those countries most at risk.

From Care2:

The bottom line remains the same. Short-sighted foreign investment and large-scale projects continue to endanger both biodiversity and indigenous livelihoods in Latin America. Additional pressures on forests and waterways will likely manifest as violent human conflict if stakeholders directly affected by construction fail to be consulted or adequately involved in the decision making process. Human and environmental rights must accompany economic interests.

As the United States’ power wanes in Latin America, China’s is rising.

The U.S.’s history of propping up brutal dictators and undermining democracy in the region may make the PRC’s involvement seem preferable. Indeed, China is using the “soft” power of large-scale construction contracts, investment and trade deals, yet economic pressure can prompt national governments to act just as brutally as political motives.

The victims remain victims — whoever is pulling the strings.

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