Dreams of a Green Silk Road, Part 3: First Build Bridges

This piece is the last of a 3-part series on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the 5-day conference on environmentally and socially responsible international investment held at Duke Kunshan University this October.

Part 1 introduces the context of the Belt and Road, and asks some of the burning questions raised at this fall’s meeting.

Part 2 provides a taste of the complex discussions facilitated by the conference, where participants reached across disciplinary boundaries as well as geographic ones.

A single weekend of shared perspectives is an important start to broadening stakeholders’ awareness of perspectives beyond their own—perhaps enough to help some decision makers and researchers who attended ask new kinds of questions as they embark upon their next project. But one meeting of minds alone is not enough. Truly sharing knowledge between sectors has to involve ongoing relationships and meaningful channels to keep communication open in the longer term.

The final three days of the event, in recognition of this, were an attempt to make sure that some of the conversations started over the weekend do continue into the future—and can be effectively directed toward the policy makers and others who most need to hear them. This workshop focused its efforts on the increasingly detailed sets of environmental and economic mapping data that researchers across different sectors of the stakeholder community have developed. A primary goal was to develop a shared sense of what kind of information is available, of who was working on what, and how to best coordinate the international efforts to get this information to the places it will do the most good.


Major ecosystem service categories (Water Research Commission)

In discussions of both global economics and international security, the health of the natural environment tends to take a back seat, as if it were only a secondary concern after the “real” business is settled. But all human plans and achievements depend on environmental factors. These include breathable air and accessible clean water, soil healthy enough to produce food, and forests and seas able to harbor diverse animals and plants that keep one another in a healthy, thriving balance. Policymakers and pundits focused on growth and geopolitics tend to take the natural capital of the world for granted, though it is the foundation and the raw material of all other economic activity.

We notice, though, when these mundane but essential resources take serious damage, or go missing. In some cases—say, when choking smog blankets Beijing or Sacramento—we can see the difference immediately with our eyes, feel the changes as toxins meet the tissue of our lungs. Other resource degradation takes longer to notice: the river that runs lower and lower each rainy season, or the coast that harbors fewer and fewer fish. The metals and chemicals building up invisibly in polluted soil may only show themselves years later, as mysterious illnesses appear in the children raised on crops from that field; the deteriorating health of a forest may not be clear until a tipping point is reached and a collapsing ecosystem is overrun by fire or invasive scrub.

Whatever its speed (or scale, if we consider world-wide issues like climate change), environmental deterioration can have real and immediate social impacts, which can in turn cascade into impacts on every other area of human activity. Perhaps the link between environment, society, governance, and economy can be seen most clearly in the places where it has broken down catastrophically. Take the case of Basra, Iraq, a previously stabilized area of the war-scarred country currently producing oil again. Basra erupted back into conflict this past summer; rather than a new outbreak of fighting related to the broader tides of the region’s wars, however, this conflict consisted of public protests that degenerated into deadly interactions between residents and security forces. One of the main roots of this unrest has been the breakdown of water and sanitation infrastructure in the city—especially the contamination of the area’s water supply by saltwater, which has been creeping upstream from the coast, tainting the city’s river and the canals that once gave Basra the nickname of The Venice of the East.

With leadership and top brass focused elsewhere, with drought hitting the region hard, and with war complicating the broader management of upstream dams across national boundaries, management of the downstream watershed fell by the wayside—even as local oil production has soared. Fruit trees planted a decade ago, slowly rebuilding some of what the years of fighting had destroyed, are now withering as the ocean finds its way through the ground to their roots. Rumors of cholera only compounded accusations that incompetent watershed management and unmaintained sewage and trash systems have lead to a massive public health crisis, with much of the city left with salty, filthy water to drink. Protests over living conditions and lack of public services, some of which devolved into fatal clashes with police in July, spilled over into direct economic disruption in September when protesters shut down Basra’s main port, the lifeline through which most of the city’s food and supplies must pass. The crowds then set fire to various government buildings and political offices, including the Iranian consulate.

Obviously the history and geopolitical setting of Basra deeply complicate the outcomes of this situation, which is still ongoing. But a story like Basra’s, perhaps more pointedly than lower-profile stories of environmental degradation in areas distant from conflict zones, can highlight a reality that is easy to forget when focusing on abstract realms of financial flows, trade negotiations, politics and even warfare:  Environment and society are deeply, inextricably linked, and political and economic success are fundamentally tied to the health of both. Without a livable environment, no other human institutions can thrive. When the environment is degraded significantly, and people’s physical needs are not being met, then everything humans do or build within that environment becomes vulnerable.

And if governments don’t plan well to protect and manage critical environmental systems during times of dramatic human activity—whether the tearing-down of war, or the building-up of new development and extraction—then these essential resources will not protect themselves, even if money is being made. Basra’s oil sales did not shield it from the environmental realities of water mismanagement; the money pulled from the ground didn’t stop an angry and physically ill population from shutting down trade for days and torching government offices. Only proactive planning, by capable stewards empowered to implement thoughtful priorities, could have headed off these problems before they reached a breaking point.


The three-day workshop first summarized some of the environmental research community’s most universal concerns related to projects like those comprising the Belt and Road Initiative. Connectivity projects such as roads, railways and transmission corridors (often referred to as “linear infrastructure,” given their long, narrow shape) impact far more than their direct footprint across a map might suggest. A road makes it easy to access areas that were once remote—and in doing so, opens new land to easy logging, hunting and other resource extraction. This phenomenon happens in such a systematic way that a distinctive “fishbone” pattern of deforestation can be seen in satellite images from forested regions all around the world, where roads are build through previously isolated areas. The satellite image below on the left, for example, shows a forested region in the Brazilian Amazon in 1975, with a newly cleared road faintly visible in white (running from the top toward bottom, and forking toward the side on the right-hand edge of the frame). The image to the right shows how other roads have since branched off from this original pathway as its use expanded, seeding a lattice of new development (and with it, loss of tree cover) over the 25 years that followed.

Deforestation in Rondonia, Brazil, between 1975 and 2001 (UNEP).

Connectivity for people can also, ironically, mean disruptions of connectivity for nature. Roads may not seem like a major impediment from a human perspective, but they can make the difference between free or restricted movement of significant animal populations. Road cuts, never mind roads themselves or traffic along them, can limit perceived territory size and genetic flow, especially for large predators that need significant uninterrupted areas of terrain to hunt and flourish. High traffic areas can also directly kill or injure animals unlucky enough to get in the way of cars or trucks, causing significant human fatalities each year as well.

But there are some ways to minimize these negative impacts, and these details can make a huge difference. For example, a railroad, if built right, might allow for less environmental degradation from secondary development than a roadway allows (as there is less freedom for people who travel along the railway to exit at any point along the way, as compared to traveling by car). And some practical solutions for wildlife connectivity have been developed to keep habitat sections intact even despite the barriers that roadways create. Wildlife corridors and bridges, like one in Beijing that crosses a major ring road to connect two halves of the city’s Olympic Park, can make a huge difference when planners are willing and able to thoughtfully incorporate them. The one shown in the top image is landscaped for park use, but similar ecological crossings without trails and other human accommodations are also becoming increasingly common around the world.


The panel’s participants and organizers also outlined some of possible ways to head off unintended environmental degradation from development through changes in the planning process.

Many countries, including China, do require project builders to carry out a detailed research study of the likely environmental impacts of a project (called an Environmental Impact Assessment or EIA). In practice, however, this environmental analysis is usually left until relatively late in the timeline of a development project’s execution. By the time serious environmental questions are raised and brought to the forefront, millions of dollars may have already been sunk into implementing a project as designed. This makes it difficult, both financially and politically, for a project to change course if a serious concern is uncovered, even if a clear better alternative location or design is identified. The incentives for companies and governments to do a thorough job on these EIA reports are limited, therefore, and public advocacy organizations may not have the resources to challenge incomplete or bad work. What’s more, by the time a local community begins to hear about and understand these details, construction may have already begun, making it even less likely that rerouting or redesign could occur, even in the case of dramatic public protest.

The earlier environment can be considered, then, the better the likely outcome. Some researchers are now calling for not only assessments of the impacts of individual projects, but the development of a coherent environmental planning strategy at the national, or even international, level. These strategic environmental assessments would help policymakers and development companies identify regions of special environmental importance and sensitivity, guiding development choices toward the regions where they will do not only less harm, but more good. For example, if an area is identified as a particularly critical biodiversity hotspot, planners might be encouraged to design their projects to skirt or avoid these areas entirely, or build in more expensive but lower-impact ways.

Mammal species richness in Southeast Asia (Félix Pharand-Deschenes at Globaïa, courtesy of BiodiversityMapping.org).

Mapping plays a uniquely powerful role in this kind of analysis. Mapping is both a science and a communication art, a tool for taking abstract data from across many research fields and packaging it for easy comparison and consumption. Combining decades of data on species distribution, forest cover, cities, poverty, geology, previous planned projects and any number of other factors can paint a dramatic picture of the elements of a landscape that are otherwise extremely hard to understand in relation to one another. Using software and clever analytical methods, these kinds of spatial analyses can help researchers to identify new patterns of best- and worst-practice land use and to predict what kinds of impacts new projects might have. They can then use this knowledge to suggest lower-impact alternatives for siting the projects that are truly necessary in a region. Good mapping makes it much easier to communicate the “whys” and “hows” of selecting a more responsible location.


The discussions eventually turned to logistics. What platforms and formats are available for sharing this kind of data? Several speakers shared their ongoing work building different kinds of mapping tools that could be customized to the group’s needs. And who should the target audiences be, in the Belt and Road context? Chinese policy makers, public advocacy organizations, local governments in the countries hosting BRI investments, businesses crossing the boundaries of each, international banks, the general public…?

There are benefits and challenges to tailoring information for the understanding and easy use of any one (or subset) of these groups. One of the reasons there is so much attention being given to the BRI as a concept is the potential to leverage the political links between these otherwise disparate projects to improve the outcome of lots of construction at once. But the reality is more complicated: while the Chinese government is pushing for more development in many places, the obligations and actions of the individual Chinese companies carrying out specific projects may be much more directly controlled by the expectations of individual host countries, in terms of both local laws and local social norms. These companies may also be struggling to understand the unique local expectations placed on developers in a region that is new to them—just as communities and government agencies may be struggling to understand the expectations and assumptions of their new business partner.

It may be that real advances in cooperative environmental planning will have to be made at the level of each individual country involved in the BRI, through corporate outreach, activism, and civil advocacy on the ground in each location, rather than via a simple top-down approach targeting the Chinese political sphere. But if so, the sharing of data and information about successes and failures in these efforts will be no less important. Researchers will still need information networks to help study and facilitate best practices for supporting the civil society advocates and corporate managers who take up the difficult and slow work of shifting their nations’ and organizations’ priorities.

I was unable to attend the last day and a half of the conference (I still had classes and major assignments to focus on that week). But the participants I spoke to afterward said they left the workshop with a sense that real connections had been made among them, and with concrete plans and steps on the horizon. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next as those involved begin to translate ideas into action.


To get wealthy, first build a road. But to build a road wisely, you must understand that wealth does not come from nothing. Wealth is drawn from the environment, from the natural resources and capital of the earth, which cannot be replaced once squandered. And wealth is drawn from people, whose lives are either enriched or destroyed in the process.

To build a road right, first plan well. And to plan well, first build bridges: find the people that understand complex problems, and create the tools that will help you see these problems more clearly. Faculty, students, and staff at DKU and Duke together put in over a year of hard work to organize this fall’s conference. Their effort has paid off in ways that may someday echo from Beijing to Warsaw and from Jakarta to Panama City. These events did build bridges between diverse participants and will move the global development conversation forward.

Thanks to the more than a dozen participants and conference organizers who took the time to speak with me over the week of the conference, sharing their perspectives on the event itself and the topics discussed in this post. 

Top Image: Ecological bridge over the 5th Ring Road, between northern and southern Olympic Park in Beijing (Beijing Tsinghua Tongheng Urban Planning and Design Institute)

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