Indonesia Needs to be Careful for Environmental Destruction Caused by the BRI

Indonesia is a major destination of China’s Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI). Ever since Xi Jinping introduced the initiative in 2013, the Archipelago has been one of the countries where the BRI is being actively implemented. To this date, the government in Jakarta has signed 28 projects worth $91.1 billion under the guise of the BRI.

These projects, among others, include the Sei Mangkei Industrial Zone and Kura-Kura Island in Bali.

While the BRI is expected to bring forward many benefits to Indonesia, it has also brought worry to the country. Issues such as debt-traps, as well as the sustainability of the projects, have become major debates among policymakers and average citizens.

However, one aspect that seems to be neglected in the discussion is the potential negative environmental implications brought along the BRI investments. It is widely known that some recipient countries are beginning to voice concerns over BRI projects for their impacts on the local environment such as in Kenya, where the construction of a Chinese financed coal power project has been halted per judicial order issued in September 2018 amid local environmental activists warning the environmental and public health effects of burning coal.

As a country that receives considerable BRI investments, this environmental aspect should be a concern for Indonesia as well. Although there has not yet been notable environmental cases in Indonesia, early preparations are needed to mitigate the likelihood of impacts.

BRI and environment

In the past several years, there has already been reports on cases of environmental damage brought by the BRI in countries where it is being carried out. For example, Chinese-funded hydropower projects along the Mekong River – which spans Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar – have witnessed dams cause river flow to change and block fish migration. This has resulted in a loss of livelihood for people living off the river.

The Fisheries Action Coalition Team (FACT), a group that promotes sustainable resource management, reported that fish stocks have decreased in number in recent years caused by hydropower dams built upstream in Cambodia and surrounding countries.

BRI has also caused deforestation. For example, in the Pan Borneo Highway – which spans Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei – which further led to landslides, floods, and other disaster mitigation concerns.

Negative environmental impacts of the BRI have also begun to be felt in Indonesia. Indonesia’s Tapanuli orangutan, which is the world’s rarest great ape, is at risk from a $1.6 billion hydroelectric power plant presently being developed in Sumatra Island, a BRI project.

Not just losing places to live, native species in ASEAN are also threatened by the increased connectivity the BRI tried to create. A study published earlier this month in the Current Biology journal found that the BRI could potentially introduce more than 800 alien invasive species – including 98 amphibians, 177 reptiles, 391 birds and 150 mammals – into several countries along its many routes and developments, threatening their ecosystems.

The facts above, which only a few of the many cases of negative environmental impacts of the BRI, should be a great concern for Indonesia. Some entities in Indonesia have raised concerns over the possible environmental problems brought by the BRI. One example is the Indonesian Forum for Environment (WALHI) which believes that the China-backed construction of coal-fired power plants could destroy important ecosystems in Indonesia.

Indonesia needs to be careful

Despite the fact that cases of environmental destruction caused by the BRI have not yet been very apparent, Indonesia, as a major destination of the Chinese initiative needs to be prepared.

Indonesia is lucky that many BRI projects in the country are still in the beginning stage. In this case, the government in Jakarta needs to have a serious discussion with its counterpart in Beijing concerning making efforts to minimise the environmental implications resulted from the implementation of the BRI before going further.

Indonesia can urge China to have clear procedures in mitigating the environmental implications of the projects, without which the BRI will not be allowed to be implemented.

Moreover, Indonesia also needs to have the courage to bring relevant stakeholders under scrutiny if cases of environmental negligence are found.

Indonesia needs to remember that it has considerable bargaining power with China. If we look at the official map of the initiative, the Chinese plan to reconstruct the ancient Silk Route would not be realised without the roles of Indonesia.