Construction company China Railway Group Limited (CREC) will be in charge of developing, designing, and building the Potosí-Cochabamba highway in Bolivia. The project, however, could wipe out the ecological wealth of the Potosí department, independent investigative journalism platform Diálogo Chino reported.
“In the last decade, Chinese investments in mining and the construction of infrastructure works such as highways have gained a strong foothold in Bolivia,”environmental expert Mariel Guerra, a member of the Bolivian nongovernmental organization (NGO) Potosí Ecology Society, told Diálogo on August 20. “Where it [Beijing] goes, it creates a lot of environmental, labor, and social problems.”
The project, preliminarily called the Tiku Integration Highway, after the traditional dance of the Andean department, will begin in Tinguipaya, Potosí, and end in Achamoco, Cochabamba. It will span 259 kilometers, 222 of which will cross the territory of more than 30 indigenous communities, Diálogo Chino reported.
The news site also pointed out that the route set to connect both departments will damage archeological zones, several ecological zones, and a mineral deposit. Potosí is a fertile land that has an abundant biodiversity of fauna, is rich in mineral resources, and where most of the community members are dedicated to agriculture.
“The Chinese company plans to start the road in 2023. If so, it will obviously start without an environmental impact study,”Guerra said. “The problem with this type of project is that it does not have an environmental permit.”
According to CREC, the road project will improve the quality of life of Potosí communities. “But the project is tied to pursuits other than just the well-being of the communities,” Guerra said. “The road is going to pass through the Mallhu Khota deposit, where there are tons of gold, silver, copper, indium, and gallium. If anything, the company [CREC] seeks to exploit that mine.”
China’s interests in Bolivia “are its mining resources such as gold, and the exploitation of lithium for the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles,” the environmental expert said. “Being in the road construction business opens ways to facilitate this exploitation.”
For instance, in the last four years alone, another Chinese company, state-owned China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd.,has been awarded the construction of seven road works, according to Bolivian news platform Los Tiempos. As of October 2019, Beijing had more than 60 companies in Bolivia developing 55 “cooperation”projects, Bolivian newspaper El Deber reported.
A characteristic of the relations between China and Bolivia is the scarce information, contradictions in the statements of authorities, and non-disclosure of agreements as well as financing agreements, says the report Public Investment and Chinese Financing in Latin America by the Latin American NGO Regional Coalition.
“Chinese companies make contracts with the [Bolivian] government pressuring it to hire part of its personnel,” Guerra said. “A lot of people are coming from China to work in the country, so they also take jobs. They are predators.”
In Bolivia, CREC is among the most reported companies for social and labor rights violations, such as physical and psychological abuse and lack of industrial and social security, the Bolivian Center for Labor and Agrarian Development Studies says on its site.
The Potosí-Cochabamba project “will not only have environmental consequences, but also social. Some communities have been told that they will be removed from their settlements so that the highway can go through; therefore, culturally, they are being removed from their environment. It will also affect the fauna; it is a lot of things that they are not taking into account,” Guerrasaid.
The patterns of human rights abuses by Chinese firms operating in Latin America include, among others, the right to live in a healthy environment; environmental damage; violation of participation and consultation; the right to territory; integrity, freedom, and security; labor and association rights; and health, according to the Collective on Chinese Financing and Investment, Human Rights, and the Environment, a consortium of Latin American civil society organizations.
According to Guerra, some activists are reaching out to the communities that will be affected by the highway project, to provide them with not only technical but also legal advice, so that they have the tools to defend themselves.
“Meanwhile, China will begin to depopulate the areas through which the Potosí-Cochabamba highway will pass and will trigger a strong internal migration,”concluded Guerra. “When we really realize these consequences, it is going to be too late for everyone.”