Connecting with Chinese and African scholars-as they connect with each other


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NAIROBI, Kenya (March 29, 2011) _ I’m here in Nairobi, where I’m attending a conference called Towards a New Africa-China Partnership. CODESRIA (the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa) are the organizers, and the conference is a follow-up to a meeting of African and Chinese scholars held in Beijing last year as part of the activities of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, or FOCAC. They invited me to talk about CIFOR’s project on China’s trade and investment in Africa, and here’s some of what I’m going to tell them.

First, a quick word to introduce myself: my own first Africa-China experience goes back to 1987 when, as a student at East China Normal University in Shanghai, I lived in a dorm mostly occupied by students from all over Africa, and I have to say I learned as much about African pop music as I did about Mao’s Little Red Book, which was our text book for learning Chinese. Since then, I’ve lived in both China and Africa, as well as New York and Peru, and I did a few different things in those places before joining CIFOR about a year and a half ago.

Of course I’m somewhat of an outsider to this group, since my home base is now in Indonesia, and I have heard and understand and also tend to agree with the idea of the need to develop China-Africa research that is conducted by and for Chinese and African researchers. But as a visitor from an institution that is in part supported by both the Chinese and Cameroonian governments, among others,  I truly appreciate the opportunity to be here among so many great global and local thinkers who are dedicated to establishing a new research agenda on issues of great importance to over 2.3 billion people and more than 1/5 of the world’s forested area [i.e. the people and forests of Africa and China]. At this conference yesterday, China’s new “Confucius Centers” were mentioned several times, so to make myself feel even more welcome than the hosts already have, I want to quote Confucius, who said (a mere 2500 years ago): 学而时习之,不亦说呼?友朋自远方来,不亦乐呼?人不知而不愠,不亦君子呼? In science geek English that means: Isn’t it fun to do research and incessantly review your findings? Isn’t it just a blast when your colleagues come to visit from far away? And the ones who don’t freak out when nobody understands what they’re trying to say, aren’t they just… so cool? Honestly, that’s what it says.

Well, I hope this group will understand what I’m trying to say, because in fact the research topic I’m going to talk about is actually a sensitive one. So I’ll start at the beginning.

About 2 years ago, or maybe a bit more, the German government was the facilitator of a multi-donor group called the Congo Basin Forest Partnership. At the time, the regional director of CIFOR in Cameroon was a wonderful person named Cyrie Sendashonga who was in touch with the Congo Basin Forest Partnership and they were discussing some of the most important issues facing African forests today, as well as the many millions of African people who depend on forest resources for their survival.

Of course, when you are working to take care of something (in this case forests and people), you are particularly aware of changes in the environment that might have a major affect on that something. And in this case, it was the dramatic increase in Chinese trade in forest products like timber and other resources extracted from forest areas, such as minerals, as well as some signs of Chinese investment in industries requiring a lot of land, such as production of cotton, palm oil, or sesame seeds. But let me say right now that, then and now, it was never a question of the Chinese being the only ones trading or investing in these commodities, it was just that the change was so dramatic and sudden, and if we were doing powerpoints I’d probably show you some graphs at this point but you can just take my word for it: we are talking steep upward curves. Timber from Gabon and Mozambique, copper and cobalt from Zambia and DRC, cotton from Cameroon, chrome from Zimbabwe… and from China: Big money and all kinds of consumer goods and machinery coming in.

International Trade in Tropical Wood, showing the relatively great volumes of timber shipments to China. Includes bilateral trade flows that exceed 50,000 m3, originating from tropical countries. The trade volumes of rough- and sawn-wood have been aggregated for the purpose of this illustration. Based on data from COMTRADE (2008).

Anyway, to make a long story short, my colleagues Laura German and Krystof Obidzinski wrote a proposal to the German Federal Ministry of Economic Development and Cooperation, and that’s how we got this job. So we formed a team of researchers, including scientists and partners from China and Africa as well as some diverse outsiders sort of like me, and for the past year more than 20 of us have been running around Cameroon, DRC, Gabon, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, as well as China, looking at the volumes of Chinese trade and investment in economic sectors that could have an impact on African forests and people. We’ve also been studying the laws and policies and customary systems that govern the impacts of trade and investment on forests at the global, national, and local levels, and developing some methods of measuring the impact of specific activities.

And when I say impact, I don’t just mean deforestation: I also mean economic benefits to African countries and local people as well as potential social and environmental costs.

At the same time we’ve been working to improve our connections to institutions in both China and in the six African countries to find people who will be able to use the information we are generating to help make future decisions. And by the way, talking about connections, I think the Congo Basin Forest Partnership really wants China to join in one way or another, which might not be such a bad idea in the long run.

Now we are about to go into Phase 2 of the project, where we look in depth at cases where Chinese State-owned and private companies are working in African forest areas and interfacing with formal, informal and customary resource managers and sellers and landowners. We are going to go in with a number of questions but the most basic one is: Is there really anything different about Chinese companies’ activities and their impacts? And of course that means we need to collect data about non-Chinese companies as well, and be careful about drawing our conclusions so that our findings are accurate, helpful, and hopefully don’t reflect the kind of biases we’ve been seeing too often, which don’t help anyone.

So now we are incessantly reviewing the results of Phase 1, and soon we’ll be ready to share some data. A few of the cases we find really compelling are:

1. Logging in Gabon, where Chinese companies now have rights to over 10% of the total forest area of the whole country;

2. Copper and cobalt mining in southern DRC, where China has a huge new multi-billion dollar deal, but where a lot of the stuff comes from informal miners digging by hand in remote woodlands;

3. Mining and also timber activities in Zambia, where the ecologically sensitive dry forests produce some very desirable and rare woods; among others.

In Phase 2, we’re probably going to have a few opportunities for African Ph.D. students to contribute and we hope some Chinese researchers might join us in the field as well. I won’t go into my speech about how Chinese researchers need to get out into the field in remote parts of Africa and stay there for a few years like Chinese entrepreneurs are doing… And sure, African scientists would probably benefit from working more in China, but they might not find any African companies logging Chinese forests. The markets of Guangzhou would probably make for some pretty wonderful ethnography, however, and also seeing where all those African resources go and what’s done with them must be very interesting.

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