By David Banks
After 16 hours in the air, I’m starting to wonder why I need to make this trip to China. The plane descends over the sprawling city of Beijing and I know I’m not in Tanzania anymore. This place — so much in the minds of capitalists, conservationists and those who profess to be both — is at the core of conversations about threats to the world. Yet at the same time, it holds so much promise for the future.
Welcome to China, a land that oozes contrast. I’m visiting to try to understand the country a little better — specifically, the hope and the peril of China’s operating in Africa. I will meet with Chinese government officials, NGOs and representatives of corporations doing business in Africa. It’s clear that China has its own problems to deal with, and yet everywhere I go people are talking about Africa.
To recover from the long flight, I convince one of the Conservancy’s China staff members to take me to a “blind man massage clinic.” Yes, this is a real business. Here you can get a therapeutic massage from a blind man for less than $10, and it’s worth every yuan.
The masseur chats away during most of the hour-long session, and halfway through I hear my friend laughing. He says that the masseur is asking where I’m from, and when he tells him Tanzania, the blind man responds, “I know Tanzania. Tanzania is our friend. We build lots of roads in Tanzania.” Seems the Chinese are more familiar with these issues than I’d thought.
Visiting with local corporate and government officials, I’m struck by their desire to be respected around the world. Folks in Beijing know that they have a bad reputation abroad, especially around environmental and social-responsibility issues.
They also recognize the connection between a bad reputation and a bad bottom line, so they are working to change practices. This is not easy, and Beijing is far distant from Lusaka or Dar es Salaam. This situation might offer an opening for the Conservancy to help China and, in turn, Africa.
On wildlife trade, things feel quite different. We are particularly worried about rhino horn and elephant ivory. Rhino horn is illegal in China, and the trade is underground and hard to control. We also learn that Vietnam may actually be a bigger consumer than China. For ivory, there is some legal trade, but a lot gets traded illegally as well. Fourteen percent of Chinese citizens own ivory, and another 58 percent would like to.
Remarkably, 70 percent don’t know that an elephant dies to provide ivory for carvings. So a targeted and well-funded media campaign and enforcement strategy could make a real difference here, but I worry that this area is also not the Conservancy’s niche. This role might be a better fit for WWF and IFAW.
The force of change in China is impressive. Young people whose parents suffered through several tumultuous decades are reaching out and learning more about the world. Talking to them gives me hope for the future. But watching the rivers mined for gravel and the pollution settle over China’s ever-growing cities scares the hell out of me.
China is a reminder of where we can go, but also a warning of what we need to avoid. I’m convinced that Africa sits on the cusp of dramatic growth, although it’s unlikely to reach the scale of China’s. Africa still holds wildness and wonder, but the choices Africans make now will lay the foundation for hope or frustration. And only Africans can truly make this choice.June 14, 2011
David Banks is director of The Nature Conservancy's Africa program. He reports from the field and shares his views on conservation in our series "David's Dispatches."