Written by Kathleen Buckingham.

China is shifting the global political economy which has significant implications for natural resource management. The so-called Western powers, which have dominated global natural resource institutions for centuries, may be about to witness a new mode of resource governance. Although not always perceptible, even our relationship with nature has been modified and shaped in some way due to classifications and instruments of European order. The ‘Columbian Exchange’ (the widespread exchange of animals, plants, culture and human populations following the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492) signified a stage of voyages of discovery which helped create the British Empire and fostered the commodification and exchange of plants through global value chains of influence. The voyages of exploration were in part derived from a need to expand territory and acquire natural resources. In the late 1660s, books such as Silva and French Forest Ordinance signified a shift in thinking and attitudes towards the unforeseen consequences of economic development over conservation. Forestry was starting to be recognised as a science. At that time, the power of the nation rested largely on the ability of nations to continue ship building; resources such as timber therefore were vital to the continuation of that power.

The twenty- first century is witnessing a different mode of power. Empire has given way to new forms of cultural imperialism, or as Nye terms it: ‘soft power’, where culture itself is used as a tool to create influence. ‘Hard’ military power and colonisation are inefficient or ineffective at securing natural resources in an increasingly globalised world, therefore more peaceful methods need to be used. International development has for some time served the purpose of mutual exchange whereby relationships have been based predominantly on a Western notion of ‘conditionality.’ Development assistance is exchanged for a level of compliance with widely shared Western values.

As China leads a new geopolitical trend in ‘South-South’ cooperation, the implications for global governance are vast. China’s new demand for natural resources has, like developing nations before them, led to expanding their boundaries beyond their own nation and engaging in exploitation of other nations. The outward expansion of industry and natural resource management was officially launched in 2001 in a package of initiatives known as the ‘going out strategy’. Since its launch, China’s mode of development based on ‘no strings attached’ financial assistance and ‘non-interference’ in internal affairs as a development strategy (rather than a Western mode of ‘conditionality’) has attracted attention and criticism. After all, Western democratic neoliberal thought has always focused on shared values, even when the planet sits in its own capitalist ruins. That is not to condone human rights abuses, oppressive dictatorships or arms trade, but to recognise that the West has itself turned a blind eye to such issues, or else paid more attention to the plight of certain citizens when natural resources have been involved.

China’s success as the ‘world’s factory’ has led to a new demand in overseas natural resources – particularly oil, timber and minerals.  This has resulted in many new formed partnerships between China and Africa. One such example is the establishment of the Centre for China-Africa Agriculture and Forestry Research (CAFOR), in late 2012, in partnership with the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) and Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University (ZAFU). The project proposes to train high level professionals, improve global agriculture and forestry technology and secure China’s influence on African national policy making for international agriculture and forestry development strategies. Moreover, the centres will provide an opportunity for Sino-African agriculture and forestry culture exchange through the development of agricultural and forestry resources traditionally associated with China: tea and bamboo.

Although bamboo is largely associated with Asia, bamboo species are native to Africa. With the global population set to increase by 0.9% per year to 8.2 billion in 2030, according to FAO, there is a pressing need for substitute timber resources. Whilst the global bamboo economy is estimated at US $10 billion (which is set to double in the next five years) according to the World Bamboo Organisation, institutions to facilitate sustainable supply chains suited to the specific management characteristics of the plant are still lacking. Globally there has been a recent surge in interest in the plant in face of resource deficits, however China’s involvement in Africa would signify the first move to actively define and develop modern forestry institutions inclusive of bamboo. This not only has significant implications for Chinese focused trade and investment, but also institutionalised practices within the timber industry, which have been largely driven by Western interests.

Whilst much attention is paid to the politics of China’s natural resource exploitation in Africa, little attention has been given to how China can help enhance an industry without an adequate institution. Currently commercial bamboo plantations are being developed across Latin America and Africa. The USA is also seeing the commercial viability of adapting native Chinese species to face pulp and paper deficits. Currently, forestry institutions are dominated by ideas of treed landscapes. Whilst the management challenges of bamboo development are vast, the twenty-first century brings with it a new cultural heritage of natural resource governance which could have wide ranging impacts for sustainable development. Natural resources are still associated with power. In order to maintain power it is important to adapt to the challenges faced by increasing pressures on natural resources. One way to do that is to develop new ones. As China helps to develop agricultural and forestry resources across Africa, it will be interesting to see how global institutions need to change and adapt to accommodate new resources with new modes of governance.

Kathleen Buckingham recently completed her DPhil in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford.


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