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A young man pushes his bicycle past an oil installation in southern Chad, near a village where residents complained of pollution and toxic waste disposal.
A young man pushes his bicycle past an oil installation in southern Chad, near a village where residents complained of pollution and toxic waste disposal.AFP/Getty Images/AFP

America brings us democracy, China brings us roads,” is a frequently heard comment in African capitals, as governments weary of US scolding on human rights and the environment tout the more accommodating posture of China, America’s geopolitical rival. Alas, China’s role in Africa is based far more on self-interest than consideration of Africa’s concerns, or anyone else’s. Mostly, the fast-developing China is looking for oil and minerals, and needs roads and bridges to get them to port as quickly as possible. China isn’t alone in looking to Africa for fuel and treasure, but its relentless push for development has placed a serious strain on weak African governments with little capacity for oversight — which are now starting to discover that Chinese aid comes with its own complications.

Impoverished Chad, for instance, has welcomed exploration of Chad’s oil reserves by Chinese companies (along with American and British ones). But promises to use the oil revenues to raise Chad’s standard of living have largely gone unmet, while pollution from drilling sites and other oil-related infrastructure damages the air and water of the country.

Thus, last month’s order by the Chadian government to suspend work by China National Petroleum on the basis of its environmental damage marks a milestone — an African nation pushing back against the Chinese approach to development. In a letter obtained by Agence France Presse, officials demanded that the Chinese oil giant pay $1.2 billion for illegal dumping and for filling in polluted drilling sites without first treating them for toxic residue. The same company was suspended last year for environmental violations, but not subjected to a fine. Chad’s willingness to put some teeth into its environmental protections should reverberate through Africa and beyond.

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