Forget Presidential Politics: Sri Lanka’s Green Movement Is Its Best Hope Against China

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 11, November 2019

By Bertie Harrison-Broninski

Pumps dredge sand to reclaim land at the site of a Chinese-funded 1.4 billion USD reclamation project in Colombo on December 5, 2017.
Half of the reclamation project to build Colombo Financial City, previously known as Colombo Port City, has been completed, with Sri Lanka hoping to turn it into an international financial centre with special laws protecting foreign investment. / AFP / LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / Getty Images

Sri Lanka, like many countries in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is not powerful enough to resist China on political or economic grounds – but hope lies in its burgeoning environmental movements.

This Saturday (November 16th), Sri Lankans go to the polls to elect a new president. The frontrunners are Sajith Premadasa, current Minister for Housing, Development, and Cultural affairs, and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the ruthless military leader who played a large part in defeating the ‘Tamil Tigers’ during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Both have family ties to ex-presidents: Premadasa’s father, Ranasinghe, was president 1989-1993, and Rajapaksa’s brother, Mahinda, was from 2005-2015.

International media has largely focused on the geopolitical implications of the Rajapaksas regaining power. Mahinda Rajapaksa is seen as a key player in initiating China’s current economic ‘debt trap’ over Sri Lanka, which has now led to 99-year leases on territory around Hambantota Port and Colombo, where China is constructing an entire ‘Port City’. A President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa would rightly be seen as a return to China-friendly Sri Lankan foreign policy after President Maithripala Sirisena’s more US-aligned years in office.

China was an important talking point in the 2015 election. Mahinda Rajapaksa, revelling in the glow of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Colombo in 2014, touted Colombo Port City and the Rajapaksa Airport in Hambantota as economic and political triumphs of diplomacy. Maithripala Sirisena, on the other hand, painted them as environmentally damaging vanity projects, and exposed Chinese loans as economic strangleholds on Sri Lanka. Allegations were made that China was bankrolling Rajapaksa’s campaign. When Sirisena took office in 2015, he suspended the Port City project on environmental grounds. Suspension was short-lived, however – unable to pay back steep loan repayments to China, Sirisena had no option in 2017 but to agree to recommencement of the Port City project, and concede more power over Hambantota to China.

While international media still sees China policy as a major factor at stake in this year’s presidential election, domestic campaigning has shifted. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, wary of his brother’s electoral failure when focusing on China, has mounted a nationalistic campaign that places Islamophobia as its central focus, in light of the Easter Bombings. Premadasa, perhaps wary of Sirisena’s failure to lessen Chinese influence, has stayed quiet on the topic. According to government advisor Anushka Wijesinha last week, neither party wants to vilify China in this election. “They know it’s a bad idea.”

Meanwhile, another debate rages in international media re China’s foreign policy: around its global environmental impact. While outlets such as Time and even Greenpeace are parroting China’s own lines portraying it as a global leader and exporter in renewables, others quote data to argue that China is in fact outsourcing its fossil fuel industries to smaller, developing countries. A report released this year by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) found that China has offered or committed funding for one quarter (102 gigawatts) of the 399GW of the world’s coal mines and plants outside of China. The report’s co-authors have stated that these investments help China’s economy, but will be economically damaging to the 27 recipient countries as nations move away from coal.

For countries such as Sri Lanka, these two conversations – about Chinese political and environmental influence – need not, and should not, be separate ones. The ‘debt trap’ makes Sri Lanka particularly vulnerable to Chinese economic control, but Sri Lanka is also a country particularly vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis. The Financial Times used the BRI in an article last month to argue that “we can be green or we can have growth, but we can’t have both together.” This is in direct contradiction to the academic research in this field: as Muthukumara Mani, the author of The World Bank’s 2018 report into the impact of the climate crisis on South Asian living standards has argued, rather than governments in this region having to choose between investing in development or climate change, the two go hand-in-hand.

This report found that more than 90 percent of Sri Lanka’s population live in locations that are likely to become moderate or severe ‘climate hotspots’ by 2050, with living standards in these areas predicted to fall by 5-7% as a result. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre records 100,000 people displaced by climate disasters in Sri Lanka in 2018 alone.

Arguably, all of the China-affiliated flagship projects in Sri Lanka are environmentally damaging: the airport in Hambantota (which ultimately cost the country more than it gained), Lakvijaya power station, which is the country’s largest coal-plant, and the Port City in Colombo. While the former two of these are effectively finished projects, the Port City is far from it, and the environmental damage to the country it poses is significant.

Hemantha Withanage, Executive Director of Sri Lanka’s Centre for Environmental Justice, spoke to the Journal of Political Risk via email about the lack of a “proper” Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted on the Port City project. Officially, there was a report, but it came under heavy criticism in the domestic press.

“The project has [a] number of socio-economic and environmental impacts including coastal erosion, loss of fish habitats, destruction of coral,” wrote Withanage. “Current massive coastal erosion along the western beach is directly attributed to the dredging of 65 million cubic meters of sea sand.”

He alleged that “fishermen who lost income were not paid”, but instead leaders of fisherfolk organizations were bribed. This loss of income was partly from restrictions against fishing in a 10-km ‘no-go zone’ around Thamba Gala, a high-yield fishing area now closed to the public for three years of sand excavation preceding building work on the Port City. This has also resulted in four million rupees (30,000 US$) worth of damaged fishing equipment.

“Although China own the majority of the stake of the Port City business, and will control the city even into the next century, the waste management, sewerage system, flood control, and electricity is going to become a burden to the Government of Sri Lanka. The political regime that approved these investments no longer takes responsibility to safeguard people. This is the fate of many families affected by BRI investment in Sri Lanka.”

Even in 2012, there were over six hundred registered environmental groups in Sri Lanka – and these numbers are only growing as the need to address the climate crisis becomes increasingly urgent. The Environmental Justice Atlas records a ‘medium’ intensity mobilisation against the Port City already, with numerous sectors of civil society having engaged in public campaigns, street protests, and research against its damaging environmental impact. This gives more reason to hope that China’s involvement in Sri Lanka can be lessened than the election of Sajith Premadasa would.

Governments have their hands tied by economic agreements too hopelessly binding to escape – but Sri Lankans cannot wait for a 99-year lease to run out before addressing the climate crisis. Foreign countries attempting to assist Sri Lanka politically in distancing itself from China results in damaging diplomatic geopolitical proxy battles that allow China to paint India or ‘western’ powers as anti-Chinese aggressors. If foreign assistance came through organisations such as Extinction Rebellion however (XR Sri Lanka was formed this year), China would not want to damage its ‘green’ PR image by attacking environmental groups.

By the end of this week, Sri Lankans will have voted for a new President. I do not mean to argue that Rajapaksa’s government would be indistinguishable from Premadasa’s – the Rajapaksas are human-rights abusing, corrupt politicians who do have closer links to China than Premadasa. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as President would likely have major impact on the country, domestically and in terms of foreign policy. Regarding Chinese influence though, Sirisena’s term has made evident the difficulties, even impossibilities, of national resistance through party-political means. For Sri Lanka, and other countries affected similarly by the BRI, environmentalists should build a united, national, grassroots movement that will refuse to be silenced. After all, lives, homes, and living standards depend on it.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski is a board member of the development nonprofit Oxford Omnia, and editor of The Civil Society Review.