Recently, our China program hosted about 30 visitors from Conservancy programs all around the world for a weeklong summit. The goal: to discuss the China program’s conservation strategies. The result: an ambitious new initiative we’re calling Conservation Beyond Borders.

The initiative is a response to a trend that’s dominating headlines: over the last two decades, China has emerged from relative isolation to compete with the U.S. and Europe. That emergence has led to competition in fields as diverse as finance, mining, hydropower and art, but also competition for the world’s attention, focus and resources.

It was this last contested subject that occupied our discussions over a weekend at the base of the Great Wall (and one really spectacular hike along an unrestored section of it). That’s because China’s “Going Out” (the name for the country’s policy to spur investment overseas) has come, fairly or not, with criticism of corporate China’s environmental practices in construction, mining and hydropower.

Some of the visiting international staff members shared their experiences with Chinese firms in Africa, Asia and Central and South America. In Kenya, Chinese construction companies working under contract with the government have been accused of allowing their work crews to poach for food and illegal animal products. In Ecuador, Chinese hydropower companies are constructing dams that could damage a protected area. And in southeast Asia, Chinese furniture companies are said to be purchasing and processing illegal timber.

China staff helped our visitors understand the structure and attitudes of Chinese investment abroad. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the government started encouraging Chinese companies to invest abroad, and so many firms have little experience in their new contexts.

Inside of China, the government take cares of the permits, environmental assessments and community relationships, while the company is responsible only for completing  its project, be that a building, dam or mine. That leaves businesses unprepared for taking on the increased responsibility necessary to do business in a foreign country. Plus, China has a long-held diplomatic principle of non-interference with regard to the internal affairs of foreign countries, leaving companies with little guidance when it comes to operating under new legal and political systems.

China’s state investment banks (lenders to companies going abroad) have adopted the Equator Principles—a set of guidelines that encourages borrowers to abide by local social and environmental regulations—or some equivalent, but are unclear on how to monitor the effectiveness of those principles. Clearly, Chinese companies looking to new foreign opportunities need better guidance on how to keep their work sustainable.

That’s where Conservation Beyond Borders comes in. The initiative, which began to take shape over the course of the retreat, aims to increase connections between China and the other countries where the Conservancy works.

For example, if a Chinese hydropower company has a contract to design dams on the Magdalena River in Colombia, then freshwater experts from China with experience along the Yangtze can aid the Colombia program in their efforts to keep the Magdalena healthy. Or, the China program could work with African programs to identify best practices for road construction and mineral extraction, then help increase sustainability awareness in the Chinese companies and governments that have contracted to complete these projects.

Even more dramatically, a number of Trustees from the Conservancy’s China Board have pledged to financially support a number of important international projects, further throwing China’s weight behind worldwide conservation. It’s an unprecedented up-welling of philanthropy that “Goes Out” just as China’s businesses have been encouraged to do so. Watch board member Jack Ma announce the China Global Conservation Fund here:

Shawn Zhang, director of the China program, articulated the conclusions of the week: “China is quickly becoming a world power with world responsibilities. Our comparative advantage going forward will be to strategically and responsibly invest to ensure both our future as well as the sustainable health and welfare of our trading partners. TNC is uniquely positioned to play a role by virtue of our strong programs in countries like Colombia, Indonesia and Tanzania, coupled with our reputation in China and our connections to the corporate sector.”

This initiative is just getting started. Stay tuned for more details as we continue to push conservation beyond its traditional borders.

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.

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