Why China Is Investing Big Time In Belarus

Beijing is making infrastructure investments in and around Minsk that no one else is prepared to make. It may be a gateway to business in both Europe, and Russia.

Is China setting its sights on Minsk?
Is China setting its sights on Minsk?
Nikolai Anishenko

MINSK — The Chinese ambassador in the Belarusian capital is enjoying a special status. That’s because it’s unlikely any other country is prepared to make the kind of infrastructure investments here that China is planning.

There are, for example, the Minsk International Airport, hidden behind the trees, and a highway that connects Minsk with Moscow in one direction and with Berlin in the other. High-speed rail is also planned, and there are rumors that 600,000 Chinese people will be migrating to Belarus.

It’s not clear where the Chinese companies plan to market their wares, now that they will have a foothold just 300 kilometers from the EU and Russia — which has a Customs Union with Belarus. But anything is possible: China is interested in expanding to any market that its products can reach.

A village against the technopark

The blue gas pipe in the town of Bykachino, 20 kilometers from Minsk, arrived in the fall. Most of the work was done on the pipeline at around the same time that the residents in this and 13 other small towns were preparing to see their homes destroyed, to make way for the largest construction project under Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko — the Belarusian-Chinese Technopark.

Electronics, machinery, chemistry, biotechnology and manufacturing — it will all be there, spread out over 90 square kilometers, most of which is now forest. Technopark tenants are promised major benefits: complete tax amnesty for the first 10 years and a 50% tax cut for the second 10 years. Of course, the residents who are being forced to move aren’t getting anything like that.

There is some discussion about what “residents” means in these towns. Irina Kozel, for example, was born in Bykachino and her mother lives here, but Kozel lives in Minsk, where she works as a teacher. She and her husband built a house in Bykachino 15 years ago out of a desire to get back in touch with the land.

There are many people like her who live in Minsk but have houses in the country, and it was via the media that they discovered their property could be destroyed, with minimal compensation. After collective outrage, the government changed its mind about destroying the houses, but the general plan for development didn’t change.

“Now they say they won’t touch us for 15 years,” Kozel says. “That means we’re basically on a reservation. Then they promised to give us new land. Then what? Build from scratch again? Everyone is outraged now.”

Residents in these small villages, lost in the forest, have a guerrilla relationship with the press. They beg the media to tell people “what is being done to us,” and they claim to have gathered hundreds of signatures against the industrial park’s construction. But at the local meetings about the project, there were 299 people who showed up in support of the technopark. And only two who opposed it.

“The truth is, I don’t understand where they got that number from,” says Victor Obmetko, a local resident. “We haven’t seen any government representatives here. Everything we know about the project development, we’ve learned from the newspapers.”

Information vacuums generally breed fear — about environmental harm and the possible migration of 600,000 Chinese people to Minsk. No one knows where that number comes from, but there are genuine reasons to be worried about the environmental impact of the technopark.

The area is home to many underground lakes, which is why it was not developed during the Soviet Union. There are also two wildlife sanctuaries, several animal burial grounds, and the Petroviski reservoirs, which provide water for much of Minsk.

People are equally worried about demographic changes. “If there is a mass immigration of Chinese people, I don’t even know what language we’ll all be speaking here in a couple of years,” says Obmetko.

At the moment, though, the most concrete fear is of massive clear-cutting. “We are proud of our forest,” says Kozel, whose father helped plant the forest after the war. “No one has thought of the consequences for Minsk or for the country.”

As a last attempt to stop the massive project, Kozel and others tried to build an Orthodox church six months ago because village residents thought it would scare off foreigners. They quietly gathered signatures in support of the church, without attention from the press. But the local authorities looked over the proposal — and denied it.

A window to Russia?

There were several major presentations in China about the new technopark over the course of 2013, and they all emphasized Belarus's Customs Union with Russia and Kazakhstan — which means a location in Belarus would allow unprecedented access to markets in both of those countries.

“The government is obviously not counting on selling the goods produced in the technopark in Belarus,” explains Yaroslav Romanchuk, a former presidential candidate. “They are only thinking about how potential residents can sell on the Russian market.”

Romanchuk thinks the technopark is like a hole in the fabric of the Customs Union. “The union requires working together on questions of trade, customs and macroeconomic policies,” he says. “The technopark is an example of one country creating favorable conditions for a third country that is outside of the union, which could create problems if the project is too successful and starts to squeeze out products from Russia and Kazakhstan.”

But Romanchuk thinks there are other things that might get in the way of a successful technopark. “It's hard to consider a country where the government can’t handle inflation, and where there is no clear monetary policy, as a reliable place for long-term investment.”

For China, the project in Belarus is an attempt to expand the network of Chinese technoparks to a third continent, after Asia and Africa. It’s no secret that China has acquired a number of European companies, mostly in the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) countries, as the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have insisted that those countries privatize key state companies and industries. It’s possible that the project in Belarus will serve as a model for the red dragon to spread its wings throughout all of Europe.

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At the Mango Festival held in Aswan, Egypt

Nada Arafat

ISMAILIA – Every year during the month of July, crowds gather in the mango farms of Ismailia, in northeastern Egypt, to pick the delectable summer fruit during its relatively short harvest season. But this year, as a result of erratic weather patterns throughout March and April, the usual bountiful mango harvest was severely affected with farmers witnessing a precipitous drop in yield. Some 300,000 farms saw an 80% decrease in productivity, leading to a supply shortage in the market and a corresponding 40% increase in the price of mangoes.

The effects of these climate fluctuations could have been mitigated by farmers, yet according to experts who spoke to Mada Masr, the agriculture minister failed to play a role in raising awareness among farmers and in providing agricultural guidance services.

Heatwaves kill crops

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature. For germination to occur, the ideal temperature should be between 10 °C at night and 28 °C during the day, according to agricultural consultants. In Egypt, this weather pattern usually occurs in February. Mango trees then flower and the flowers turn into fruits that take 40 days to grow and be ready for harvest, according to Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer.

This year, however, according to mango farmers in Ismailia who spoke to Mada Masr, the beginning of the winter farming season experienced a sudden heatwave followed by another heatwave at the end of March. In both March and April, the temperature dipped to as low as 5 °C at night and as high as 25 °C during the day. Due to these erratic weather fluctuations, the mango flowers that develop into fruit fell before they could mature.

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres or 0.40 hectares) ranges between 6 to 8 tons. This year however, the yield per feddan averaged between just 1 to 2 tons, according to several sources.

Frozen mango suppliers multiply purchases

A farm owner in Al-Tal al-Kebir on the Ismailia Desert Road, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said that his farm produced approximately 35 tons of mangoes last year, whereas this year his yield did not exceed 4 tons. He added that many farmers in the surrounding area, which is famous for mango cultivation, experienced the same steep declines in yield.

The limited mango yield and the subsequent hike in prices has also prompted frozen mango suppliers to multiply their purchases from farms in order to capitalize and sell them next year at an even higher price, according to Ali Saqr, an agricultural engineer in a fruit export company, along with a number of other farm owners who spoke to Mada Masr. Mangos can stay frozen for up to two years.

Khaled Eweis, who buys mangoes and stores them in rented freezers then later sells the frozen mangoes to juice and dessert shops, explained to Mada Masr that juice shops usually use the Zebdia variety of mangoes, whereas dessert shops use Keitt mangoes. The latter is expected to be priced at 25 Egyptian pounds ($1.5) this year after having been sold for half the price at the same time last year.

Last year, Eweis bought Zebdia mangoes for 10–12 Egyptian pounds ($0.6–$0.7) per kilo then resold them for 16 ($1) after freezing them. This year, the Zebdia prices ranged from 17–21 ($1–$1.30) per kilo, and Eweis expects that the price after freezing will reach as high as 25 ($1.5).

Photo of an Egyptian man shouldering a basket full of mangoes

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres) ranges between 6 to 8 tons


Threat to water security

This is not the first time that mango production has been hit hard as a result of fluctuating weather patterns. A similar crisis in the mango harvest took place in 2018, and other crops, such as olives, potatoes, wheat, rice and cotton, have also been adversely affected over the last few years, according to Mohamed Fahem, the head of the government Climate Change Information Center. And human-induced changes to global weather patterns as a result of climate change point to increased agricultural challenges in the future.

The deadly heat waves, fires, hurricanes and other extreme weather events that have dominated headlines in recent years will only become more frequent in the coming decades, according to a United Nations report on climate change released in August. In its sixth assessment report, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called human-induced changes to global climate systems "unprecedented." While the report calls for drastic cuts to the global emission of greenhouse gases, much of the effects of climate change are already locked in for decades to come.

Among the areas most vulnerable to climate change is agriculture. A 2018 report titled Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Changes in Egypt found that climate change can have drastic effects on agriculture through changes in temperature, rainfall, CO2 levels and solar radiation. Meanwhile, a 2020 European Union report also found that climate change will pose a threat to global food production in the medium to long-term through projected changes in daily temperature, precipitation, wind, relative humidity and global radiation.

According to various studies, climate change gradually reduces the duration of spring, autumn and winter, which in turn affects the crops that are cultivated during those seasons. In Egypt in particular, the country's agricultural crop map will likely change as a result of a prolonged summer season, according to a study by former Agriculture Minister Ayman Abou Hadid, published in 2010 when he was heading the Center for Agricultural Studies. The study predicted that grain cultivation will gradually move north from Upper Egypt due to increases in winter temperatures, though it did not give a projected timeframe.

Cold and heat waves

Climate change also increases salinity levels in soil due to rising sea levels, which in turn renders the soil only suitable for crops that can handle high salinity yet still require intensive irrigation to mitigate the salinity levels. At the same time, Egypt is currently facing a threat to its water security due to the changes in rain patterns and droughts as well as the potential effects of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

According to Fahim, the increased cold and heat waves Egypt has experienced has led to the emergence of new, mutated varieties of pests and fungal diseases that are resistant to chemicals. For example, in 2018, aphids and whiteflies spread due to the shortened winter season, and the accumulation of these pests led to huge losses in potato and cotton yields. Meanwhile, palm trees were harmed due to the appearance of red palm weevils.

How farmers counter mango losses

The severe losses in the 2021 mango yield were hard to avoid, but is there a way to counter them?

Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer, believes that better methods of agriculture, irrigation and fertilization, along with raising awareness among farmers about the dangers of climate change and how to monitor weather fluctuations could succeed in mitigating such outcomes.

However, Egypt appears currently incapable of providing sufficient safety networks to farmers in order to enable them to confront the effects of climate change.

An example of this is apparent in the failure to enforce mechanisms for warning farmers about potential difficulties in upcoming farming seasons. In June, a report by the Center for Agricultural Studies warned about a decline of as much as 85% in the productivity of farms in Ismailia, where mangoes are mainly cultivated, as well as farms in Sharqiya, Suez and Beheira, due to climate change. However, this report only reached about 13 farmers and owners of mango farms, according to agricultural sources who spoke to Mada Masr.

Ahmed Asal, a mango farmer in Qantara in Ismailia, told Mada Masr that there has been no guidance from authorities in helping farmers understand climate change and how to respond to it. "No one told us what to do and we never received any compensation for our losses," Asal said.

Photo of a hand picking a mango from the tree in Egypt

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature

Ahmed Gomaa/Xinhua/ZUMA

Agriculture engineers must become climate engineers

Agricultural guidance is a service offered by the Agriculture Ministry to raise awareness and educate farmers about all aspects of farming. The service is usually provided through agricultural engineers who are based in the agricultural cooperatives that exist in every city and town.

Fahim, the head of the Climate Change Information Center, works to play a similar role through his Facebook page and, at times, on various TV channels and newspapers, by raising awareness about weather fluctuations and their effects on agriculture. However, his insights do not have a wide enough audience, particularly at a time when the agricultural guidance is dwindling despite the opening of the Agricultural Guidance Center in Qantara earlier this year under the auspices of the Agriculture Ministry.

"Agricultural guidance has been doing a good job lately, but only in the media, not on the ground," said Alaa Khairy,* an engineer at the Central Laboratory for Climate Change. "If they were really working on the ground, farmers would not have lost as much as they did."

More important crops like wheat will be next

What exacerbates the crisis is that those who are harmed the most are small farmers — those who have between 10 to 20 feddans of land — who cannot afford to take preemptive precautionary measures to mitigate erratic weather patterns nor hire experts who can help them make better decisions about how to handle sudden climate fluctuations. Those farmers also cannot afford to provide covers for their fruits during hot seasons, which is one way to prevent crop damage that is quite costly.

This year's crisis is expected to be repeated in the coming years due to the rapid consequences and effects of climate change on global food security. Aside from mangoes, the effects of climate change are projected to affect far more important crops, such as wheat, with reports showing global wheat crop losses due to heat and drought, a particularly worrisome development for Egypt — the largest importer of wheat in the world.

"In the coming period, agricultural engineers must become climate engineers as well," Suleiman said.


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