China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aims to bring infrastructure investment, leading to massive increases in trade, to regions along the former Silk Road, and far beyond. Trouble is, more than a few extra uninvited guests are along for the ride too.
It is said we are what we eat, and until the age of the supermarket, that which we eat was traditionally grown nearby. For much of history, crops were endemic to our specific locality, until the Columbian Interchange, that brought bananas and potatoes to Europe, to name but two examples, also led to changes in agriculture having a significant impact on global populations. Feeding on all of this, and now a global scourge, was the so-called ship rat, today’s garden-variety black rat.
Luckily for her, China missed out on the Pleistocene glaciation that ended 11,500 years ago. As a result, despite being about the same size as the USA, China has three to four times more botanical biodiversity, thus making her a paradise for botanic explorers.
Celebrated English plant collector and explorer, Ernest Henry Wilson, spent more than 2 years in China at the turn of the 20th Century and was to go on to bring more than 2,000 plants from Asian to Western horticulture. He called China the “mother of gardens” and Sichuan Province “the garden of China”.
The endangered natural habitats that are the result of impending environmental disaster, already upon our green-blue speck in the cosmos, we are told, means that one in five plant species on Earth is endangered. As such, the search is on to seek out rare plants all over the world that can be collected and grown for scientific study and protection. With her intense botanic biodiversity, China is a hotbed for such.
A year and half ago, botanists in the North America-China Plant Exploration Consortium (NACPEC) visited western China to once again do just that. They were led by keeper of the living collections for the University of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, Michael Dosmann, to a nature reserve near to the towering 5,588-metre high Xuebaoding Mountain.
In an article published by Harvard Magazine documenting the expedition, Dosmann explained that some of the most productive areas, from a standpoint of botanical biodiversity are not found, as one may expect, in dense forests. Rather, they reveal themselves on the slopes above and below roads or well-trodden paths, while the banks of rivers also yield rich results, since plants growing on the edges of such open spaces are in less competition with each other. They also receive more light and are therefore more likely to seed.
In addition to roads, such environments can also be found alongside railway lines, transportation links that thanks to the BRI, now take trains far from China, deep into foreign countries.
Herein lie the threat.
When U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors come across something that raises suspicion in a batch of seed, it is very possible that the entire batch be incinerated on the spot. One can only imagine what they might make of a Chinese train full of machinery parts in soiled wooden crates that had crossed the Steppe and two continents through a dozen countries.
Such trains could have easily picked up spores from plants all along their route. It is a concept that has many experts concerned enough to request considerable funding from the Chinese government to at least look into the issue.
The new study, co-authored by Li Yiming, China Academy of Sciences professor of animal ecology and conservation biology, published just last month in Current Biology, using a comprehensive risk analysis, found that many high-risk-environmental habitats (flora and fauna alike) do indeed lie along BRI lines. The Sichuan capital of Chengdu itself is already terminus for such a BRI railway.
Since 1914, bringing soil into the United States has been forbidden, while the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora was established to address the very dangers that are the subject of this article. Going a few more years down the proverbial tracks, it is quite possible that sprouting alongside the railways lines that constitute much of the BRI may well be the new world’s botanical equivalent of a black rat.