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Traditional Chinese medicine endangering Africa’s species, report alleges

By Chinedum Uwaegbulam
10 November 2021   |   2:52 am
The aggressive expansion of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in many African countries, including Nigeria, is posing a direct threat to the future of some endangered species.

Nigeria among countries in pact with China on traditional medicine
‘TCM threatening biodiversity, exacerbating poaching, illegal trade’

The aggressive expansion of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in many African countries, including Nigeria, is posing a direct threat to the future of some endangered species.

In recent years, the Chinese government has ramped up its promotion of TCM in Africa as a key component of its controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Major companies and many clinics have already been established across the continent, with some retailers planning to establish full supply chains.
In a bid to build diplomatic relations and provide healthcare, the Chinese government has been sending medical teams to Africa since 1963. At least 21,000 medical professionals, including more than 2,000 TCM practitioners, have provided services in 45 countries such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. These efforts have formed a pivotal element of the government’s foreign policy strategy in Africa.

But a new report from the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) warns that such a massive expansion of the TCM market (coupled with perception in the industry that Africa is a potential source of TCM ingredients) spells disaster for endangered animals species like elephants, leopards, pangolins and rhinos.

According to the report, TCM has been a staple feature at Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), a high-level platform, which brings together 53 African countries and China. This year’s summit is being hosted by Senegal, and healthcare cooperation is expected to be high on the agenda.

Many African governments have welcomed large-scale investment from China and joined China’s BRI. This has enabled China to wield considerable diplomatic influence and power in Africa, paving the way for the expansion of TCM on the continent.

Among those that have agreements with China to develop traditional medicine are Cameroon, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Togo. By officially signing up to promote TCM domestically, these countries have endorsed TCM for use by their citizens.

“One of the multilateral agreements signed by members of FOCAC is the Beijing Action Plan, which calls for strengthening collaboration in the development of agriculture, infrastructure, trade, education and healthcare. The latest edition of the Action Plan with strategic plans for 2019-21 states that members will “support the collaboration between TCM and traditional African medicine (TAfM).

“Another notice issued by China’s State Council, China’s cabinet and its chief administrative authority, reiterated that global TCM expansion was part of the country’s 2016-30 national strategy. The long list of ambitious global objectives set out in the strategy includes the construction of international TCM centres, the training of TCM practitioners locally, the registration of TCM products, the recruitment of new consumer groups and the expansion of the TCM industry to explore and source ingredients.

“With inter-governmental MoUs on cooperation for TCM signed and TCM pharmaceutical companies encouraged to set up factories in Africa, these top-down policies are beginning to be implemented on the ground.”

The study, ‘Lethal Remedy: How the promotion of some traditional Chinese medicines in Africa pose a major threat to endangered wildlife’, urges far stricter oversight of TCM and government action to dissuade TCM pharmaceutical companies, practitioners and traders from using threatened wildlife in their products.
EIA Wildlife Campaigner, Ceres Kam, said: “We understand that traditional medicine is integral to many cultures and plays an important role in healthcare in Africa and beyond.
“However, while the majority of TCM treatments are plant-based, some pharmaceutical companies continue to source ingredients from threatened animals, aggravating the pressure on the survival of these species.

“Our very real concern is that such a huge expansion of TCM in Africa, as is happening under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, will have the knock-on effect of drastically increasing demand for treatments containing wildlife and, in turn, cause more species to become threatened or extinct.”

Findings of the research include: TCM is gaining ground in Africa, with an increasing number of African governments entering into official agreements with the Chinese government to support TCM development; TCM is being further endorsed under national laws in certain African countries, as seen in Namibia and South Africa;

TCM products containing animal parts are openly available for sale in retail outlets across Africa; the COVID-19 pandemic has enabled the Chinese Government to strengthen its promotion of TCM in Africa.

The report said there is an urgent need to better address risks posed by popularising TCM in Africa, notably the potential of increasing demand for wildlife resulting from the expansion of TCM pharmaceutical companies and the targeting of TAfM and TCM consumer groups.

Kam added: “Ultimately, the unfettered growth of TCM poses a serious threat to the biodiversity found in many African countries, all in the name of short-term profit. Any utilisation of threatened species in TCM could potentially stimulate further demand, incentivise wildlife crime and ultimately lead to overexploitation.”

EIA recommended that governments must promote a sustainable relationship with the environment based on long-term planning and a precautionary approach.

It said: “It is paramount that African countries benefit from economic, healthcare and infrastructure development to improve wellbeing and quality of life. However, it is equally important that such development takes place in line with a holistic approach, which includes safeguarding the health of the environment and its people in the long term.

“Robust laws, adequate resources for management authorities and law enforcement agencies and transparency in the development and implementation of regulations underpin such success.”