Climate Colonialism and Large-Scale Land Acquisitions

Guest post by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Georgetown University / 26 September 2019

Mr Táíwò has a book contract with Oxford University Press for a book called “Reconsidering Reparations”, which connects reparative justice to climate justice.

[The views of guest post authors are their own. C2G does not necessarily endorse the opinions stated in guest posts. We do, however, encourage a constructive conversation involving multiple viewpoints and voices.]


In an era of climate change, large-scale land acquisitions threaten to revive classic tactics of colonialism in new institutional forms.

Countries and corporations – often working in concert – have been buying land around the world. The political implications of this slow transfer of the material means of critical resource security from the Global South to the Global North are vast and dire. They also complicate the politics of our responses to the climate crisis, which include the prospects for genuinely participatory carbon removal.


Large-Scale Land Acquisitions and Colonialism

Climate colonialism includes the expansion of foreign domination by initiatives that respond to climate change. Today, countries and corporations are accomplishing by market pressure and bilateral trade agreements what was historically more often accomplished by conquest: control of large tracts of land, and with it an expansion of control over key strategic resources and supply chains.

The global financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 had loud consequences: the collapse of major financial institutions like the Lehman Brothers threatened the entire world’s monetary system. But it also caused a spike in world commodity prices, including food. This directed attention, and dollars, to the project of agricultural land acquisition worldwide – a phenomenon often referred to as the “global land rush”.

Unsurprisingly, much of the land bought after this surge was in the Global South. No continent was hit harder than Africa: by one estimate, the rate of land expansion on the continent by these acquisitions increased by over 20 times. By 2012, there were 56 million hectares of African land targeted by publicly reported large-scale acquisitions, nearly triple the amount of land acquired this way as the rest of the world combined. This number represents a landmass the size of Zimbabwe. More pressingly, it represents 25% of all of the available arable land on the African continent.


Land Acquisitions and Carbon Removal

Land use is already affected by climate change. For residents of the Global South in Africa, South America, and Asia, the effects of climate change on food security, water availability, and pastoral conditions are acknowledged by the international scientific community and already presenting challenges to livelihoods, disproportionately those of the world’s most politically marginalized people.

Many prospects for carbon removal are land-use intensive, like afforestation and reforestation, and BECCS. Others require changes to existing land-use regimes, like carbon removal programs predicated on changes to agricultural decisions. Decisions about land use will have economic, environmental, and social ramifications for the people who live there: ranging from the security and availability of food, potential forms of pollution, employment, the policing and violent displacement of nearby populations.

We should expect large-scale land acquisitions to complicate the politics of land use that are key to at least some negative emissions technologies. Consider the case of the African continent, simultaneously at high risk for some of the world’s fastest warming and worst climate impacts and home to the world’s lowest institutional and infrastructural adaptive capacity.

Adding foreign, large-scale ownership of African arable land to this already toxic mix is a recipe for profound disaster. Even if we muster the political will to demand carbon removal – as the IPCC has made clear is a necessary condition for avoiding the worst of global climate crisis – the rollout of negative emissions technologies might set us two steps backwards in justice for every gigaton step forward.

Foreign governments and corporations are likely to manage the land they’ve acquired in Global South nations based on their own domestic and firm-level incentives: profit, market share, risk management, and control over strategic supply chains. They might plant cover crops or forests to meet global sequestration targets in the Global South on land that locals really need for food. The private acquisition of the land likely incentivizes unilateral decision making, enforced by legal and extralegal violence. Those of us wanting a genuinely participatory process will have to confront this political reality if we are to succeed.

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