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Carbon Colonialism: How the Fight Against Climate Change Is Displacing Africans

December 9, 2014
Vice News

Carbon trading—one of the biggest weapons touted by governments and business in the global fight against climate change—could end up killing the planet. In Africa, human rights campaigners say, it is already killing people.

Since the launch of a World Bank sponsored conservation programme in west Kenya eights years ago, the Bank-funded Kenya Forest Service (FKS) has conducted a relentless scorched earth campaign to evict the 15,000 strong indigenous Sengwer community from their ancestral homes in the Embobut forest and the Cherangany Hills. The pretext? The Sengwer are ‘squatters’ accelerating the degradation of the forest.

This October, with violence escalating, pressure from campaigners finally elicited a public response from World Bank president Jim Yon​g Kim, who promised to help facilitate “a lasting, peaceful resolution to this long, unfinished business of land rights in Kenya.”

But according to British film-maker Dean Puckett, who is currently on the ground in Embobut forest in west Kenya capturing extraordinary footage of recent events, the plight of the Sengwer has only worsened dramatically since Kim’s intervention.

Dean and I are working together on a documentary feature about the Sengwer. On Saturday, November 22nd, he told me, eight Sengwer people were arrested in the forest, including two school children and six elderly. He was told the story by a teenage girl who stopped Dean and his crew as they were walking through the settlement of Tangul, on the outskirts of the contested forest area.

“The KFS came yesterday morning,” the girl said. “They kicked open the door. My mother woke up suddenly. She was told to lay down on the floor. My father wrestled with a guard until a magazine fell from his gun then he ran away. Some of the KFS guards were shouting ‘Shoot, shoot!” Then the other ones blocked the door and they beat on my mother. They were punching and kicking her repeatedly.”


Four of those arrested, including the children, had been released only after paying the KFS bribes of 500 Kenyan shillings each for the children, and 2000 shillings for the elders.

“I have only been back in Embobut for 12 days so far, and approximately 20 people have been arrested,” Dean said. “Less than half of those have gone to court. The rest have paid bribes to to be released. It’s hard to see how these policies conserve the forest.”

The dark side of green

Conservation schemes tied to the global carbon market and funded by international development agencies are having similar effects across Africa.

The size of the global carbon trade is forecast to rise to $8​8 million by 2016. Big polluters are able to register reductions in their carbon emissions not by actually reducing their emissions, but by purchasing “carbon credits” from other countries that have no or lower emissions targets. The money is invested in green projects such as reforestation.

Tropical forests absorb huge amounts of atmospheric carbon. But when destroyed, they release vast amounts of greenhouse gases, currently roughly one-fifth o​f all human carbon emissions—more than the entire global transportation sector. By plugging investments into large-scale conservation of forests, carbon trading is supposed to help reduce global emissions and mitigate climate change.


But mounting evidence shows that this billion dollar industry that has mushroomed in the wake of warnings of climate calamity has resulted in an acceleration of land grabs in poor, less developing countries.

repo​rt out earlier this month from the Oakland Institute, an environmental think tank in California, investigates the case of Uganda to show how carbon offsetting—where companies invest in conserving forests to register their carbon emission reductions—is actually destroying local communities.

Land acquisitions in Uganda’s Bulakeba and Kachung districts as part of carbon offset schemes by Norwegian company Green Resources—among the largest operating green forestry plantations in Africa—have disenfranchised local communities and restricted their access to land and food, while failing to meet stated environmental targets.

Granted de facto private property rights in these districts by the Ugandan government, Green Resources has commandeered what amounts to a brutal invasion of the land to consolidate its conservation scheme.

According to villagers, the company had engaged in a litany of abuses: destroying their homes to clear land for new forestry plantations, arresting local inhabitants for trespassing onto company licence areas; confiscating animals straying into those areas; planting trees on designated community land whose boundaries are disputed between locals and company employees; and forcing villagers to relocate grazing and agriculture in ecologically sensitive areas.

By losing access to the forest, the community had lost its primary means of generating income, accessing medicines and firewood, and acquiring water holes for livestock. The company has also, according to local environmental officers, breached its own Environmental Impact Statement in its use of chemicals for weed control and wanton encroachment into fragile ecosystems, which has in turn damaged vegetation.

The lead author of the report, Kristen Lyons, said that its findings “shed light on the ‘darker side’ of the green economy and expose the hidden social and environmental costs of Green Resources projects in Uganda that are borne by the local communities.”


“It is unacceptable for carbon trading schemes to result in forced evictions and increased food insecurity,” said Oakland Institute policy director Frederic Mousseau, “while delivering little to no improvement on access to health, sanitation, and education.”

Oakland Institute’s findings are backed up other academic studies. A new ​paper in the Elsevier journal Geoforum by Connor Cavanagh, research fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, highlights how a separate carbon offset initiative at Mount Elgon National Park in Uganda not only failed dismally to reforest the conservation area as proposed, but generated protracted land rights conflicts in which “the uncompensated dispossession of local residents was a necessary precondition for the project’s implementation.”

In all such cases, the imperative to “conserve” existing forests or establish new tree plantations in unforested land is systematically encroaching on the lives of longstanding indigenous communities. Local inhabitants of conservation areas are seen as inherently problematic for conservation goals—and therefore legitimate targets for violent expulsion.


Acquiring land in the name of conservation and carbon offsetting is part of a wider trend of accelerated land grabbing over the last​ half decade, which is devastating indigenous communities. In 2008 and 2009, about 22 million hectares of land had been acquired from poorer, less developed countries. In 2011, that number rose to 80 million—about twice the size of Alaska.

In 2012, the Land Matrix’s Global Obse​rvatory—a database tool for mapping and visualizing large-scale land grabs run by several leading NGOs and universities—estimated that the last decade has seen a total of 203 million hectares (500 million acres) being acquired or negotiated.

That figure is hotly cont​ested, largely because in a sector so murky, pinning down who is leasing what land remains difficult.

stu​dy published in Environmental Research Letters applies the tools of network science, previously used to analyze brain function and international finance, to explore the scale and interconnectivity of the global land trade today. It finds that a whopping 126 countries are involved in land grabs—far more than previously thought.

The biggest land grabbers “are concentrated in the Global North” (namely the US, UK and Western Europe) and “the emerging economies of Asia, and the Middle East,” who are acquiring farmland and water resources from “the Global South and Eastern Europe.” Amongst the land-grabbers themselves, the vast majority of land grabs are being perpetrated by just a “small handful of countries,” especially, China, the UK, and the US. These same countries also play a central role in providing “the shortest trading path” that facilitates land grabs between other countries.


This acceleration of land grabbing could have serious environmental consequences, according to another new st​udy published in the Royal Geographical Society journal,Area.

“‘Land grabbing’ is a dynamic of land-use change that can enable especially rapid environmental transformations across vast spatial scales,” warns author Eli Lazarus of the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Cardiff University. Modern land-grabbing could induce drastic environmental responses including “abrupt, large-scale transitions in human-environmental systems.”

The biggest problem with land grabbing, the study shows, is very simply the tendency for newly acquired land to be used for large-scale commercial farming or exploitation of raw materials. This means that a powerful source of greenhouse gas emissions—indu​strial agriculture—will be massively compounded by land grabs.

The reliance of industrial farming on “a petrochemical-based supply chain” in the heavy use of nitrogen and phosphorous enriched fertilisers, is proliferating “hypoxic dead zones” in coastal waters, Lazarus writes—areas where animal life suffocates and dies due to dangerously low oxygen concentrations.

This is also depleting natural soil nutrients, requiring ever increasing inputs of fertiliser just to maintain crop production: “As land grabs introduce industrial practices to presently nonindustrial settings, soil depletion, petrochemical fertilisers, eutrophication and coastal dead zones will likely become commonplace in locales where such events were previously unprecedented.”

Lazarus is also concerned by evidence from historical cases that particularly rapid land acquisitions and transformations in the context of industrial agriculture could generate, especially abrupt and unpredictable environmental crises.

The rapid expansion of US industrial agriculture in the late 19th century, he argues, was in effect a massive sequence of land grabs facilitated by the rise of a transcontinental rail network. It thus provides a historical parallel to the huge scale of land grabs today focused on expanding industrialised commercial farming.

This period of rapid transformation of vast previously untouched landscapes under industrial agricultural expansion, he warns, “unwittingly triggered an environmental catastrophe in the early 20th century: the Dust Bowl came barely 40 years after a government-sponsored derby for homestead land.”

A decade-long period of severe dust storms in the southern Plains that devastated US agriculture, the Dust Bowl is widely recognized as the worst ​man-made ecological disaster in American history.

For Lazarus, the lesson for today’s proliferation of land grabbing for farmland is clear: “Invasive land uses motivated by short-term extraction and quick return on capital investment tend to leave deep environmental footprints, the legacy of which can persist long after the land users are gone.”


Today, World Bank and IMF policies have played a ke​y role in facilitating land grabs, according to campaigners.

The Bank’s Doing Business rankings, for instance, measure the “ease of doing business” in different countries, but thereby champion minimal regulation. This encourages poorer countries to deregulate to allow foreign investors in, including commoditizing land. Thus, foreign companies are able to swoop in and buy up land under deregulated private property regimes that overlook the rights of the very communities that have always lived freely on the land based on customary rights.

The Bank, as well as the UN, is playing an integral role in the carbon offsetting schemes that have opened up a whole new arena of land grabbing in the name of environmental conservation. The case of Kenya is instructive.

The World Bank's Natural Resource Management ​Programme (NRMP) with the Kenyan government, launched in 2007, had originally included provisions for managing “water and forest resources,” as well as improving “the livelihoods of communities participating in the co-management of water and forest resources.” For reasons unknown, on 10th June 2011, this was amended to simply improving “the management of water and forest resources in selected districts” – all mention of the welfare of local communities had been eliminated.


Under NRMP, the World Bank has provided $64 million dollars to the KFS to oversee the programme’s implementation between 2007 and 2013. Every year of that period, bar 2012, has seen the KFS execute brutal mass evictions of the Sengwer from forest conservation areas.

The Bank’s conservation scheme with the KFS was directly linked to the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). Under REDD, companies in the developed world purchase carbon credits to to conserve or grow forests, registering as carbon reductions on companies balance sheets. This largely allows companies to acceler​ate pollution while purchasing land and resources in the developing world at bargain prices.

By the end of 2013, despite having closely monitored the KFS’ activities, the Bank rated the project a success. In October, the Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) stated in a ‘progress sheet’ document that the Bank had just assessed the “implementation progress of REDD+ related activities supported by the NRMP (Natural Resource Management Project).” The document confirmed that lessons learned from the project would be applied for future implementation of REDD.

Less than months later, over a th​ousand homes had been torched by KFS forces in an effort to force the Sengwer from their homes in forest areas targeted for conservation.

Although the World Bank inspection panel report released this October concluded that the Bank had failed to follow crucial safeguard policies necessary to protect indigenous people, the panel nevertheless absolved the Bank of any responsibility for the evictions being conducted by the very government agency it was funding to implement the scheme.

Conservation versus communities

On Sunday, 23rd November, the four Sengwer who had been arrested and detained were charged with “illegally being in Embobut forest which is state property” at a court hearing.

When their lawyer attempted to speak for them after they were asked how they plead, he was silenced, and the Sengwer ordered to speak for themselves, Puckett told me. The problem is that they do not speak Kiswaili, the national language, and don’t understand the court process.

Three of the Sengwer pleaded guilty, including Margeret Suter, the mother who had been brutally beaten, although she had begged for mercy to be released so she could return to her children.

“The left side of her face was visibly swollen,” Puckett said. “It was clear to me that she had been punched in the face, a face that I have looked at on my computer since August.” They were sentenced to community service. The fourth, Keroie Lobela, pleaded not guilty, declaring defiantly: “I’m a Sengwer, and I was in my ancestral homeland.” He was released on bail for 3,000 shillings, and must return to court on December 8th.

The irony is that in 2013, a high court order was issued forbidding the KFS from evicting the Sengwer from the forest. “They have been ignoring this order,” James Gachoka, the Sengwer laywer, told Puckett after the hearing. “So you have one arm of the government saying they are protected and another arm oppressing them.”

As I write this, 200 KFS rangers have already been sent to Embobut forest in Elgeyo Marakwet county, purportedly to “guard the forest” according to local news reports, in a move “meant to stop fresh invasion by squatters.”

“I can’t help but wonder if the boots that kicked Margeret Suter in the back on Saturday morning were bought with World Bank money that only finished flowing at the end of last year,” Puckett said. “It seems like a shame that this funding wasn’t used to educate, involve and engage the Sengwer in a community-led conservation initiative, instead of being used to evict them and buy new weapons.”