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Green Colonialism

By Hamza Hamouchene 

‘Green colonialism’ refers to the ways in which the costs of producing renewable energy and green technologies often fall on colonised peoples’ like Indigenous groups, and Global South countries. It is a form of neo-colonialism.

With the effects of climate change being undeniable, even by the fossil fuel industry, many countries are speaking of a “green transition.” But the current uneven transition to renewable energies, which is happening mainly in the global North, is based on the ongoing extraction of base minerals and rare earth metals such as cobalt, lithium, copper, nickel, and graphite that are used for manufacturing solar panels, wind turbines, blades and electrical batteries. Where will these resources come from? The answer is from countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Bolivia, Chile, Indonesia and Morocco, where environmental destruction and workers’ exploitation will continue and even intensify. This is what we call green colonialism, and it is a form of neo-colonialism.


‘Green colonialism’ can be defined as the extension of the colonial relations of plunder and dispossession (as well as the dehumanisation of the other) in the era of the so-called green transition. Green colonialism pushes costs onto peripheral countries and communities and prioritises the energy and environmental needs (such as water) of one region of the world over another.

Even though some claim the era of colonialism has formally ended – the continuation of colonialism via other forms is what some scholars and activists call neo-colonialism. In the global economy the ‘periphery’ — located in the global South — provides cheap natural resources and acts as a reservoir of cheap labour. The core, on the other hand, acts as a market for industrialized/high-technology economies. The Core needs to always maintain its domination over the periphery, in order to turn raw materials into finished commodities that it can sell.  This situation has been imposed and shaped by colonialism and attempts to break away from it have been thwarted so far by the new tools of imperial subjugation: export-oriented predatory extractivism, crippling debts, the religion of ‘free trade’, and the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) imposed by International Financial Institutions (IFIs), such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).


Green colonialism: the Arab region as a case study

Inspired by a colonial and orientalist environmental narrative, the Arabian deserts (Sahara) are usually described by powerful international political and economic actors as vast empty tracts of land that are sparsely populated – representing an El Dorado of renewable energy and a golden opportunity to provide Europe with cheap clean energy.

Several examples from the Arab region show for example how energy (neo)colonialism and extractivist practices are reproduced even in transitions to renewable energy, in the form of ‘green colonialism.’ Such green colonial dynamics are clearly discernible in the renewable projects erected and being built in occupied territories such as Palestine, the Golan Heights, and Western Sahara because at the core they take place at the expense of colonised people and go against their right for self-determination.

The involvement of Gulf companies such as the Saudi ACWA power and the Emirati Masdar in such colonial initiatives or projects complicates our picture of green colonialism. That is because the “periphery” is also unequal. In many ways, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (GCC) can actually be seen as a semi-periphery. Not only is the Gulf significantly richer than its other Arab neighbours, but it also participates in the capture and syphoning off of resources and exploits workers at the regional level, reproducing core–periphery-like relations of extraction, marginalisation and accumulation with poorer and more resource-rich countries across West Asia and North Africa. We can call this sub-imperialism.

False Solutions and Land Grabs

One of the false solutions to climate change is known as Carbon offsetting. Offsetting is a way for individuals, companies, or organizations to compensate for their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by investing in projects or activities that reduce or remove an equivalent amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. Companies which claim to be engaging in offsetting get Carbon credits.

Carbon credits are earned when individuals or companies reduce or remove carbon emissions. Each credit represents one metric ton of CO2 or its equivalent. These credits are tradable on the carbon market, allowing those with a high carbon footprint to buy credits to offset their emissions. Conversely, those reducing emissions can sell credits.

These two false solutions must rely on colonial forms of dispossession, a form of green colonialism.  We can see this not only in the Arab region but in other countries in Africa where huge land grabs are taking place either for the agricultural needs of some Gulf countries or for some carbon offset projects led by Gulf companies. For example, Blue Carbon, a Dubai-based company owned by a member of the royal family signed agreements with Kenya, Liberia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania to generate carbon credits (read pollution permits) from millions of hectares of forests. In Liberia, this amounts to 10% of the whole surface of the country while in Zimbabwe, it is equivalent to 20% of the country’s landmass.

These carbon credits projects are part of the market-tradeable nature-based solutions that have been promoted in the previous climate negotiations including in COP28, held in Dubai in December 2023. Effectively these are false solutions that will offer permits to big polluters to continue polluting while dispossessing local and indigenous communities of their land and habitat creating ‘green sacrifice zones’ for sustainability. Suppose we posit this with the fact that the whole African continent is only responsible for around 4% of annual global CO2 emissions. In that case, it becomes clear that the socio-economic and environmental burden of addressing the climate crisis is shifted from the historically responsible industrialised West towards Africa. These dynamics constitute instances of green colonialism.

While certain Western governments portray themselves as pro-environment, by banning fracking within their borders and by setting carbon emissions-reduction targets, they simultaneously offer diplomatic support to their multinationals to exploit shale resources in their former colonies, as France did with Total in Algeria in 2013. This too is energy colonialism and environmental racism.

The same goes for another project proposed in 2021 by a former Tesco CEO, in partnership with the Saudi ACWA Power, which aims to connect southern Morocco to the United Kingdom through underwater cables that will channel electricity over 3,800 Km. Once again, the same relations of extraction and the same practices of land grabbing are maintained while people in the region are not even self-sufficient in energy. These big renewable projects, while proclaiming their good intentions, end up sugar-coating brutal exploitation and robbery. It seems that a familiar colonial scheme is being rolled out in front of our eyes: the unrestricted flow of cheap natural resources (including solar energy) from the global South to the rich North, while fortress Europe builds walls and fences to prevent human beings from reaching its shores.

All of this is green colonialism.

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decolonial centre | Pluto Educational Trust | 2023