Who owns nature; a new wave of colonialism


Extraction of natural resources, some would say, has replaced the colonisation of vulnerable and ‘undeveloped’ countries by Britain and France in the 1800s.

Jacques Diouf, head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, has warned that the world may be slipping into a “neo-colonial” system.

‘Resource theft’, as environmental campaigners have coined it, involves the land grabbing of areas in poorer countries that have yet to exploit their lands as violently and unsustainably as those developed countries have. It is prudent to point out that it’s not just the ‘developed’ countries we are dealing with here, developing ones have their share of pie too; just look at China literally scooping out parts of Sudan for oil and decimating the Congo for earth minerals to manufacture technological devices under the demands of the West.


Theft of resources comprises mostly oil and petroleum, minerals, timber, as well as larger scale resource theft such as the manipulation of rivers for hydropower which I will give a special mention to later.

An international development policy consultant for the UN made an interesting statement to help people better comprehend the extent to which land grabbing impacts farmers in countries like India, Africa and large areas of South America:

“Consider the reaction if something similar happened in Britain. Imagine if China, following a brief negotiation with a British government desperate for foreign cash after the collapse of the economy, bought up the whole of Wales, replaced most of its inhabitants with Chinese workers, turned the entire country into an enormous rice field, and sent all the rice produced there for the next 99 years back to China.”

poor fishing, rich robbing

“Imagine that neither the evicted Welsh nor the rest of the British public knew what they were getting in return for this, having to content themselves with vague promises that the new landlords would upgrade a few ports and roads and create jobs for local people.”

“Then, imagine that, after a few years – and bearing in mind that recession and the plummeting pound have already made it difficult for Britain to buy food from abroad – an oil-price spike or an environmental disaster in one of the world’s big grain-producing nations drives global food prices sharply upwards, and beyond the reach of many Britons. While the Chinese next door in Wales continue sending rice back to China, the starving British look helplessly on, ruing the day their government sold off half their arable land. Some of them plot the violent recapture of the Welsh valleys.”

All you have to do now, is swap the word Welsh for Africa and you now have a very real example of how land grabs really are happening. Essentially, poor farmers struggling to survive in a country that suffers from harsh environmental conditions like drought, have to depend on their own subsistence without any assistance from their own government.


All the while, there are capitalist businesses yielding and thriving off of the land that was once theirs but allowed to be sold by the power structures supposed to be looking out for their people. Instead of distributing some of the much needed harvest to the people struggling, the crops are exported and sold for profit back to the country who have essentially colonised the land that was never rightfully theirs to begin with.

This new colonialism is not just restricted to the boundaries of Africa. The buyers of land are wealthy countries that are unable to grow their own food. One of the best examples are the Gulf states whose internal food supply and security is lacking- what with deserts making up a rather large percentage of the land of countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. Between them, they are grabbing agricultural land in fertile countries such as Brazil, Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Egypt. But they are ‘ also targeting the world’s poorest countries, such as Ethiopia, Cameroon, Uganda, Zambia and Cambodia. Apparently, investing in oil and getting rich from it helps so much as, after all, there is no nutritional value in petroleum.

Even Norway are getting in on the deals with a biofuel company wanting to create “the largest jatropha plantation in the world”. However, this would involve deforesting large parts of land in northern Ghana. Jatropha, which can be cultivated in poor soil and produces oily seeds for biodiesel.

Bakari Nyari, who is an activist for the African Biodiversity Network, has accused the company of “using methods that hark back to the darkest days of colonialism… by deceiving an illiterate chief to sign away 38,000 hectares with his thumbprint”. No matter how much the biofuel company claims it will provide jobs for Ghanese, the extensive deforestation would inevitably deprive local people of their traditional income from gathering forest products such as shea nuts, making it an unsustainable venture and threaten the culture and livelihoods of the indigenous people.

But land grabbers don’t give a monkeys about that.

I some ways, the use of agricultural land as an economic asset could be seen as a positive thing for poor countries. Land is what they have in plenty. And capital is what the agricultural sector in developing countries is in urgent need of. The share of aid in helping poor farmers fell from $20bn a year in the 1980s to just $5bn a year in 2007, according to Oxfam.

Rural-development agriculture only sees a mere 5% now, which is desperately sad in continents like Africa, where more than 70% of the population rely on farming for their income. Decades of low investment have meant stagnating production and productivity.

Sacrifice is something that has been existing for too long now. Compromising the quality of our environment and the lives of people so that there are those that profit at the expense of others is just morally wrong.

The fact that those with money have power is ultimately the reason that has prevented real change of the existing narrative from taking place. A loss of indigenous knowledge, no sustainable strategy to development highlights a global inability of those with political power to limit the power held by those with an economic advantage. How can we even begin looking after the needs of future generations when we cannot even look after those that exist today.

If there is a lack of regard for people living off the land then it ultimately reflects a lack of compassion towards the environment as they understand nature better than most.  Indigenous people have long been subjugated to cruel colonial power and we must not let them be suppressed further by those with a greedy hunger for money at the expense of both people and the environment. Indigenous people are not fossils of our past but they have an inherent right to be allowed to continue using their land without threats from outsiders with a bit of dollar in their pocket.

There is a sense of positivity surrounding this subject though. In Amazonian Ecuador and Peru, opposition to oil giant Chevron is growing.

The company was presented with a claim for billions in damages from Ecuadorean Indians, brought through the New York courts. In an attempt to save their lands, Amazon Indians blocked roads and rivers in Peru for some weeks in 2009. Government forces then attacked them, provoking the killing of several policemen hostages the Indians were holding. Such an uprising had been unprecedented for generations. In Peru’s 1742 Indian revolt, the authorities characterized the Indians trying to protect their lands as ‘savages’. and they said the same in 2009. An amazing book by Jay Griffiths called Wild demonstrates the extent that this colonial, misjudged and prejudice view of indigenous peoples is so inherently wrong.

Not just grassroot level change the human rights abuses that face these communities is needed but the international corporations committing crimes must readdress their practices.

Similar things can be translated to the case of Peru where the state controls all natural resources and has the ability to grant concessions and permits for logging. in turn, the logging companies that come from abroad to exploit cheap and often illegal practices prove an another example of commercial interests are preventing farmers and communities to regain control of lands that have long belonged to them and provided their livelihoods.

Such communities know nothing about the deals the government policies have passed as they are written in language they cant understand. DAR (a Peruvian NGO) have worked to show how transparency can bring benefits all round. An establishment of a new ‘consultation law’ in 2011 ensures that the government consults civil society on any new legislation relating to forest use.

In my next blog I will explore the involvement of capitalism in this neo-colonialism concept. A bit deep but there we go… its relevant.

What about empowering the local? Agroforestry (forest gardens) and the green belt movement in Africa is proving to be a positive success where planting trees is changing lives. In Ecuador, for every square kilometre of forest there is 150 people. However due to the policy of the region, only half of the indigenous people hold land rights to these forest areas therefore making sustainable management by small holder sand local farmers complicated and difficult.

green belt

“Genuine solutions cannot be found when there is land grabbing, hunger and loss of livelihoods. Instead they should empower communities, enhance biodiversity, nurture ecosystems, and increase overall resilience to the challenges ahead”- The Gaia Foundation

Training and guidance for the locals to be able to legally fight their own battles with the right litigation measures is a step forward to allow indigenous people to secure their rights. They should be given local level access to information which is something that the Pacahamama Alliance is attempting to provide on ground level for people to mitigate through legal and policy frameworks. Other strong minded and brave non-governmental organisations are Survival International, Earth rights institute, Global Alliance and Rainforest Alliance Network (RAN).

RAN is a coalition of civil society groups working on a redress of power that has become imbalanced through training communities in the 3 most-forested provinces of Democratic Republic of Congo through conflict resolution, project monitoring, legal matters and financial management.

Grassroots activism is rife in Ghana where there is a centre for indigenous knowledge and organisational development which aims to change the pattern and narrative of economic destruction to rainforests. This case study highlights the need to combine indigenous and modern practices of forestry management to cultivate sustainable practices. It is crucial that they don’t allow their demands to fall on deaf ears. Politicians should stop leaving them out of negotiation processes and start including the social needs and values of forests into policy and communication rather than just simply including the economic value. Where there is an economic structure in existence, allow community management or at least businesses creating partnerships with locals to give them fair opportunities.

Essentially the problem must be tackled from both ends. If we ignore the word corporation, business, government; We are all human beings and we all have an element of responsibility to protecting our environment. From renewables, to water usage, to pollution, to extraction of forests, we must minimise our imprint on our planet otherwise we will have nothing left to feed, nourish or simply find joy upon.

I will finish with a quote from the Independent, which is surprising even to myself as it is not a news provider I like to spend too much time indulging myself in. But anyhow, in an article published back in 2009, they stated:

“Growing the food to feed nine billion people (2050 population the UN has predicted) will place enormous pressure on the earth, eroding soils, denuding forests and draining rivers. Climate change will make all that worse. Oil prices will continue to rise, and with them the cost of fertiliser and tractor fuel. Demand for biofuels would further cut land available for food crops. The times of plenty are already over. Next, there might not be enough food to go round, even for those with lots of money.”

Ergo, we cant eat money.


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