Ever since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees report, there is broad consensus among government and industry leaders that we need to drastically and quickly reduce our emissions. From the Niger Delta’s wastelands polluted by petrochemical products to southern Madagascar currently going through the world’s first famine induced by climate change, the consequences of the fossil industry’s unbridled greed and wanton destruction is everywhere. Recent extreme weather events like Cyclones Idai and Kenneth, the 2021 heat dome on the North American West coast, droughts, sweltering heat and floods have further highlighted the urgent imperative of bold action now.
Events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the recent adoption of the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States of America and the rise of green parties within the European Union have been heralded by many pro-environment campaigners as salutary processes that take us ever closer to carbon neutral societies. They see these developments as having the capacity to quickly dissolve immanent resistance or indifference to green technologies within our polities so that common sense policies can prevail and green projects are adopted.
The international Energy Agency recently revealed in its Net Zero by 2050 report that the cost of renewables have witnessed a dramatic drop over the last couple of decades. The report showed that energy sources like solar and wind now cost less than half the value of legacy baseload energy and require only a fraction of the time to set up. Concomitant with this development, major car manufacturers released roadmaps showing that they planned to phase out combustion engines in favour of pure electric vehicles over the next decades. China where only 15.4% of power comes from non-fossil fuel sources is pledging to raise total wind and solar capacity to 1,200 gigawatts by 2030. South Africa has installed about 4GW of wind and solar since 2018 and plans to add at least 6GW by 2025 – small by global standards but still fairly resource-intensive. Clearly, there is a lot of demand for green energy at the moment and that hunger is only set to grow as more nations and industries start transitioning.
However, much less talked about is the source of the transition commodities required to produce all the batteries, solar panels, windmills, cabling etc. that the world needs. Where are all the resources going to come from and are we just solving one problem by creating another one? To answer these questions, we need to take a closer look at what is currently happening in the source countries of transition minerals.
The colonialism that fuelled the industrial revolution and a major CO2 dump
The extroverted modern economies of the Global South are, by and large, products of the first British-centred food regime, i.e. an extractivist project designed to produce commodities in the so-called far-flung recesses of empire for the exclusive use of the global metropole. From the beginning and throughout, this production system’s pervasive ontology was one of mass destruction within which ecocide, metabolic rift and reduction of human beings to mere beasts of burden or bearers of labour were mostly the direct consequence of external agency.
Consider what colonialism and empire did. Britain wanted gold and so it tore up the Congo, the Sahel kingdoms and southern Africa to get it. Europe wanted agricultural commodities and so forests were razed in Africa and the Americas to make way for latifundia. They destroyed plant diversity and drove many species to extinction in an insatiable quest for rubber, cotton, gold, ivory, palm oil, groundnuts, oil and gas…. The Congo Rainforest, entire islands – no amount of biodiversity loss was terrifying enough to make rapacious colonialists reverse course or change tack. In some parts, women and men who refused to provide free labour fell victim to punishments like being given ‘short sleeves’ or ‘long sleeves’, meaning having their limbs chopped off with a machete. Terrifying practices like these still echoe in modern history with what we saw in the Rwandan genocide, the Liberian civil war and the current civil war in Cameroon.
Modern Africa emerged within this extroverted and disarticulated Darwinist project, with the state its most visible excrescence. This is the reason why Aaron Gana and Claude Aké posit that the political economy of Africa is characterised by dispossession, forced proletarianisation of Africans in Western-owned capitalist ventures, peripheralisation of Africa as an adjunct to metropolitan Europe and the creation of a brutal state apparatus to undergird and make this system of exploitation possible.
Commodities from the colonies helped fuel Promethean growth in the developed world and created impossible imaginaries of what the ideal home should be: for every family a sprawling mansion with a green lawn, large blue pool, expensive car in the garage and an endless supply of consumer goods. It created an orgy of unprecedented consumerism that has taken our planet to the brink.
IPCC data shows that the world is currently witnessing the effects of global warming in the Anthropocene caused almost exclusively by highly industrialised countries that powered their growth through environmental plunder. Trends further suggest that as we enter the Technocene and the age of the fourth industrial revolution, those who plunder the planet for relentless growth want to continue their destructive ways while greenwashing and gaslighting us in glossy magazines and TV adverts. Whereas resisting workers and activists had their limbs chopped off in the past, today’s ones are physically eliminated, as was the case with Ken Saro Wiwa or more recently, the chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee Sikhosiphi Bazooka Rhadebe who was assassinated in the Eastern Cape (South Africa) after he said no to mining in his village by the Australian mining company Mineral Commodities Limited (MRC).
Africa suffered yesterday so that the world’s factories and stores could have cheap commodities and today that trend continues. Of course, what is clear is that throughout the world and within different hegemonic production paradigms, workers have generally been steamrolled by the very resolute and aggressive masters of capital who usually work hand in glove with governments.
Green-grabbing and the new green colonialism
Africa is choking under the stranglehold of a pervasive new colonialism, a dirty green colonialism developed so that the world can become cleaner. New forms of production have entrenched and sometimes exceeded old extractivist models both in their greed and their brutality.
What people often overlook is that green technologies are not made just by recycling old technologies and components and getting new efficient ones. Green technologies require a lot of land, mineral resources, water and labour of course – just like dirty fossils. Electric vehicles for example require a combination of base metals (aluminium, copper, iron), precious metals (cobalt, nickel and manganese), graphite and lithium. It takes on average five hundred gallons of water to produce one ton of lithium, not forgetting the space required for all the salars. Wind turbines require balsa wood – the list goes on and on.
Getting these resources comes with coercion, dispossession, and even slavery. Clear patterns are already emerging across the African continent that point to a pernicious new, green colonialism that is the direct consequences of the world’s thirst for transition resources. The actors may not be the same, but the modus operandi mirrors a script that Africa has seen before.
Take for example the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which holds over 70% of the world’s known deposits of cobalt, a key transition mineral. In the past, the Congo was plundered for a wide range of commodities: timber, rubber, gold, copper, beeswax, palm oil, etc. Today again, the Congo is a vast mine and plantation, the playing field of rapacious foreign actors who raid it to feed the world’s addiction for cheap mobile phones, solar panels and Electric Vehicles (EVs).
In 2008, former President Kabila signed a massive 6.2 billion US$ "infrastructure-for-minerals" deal with China to cede control over a number of mines in exchange for airports, roads, government offices and other infrastructure. For fifteen years now, the Chinese have operated mines where thousands of children toil exposed to the elements while their age-mates in other countries are at school. While this is going on, the infrastructure that China promised to deliver has not materialised.
China is certainly not the only player in the transition minerals sector in the DRC or elsewhere in Africa. Some disgruntled politicians have decided to take up arms and carve out parts of the country for exploitation. Other players like the American EV giant Tesla (which buys cobalt form Glencore Congo) have opted to go through corporations rather than nation states. Regardless of how foreign operators go in, the end result is the same: child labour, ecocide on a massive scale with artisanal mines popping up everywhere in old-growth forests, inter-ethnic conflict and an assortment of Congolese and Rwandan militias, especially the notorious M23 which receive support from Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
Similarly, Madagascar is witnessing a stampede by foreign corporations after deposits of rare earth minerals were discovered there. German and Singaporean interests have set up the Tantalum Rare Earth Malagasy (TREM) in the beautiful Ampasindava Peninsula (Nosy Be). India’s Varun group has also discovered large deposits of rare earth minerals in Anosy region, where QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM) and China Nonferrous Metal Mining Group (CNMC) already have interests. Just like in colonial times, wherever rich deposits are discovered, local populations are summarily relocated and promised compensation which never matches the scale of what they lose. In some cases, the compensation never materialises. The right to say no simply does not exist here.
“Nothing has changed!” exclaimed Zo Randriamaro, the director of the Research and Support Centre for Development Alternatives (CRAAD-OI) when I met her in Madagascar for a research project in August 2022. She pointed to a dejected and haggard woman who had travelled for over 21 hours to talk to someone about the persecution they are facing from the Malagasy government and foreign mining companies. There were Chinese mines setting up in her village and they were taking over three hundred square kilometres of land – including forests, homes, farmland, and ancestral burial sites - to mine rare earth, with government approval.
We must also point out that it is not just the mineral resources that are being grabbed. Green grabbing also involves seizing desert land for green power plants, as is the case in Ouarzazate in Morocco, according to the Transnational Institute’s Hamza Hamouchene. To make way for the Noor Ouarzazate solar plant, local communities were pushed out of their ancestral farm and rangelands under the pretext that the area was “just worthless desert which nobody was using anyway”.
As Europe hunts for energy following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Morocco and other countries are hatching plans to set up even more solar farms where all the energy shall flow to Europe and the revenue generated directly to the fiscus in African capitals. Communities where such projects are based shall harvest only grapes of wrath. Hamza Hamouchene says that “a familiar colonial scheme is being rolled 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 – who seek dignified lives – from reaching safe shores”.
Germany has offered to help Senegal dig up oil and gas in the pristine Sangomar parts of the Saloum Delta as they wean themselves off Russian oil and gas. Ibrahima Thiam, project manager at Rosa Luxemburg Senegal, is certain that this project will drive more migration towards West Africa and Europe: “many communities around here depend entirely on fishing, and if they cannot fish, then migrating to big cities and even Europe will become a bigger attraction”.
Italian company ENI has inked a deal with SONATRACH, Oxy and TotalEnergies in Algeria to boost supply of gas by up to 9 billion cubic meters per year from 2023-24. Not to be left out, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Algeria in August 2022 and signed deals to expand gas production in the country.
Mozambique is already the theatre of a terrorist insurgency since large deposits of gas were discovered off the coast of Cabo Delgado Province, now managed by the French company, Total. Some of the insurgency is clearly disgruntled local youth incensed by the corruption fuelled by gas money in faraway Maputo while they wallow in poverty, according to Rosa Luxemburg Southern Africa’s Fredson Guilengue. Surprisingly, in a move reminiscent of Ogoniland in Nigeria (remember why Ken Saro Wiwa was hanged?), instead of promoting popular sovereignty over resources with a view to distributing the country’s wealth more evenly among its citizens, France has opted to facilitate the arrival of Rwandan troops in Mozambique, with the help of the government there, exclusively to protect its fossil interests.
Towards a new internationalism
The transition to carbon-neutral societies requires the replacement of essentially all our living, transit, work and leisure infrastructure with greener ones. If you can imagine greening pretty much all the infrastructure that exits from New York to Tokyo, then you begin to get a picture of the gargantuan task that awaits us. If mankind chooses to continue on the same path of constant GDP growth that some people are demanding, then it will require a grand total of all the raw materials that the world has ever produced and then some– a completely crazy idea. Where are these resources going to come from?
These questions should lead us to the conclusion that rolling back green colonialism requires a new ontology. We have to make peace with living, breathing nature and realise that it is not just an abstraction to be exploited according to our whims and caprices but rather a finite space from which we should take only what we really require – within a de-growth dynamic if you will.
Making peace with nature is hard for a planet that has become accustomed to unbridled plunder- but it is possible. We need a new internationalism based on deep democracy, solidarity and interdependence. We can achieve that by doing three things.
Firstly, we have to trade differently, from a decolonial perspective that respects the popular sovereignty of trade partners. We cannot produce – or consume – everything all the time. We have to promote short value chains and consume what we produce, importing only what we really need. This priority recognises the need for better relations among trade unions, parliaments (e.g. better Pan-African Parliament - European Parliament relations, ECOWAS Parliament- ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly, etc.), civil society organisations and governments.
We must also adopt responsible consumer behaviour and realise that cheap food and consumer goods have a cost. This should lead us to reject all meat from the Amazon, mobile phones produced by exploiting Congolese child labour, fancy t-shirts made by exploiting Indian farmers and Bangladeshi sweatshop workers, etc. We have to recognise that buying cheap coffee or cocoa is putting money directly in the pockets of rapacious ecocidal capitalists. We are a planet of different nations united by a common destiny. This means that workers’ unions and consumers have a strong role to play in influencing corporate behaviour to act more responsibly both in terms of how they source their products as well as how they treat all workers and producers.
Through his extensive analysis of value chains and how dispersed they are, Gary Gereffi has shown us that it sometimes takes over thirty countries to produce just one product. For this reason, workers’ unions in particular can play a vital role in promoting fairness, democracy and responsibility in all production sites around the world. By working together within global partnerships, unions can make sure that what ends up on factory and shop floors in one country is not the product of slave labour or green grabbing in another country. That is also the surest way to hold transnational corporations (TNC) accountable for their actions.
Secondly, a new internationalism must create collaborative efforts to promote accountability and transparency of all trade deals and major transactions. The only thing that generally makes African governments behave responsibly is when they have the glare of the world, especially their funders, focused directly on them. Strong support from activists and media in the global north have been crucial for the victories that the Ogoni people in Nigeria have won against Shell down the years for example. Such scrutiny must be expanded so that financial institutions cease and desist from some overtly criminal deals such as the ones between Benny Steinmetz and the wife of former Guinea President Lansana Conte or Dan Gertler and the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Thirdly, a new internationalism also requires citizens in the countries that have polluted the most since the start of the industrial revolution to force their own governments to honour their pledges to transfer money and technologies to poorer countries for mitigation and adaptation. This means taking the Conference of the Parties and other similar processes more seriously.
Least developed countries certainly must adopt greener technologies and cut emissions for the good of the entire planet. That is non-negotiable. However, if the global south must make significant strides towards reducing emissions, then surely it is only fair that those who have caused the biggest problem help them pay for cleaner alternatives? When climate payments are cast in the light of reparations, there is often objection and resistance. For this reason, it is necessary to highlight another dimension in the reparations debate, i.e. the financial impact of inaction on industrialised countries. Large transfers of money and technology from highly industrialised nations to developing ones within green new deal frameworks is exactly the kind of justice the world needs right now, not green colonialism.