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By Saturnino M. Borras Jr, Ruth Hall, Sergio Sauer, Sinem Kavak, Annie Shattuck, and Jacobo Grajales

While world leaders continue to believe that carbon markets and high-tech solutions will enable us to cope with the climate crisis, the gap widens between agrarian struggles and climate change efforts. Pre-existing agrarian struggles for land and livelihoods are often overlooked in an era of market-based solutions to climate change.

“The UN space has become an insidious space in terms of rubber stamping green capitalism in general and a space to squash dissent. Carbon markets and especially REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) have expanded in Kenya, Mozambique, Congo and elsewhere”. So says Ruth Nyambura of the African Ecofeminist movement in Kenya.

She, among other notable global scholars, shared their solutions to agrarian struggles, which primarily affect the global south, during a four-day Climate Change and Agrarian Justice conference held online by a top international academic journal, the Journal of Peasant Studies, with the Transnational Institute, Collective of Agrarian Scholar-Activists of the Global South (CASAS) and the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.

“African people are evicted from land in the name of conservation and justice. A lot of insidious stuff happens on the ground in communities, and when you track it, is stuff being okayed in the capitals of the world”, Nyambura said. She added that these policies are coming out of the UNFCCC and COP space being funded by the World Bank and IMF. The only way to address climate and agrarian justice are through doing more work on cross-movement and transnational movement building.

The conference took place on 26-29 September, and just under 2000 people gathered from 105 countries to discuss how climate change is deeply entangled with the functioning of contemporary capitalism and industrialism associated with state socialism. 

But, how the relationship between capitalism and climate change plays out on the ground in the rural world has received less attention. In particular, the way agrarian struggles — led by peasants, pastoralists, fisherfolk, rural workers, and others — connect with the challenge of climate change is an essential focus for both thinking and action. 

Abundantly evident from scholarly research from numerous countries is that climate mitigation efforts are creating perverse effects, including expropriation of resource rights, displacement of rural populations, and extraction of value from rural areas across countries in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia,

The importance of the message behind this conference will be seen in the coming weeks as the 50th session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS50) takes place from 10 to 13 October 2022, and COP27 takes place in November. At the centre of the disputes are the connections between food, fuel, and climate crises.

Adding their weight to the conference were social movement organisations such as La Via Campesina, an international movement bringing together millions of peasants, landless workers, indigenous people, pastoralists, fishers, migrant farmworkers, small and medium-sized farmers, rural women, and peasant youth from around the world.

Leading global scholars that addressed the global meeting include Ian Scoones, professorial fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK; Jason Moore, a professor of sociology and an environmental historian at Binghamton University; Sergio Sauer, a sociology professor at the University of Brasilia; Mamadou Goita, professor and executive director of the Institute for Research on Development Alternatives in Africa in Mali; and Amita Bhaviskar, professor of environmental sociology at Ashoka University in India. Across the continents, research evidence presented confirmed the dysfunction of climate responses and the ways they compound rural poverty and inequality. 

Scoones argued that ‘green capitalism’ interventions, like carbon offsetting, have perverse effects. Instead, there’s a need to address the root problems of climate change rooted in the growth dynamics of capitalism and the historical use of fossil fuels, mainly in the global north. Scoones said that carbon offsets create spatial and technical fixes to try and solve capitalism’s problems and create ‘green grabs’ that further separate humans and nature.

Kirtana Chandrasekaran of Friends of the Earth International echoed Scoones’ arguments by adding that many governments and corporations persist with fossil fuel-intensive growth plans, hidden behind a net-zero emissions smokescreen or through carbon offsets.

She said financial institutions have jumped in to create financial assets as a new form of accumulation: more than 1,500 corporations have announced net zero targets, creating a massive demand for carbon offset credits to fuel these markets. In fact, they are buying carbon offset credits which do not exist.

“There is not even a fraction of carbon offsets available to meet these net-zero targets. The race is on to commodify every single carbon atom in nature.” 

Chandrasekaran said nature-based solutions for carbon removal would be (and already are) a significant arena for agrarian justice movements as they lead to land grabbing. 

“Shell needs an area the size of Brazil to offset its emissions. Nestlė needs forests the size of Switzerland every year to offset its emissions from dairy.”

Meanwhile, in Mozambique, farmers are still recovering from “soft land grabbing” through carbon sequestration initiatives. PLAAS postdoctoral fellow Boaventura Monjane reported on research conducted in one such site, Nhambita, where villagers had signed contracts with a UK-based company called Envirotrade, initially to patrol and protect the local forest from logging. Envirotrade, Monjane found, had the farmer’s plant trees on their own farmland and residential plots to maximize carbon sequestration. 

While this project was sold as a benefit to the community, it was, according to Monjane, an intervention that undermined food security and left farmers more vulnerable than before: 

“After falling carbon prices and declining profitability, the company abandoned the project, leaving behind unfulfilled contractual obligations.” The farmers were unable to obtain payment for their trees and lost their food crops.

Natacha Bruna, director of Observatório do Meio Rural in Mozambique, who is a leading scholar in the field of green capitalism, said land and resource-based policies like the promotion of tree plantations, biofuels, and REDD+ compromise new forms of accumulation, intensify restrictions to forests and promote resource grabbing and extractivism.

Brazil is gearing up for an important election this weekend, where responses when it comes to climate change. According to the Buenos Aires Times, under current president Jair Bolsonaro, the average annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rose by 75% compared to the previous decade. He also cut environmental funding by 71%, all while firing or sidelining government officials who spoke out against his policies on climate change. 

Climate activists such as Marcio Astrini, who also serves as the head of Brazil’s Climate Observatory, have spoken out against Bolsonaro – saying he can’t be trusted with the future of the Amazon. His re-election could prove disastrous for the Amazon and climate justice efforts in the country. 

As agri-food industries and financial agents invest in their climate discourses in Brazil, peasants and indigenous peoples are being subjected to unprecedented opposition regarding their land rights. “The militarisation of environmental governance is evident in the governance of the Amazon, with the creation and recreation of the Amazon council, security threat assessments, rising military presence, civilian absence, and undemocratic tendencies,” Ricardo Barbosa, a master’s student at the University of Calgary, said.

Call to action 

The convergence of researchers, authors, activists, academics, and the like from across the world allowed for rich debate, which yielded important outcomes that will introduce new ideas and narratives. Atypical of such conferences, action points were agreed on that will move the community forward. In the run-up to CFS50 and COP27, these conversations are needed to highlight struggles that are often overlooked. 

During these two major conferences, leaders are called upon to, firstly, stop imposing top-down forms of mitigation which shift the costs of continued emissions in the global north onto poor populations in the global south – populations already facing the devastating effects of climate change, which they did not cause. Instead of carbon offsets, some argue for the opposite – climate reparation.

Secondly, governments in global south countries must stop leaving people out of the conversation while advancing corporate interests in logging and commercial plantations. Militarization and violence often accompany both fossil fuel industries and ‘green’ industries, to coerce rural populations into ceding their resources.

Thirdly, climate mitigation and adaptation cannot succeed without addressing the causes of rural poverty and agrarian crisis. After years of under-investment by states following structural adjustment, skewed trade relations, and resource grabbing, rural populations are now hit with both the direct impacts of climate change in the form of specific extreme events such as the recent Pakistan floods – but also the indirect effects including loss of farmlands, water resources, forests, rangelands, ocean resources as these are targeted for carbon deals.

As COP27 nears, the first in Africa in over a decade, the hope is to hear outcomes that positively affect global south populations, ones that are about the people, but also from the people. As widely observed, just because it is taking place doesn’t make this an African COP, or inclusive of the needs and demands of the continent. The people at the grassroots level, those who suffer the most from climate change and agrarian struggles, have to be heard.

About the authors 

Ruth Hall is the DSI/NRF Chair in Poverty, Land, and Agrarian Studies, all at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies; Sergio Sauer is a sociology professor at the University of Brasilia; Sinem Kavak is a visiting research fellow at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, Jacobo Grajales is a professor of Political Science at Lille University and a fellow of the Institut Universitaire de France and Saturmino M. Borras Jr is a professor at the International Institute for Social Studies at Erasmus University. Annie Shattuck is an assistant professor of geography at the University of Indiana and is on the editorial board of the Journal of Peasant Studies.