Missionary discourses: can the green economy bring climate justice to the South?


by Joanes Atela, researcher, political ecology of carbon in Africa project

The green economy has become one of the most powerful political and social agendas in the era of climate change. This week, researchers have met in Dodoma, Tanzania at the Green Economy in the South conference – the first meeting of its kind. Central to this green economy is the emergence of carbon market mechanisms as a form of green development for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

The carbon phenomenon has attracted a variety of multilateral and bilateral investments from the North to the South, with the premise that it represents a form of climate justice for the states and local communities who could participate in these schemes. But in academic and political debates on green economy, questions have been raised as to what extent these carbon schemes – as part of the green economy – represent realistic climate justice to climatically vulnerable farmers and pastoralists in the South.

Specific cases of carbon schemes in Ghana (Vision 2050 carbon project), Zimbabwe (Kariba REDD project) and Kenya (the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project) indicate that these schemes, in their designs, perpetuate a generic discourse around ‘ecological and social missionary’. In this discourse, projects claim to bring a new life to the ecosystem and livelihoods in the respective target localities that are now suffering the impacts of global change.

The Kariba carbon project in Zimbabwe, for instance, claims that it will alleviate poverty, help people have food, education and health and at the same time provide enormous ecological benefits in terms of reduced degradation and wildlife protection. Similar arguments were put forward by the Vision 2050 carbon project in Ghana, which expects to create livelihoods opportunities for different land owners in the forest transition zones; and the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project, which aims to achieve ecological and social ‘triple wins’.

Shifting the blame

In this missionary framing however, there seems to be a hidden shift in the blame game. Global problems of climate change are blamed more on local activities such as firewood collection, hunting or unsustainable subsistence agricultural practices in these landscapes. For example, the Vision 2050 project in Ghana claims that the loss of forest in the transition zone is due to peasants’ grazing activities –implicitly absolving from blame greater timber concessions and plantation companies that extracted large sections of the forest.

While carbon projects must find a justification for situating their work in certain localities in the South, they fail to capture the actual drivers of change. Instead, the schemes tend, largely, to pass on the burden and sense of guilt to the local communities – who then become co-opted as part of the solution and cast as beneficiaries of this new ecological and social missionary work from the North.

Hope and hype

On the ground, the new ‘carbon missionary’ discourse potentially creates hopes and hypes that may degenerate into more livelihood injustices and inequalities. For instance, the Zimbabwe case depicts a new wave of repositioning in which rich immigrants expect the Kariba REDD project to displace land ownership claims by indigenous locals – who have been blamed for forest degradation. Our Ghana case paints a picture of a failed mission in which the project was unable to meet its promises to the local people, who abandoned certain forest-based livelihood practices and took responsibility for planting trees along the forest transition zone.

Learning from potential

While the general examples here seem to point to the shortcomings of carbon schemes in achieving climate justice, it is important to note that these shortcomings do not apply to all carbon schemes in the South. Indeed some carbon schemes, for example the Kasigau Corridor REDD+ project in Kenya, have demonstrated the potential for these interventions to change lives and livelihoods.

Achieving this potential is only possible if projects take into account the history of land use, development processes and people’s aspirations in the target localities. In this era of green economy, therefore, packaging solutions under carbon is necessary but must be done with caution, historical cognition, and an eye on the global nature of climate change drivers and the local impacts of such actions. It is only through this the green economy debates and actions can realize climate justice for the South.

Author’s note: For more details and insights on this topic look out for the forthcoming book Carbon conflicts and forest landscapes in Africa (Routledge, March 2015) by Ian Scoones and Melissa Leach (eds).

This post first appeared on the Green Economy in the South conference blog.

Image: Colonialism by Clapagaré on Flickr (cc-by-nc-sa-2.0)