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Green Grabbing

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Definition and history of the term

The term Green Grabbing is used to describe a large scale private appropriation of land, resources, and water legitimized with the protection of the environment or financed through mechanisms related to climate change mitigation. Similar to the concept of land grabbing it is a political term, used both by activists and academics to criticize large scale land appropriation processes. The adjective “green” points to the fact, that these appropriations are legitimized with environmental arguments like the protection of forests, landscapes, climate, and biodiversity. In many cases, “green agendas” are the key drivers and goals of the appropriation of land linked to biodiversity conservation, biocarbon sequestrations, ecosystem services, or ecotourism (Fairhead, Leach and Scoone 2012). The term refers to processes mainly observed in the 21st century, although the appropriation of land and nature is not a new phenomenon but an intrinsic part of capitalism and colonialism. Nevertheless, with the global climate policy of the last 30 years a new dimension entered an old dynamic. In almost all cases the local population is negatively affected due to dispossession, expulsion, and enclosure, especially when these areas were previously used as commons (Nowak 2013: 249).

The term Green Grabbing was probably first used by the Guardian journalist John Vidal to refer to the appropriation of land and resources for environmental ends (Vidal 2008). Kathleen McAfee analyzed the phenomena earlier without using the term Green Grabbing by using the short phrase: “to sell nature in order to save it” (1999: 133). Back in 1999 she analyzed the new way in which supranational environmental institutions, including the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the "green" World Bank, were attempting to regulate international flows of "natural capital" by setting up a new "global" discourse, in which nature is constructed as a world currency and ecosystems are re-coded as warehouses of genetic resources (McAfee 1999: 133).

Empirical relevance in the Americas: Forms of Green Grabbing

The term Green Grabbing is used to describe different phenomena that legitimize the appropriation of land and resources with environmental arguments. In the following I will illustrate each form with an example from different places in the Americas, although the phenomenon occurs in other parts of the world as well.

One form of Green Grabbing is that wealthy citizens (normally of the global north) buy land in the global south: Hundreds of websites run by charity, trusts, and individuals offer to trade acres of forests, fields, and mountain terrains in order to save them from destruction and prevent the acceleration of climate change. International conservation groups, such as the WWF, Conservation International, and Nature Conservancy, attracted billions of dollars to establish national parks all over the world.

Within the Americas several institutions and investors are important in the context of Green Grabbing. In North America the Wildland Network (formerly Wildland Project) aims to secure millions of acres of land between the Atlantic and Pacific and from Canada to Mexico, arguing that buying the land the state wants to sell is the best option for serving wildlife. Whereas in North America there is not a great deal of criticism towards such kind of initiatives, in South America various actors articulate their doubts: John Eliasch, a Swedish businessman bought 400,000 acres of Amazon rainforest in Brazil and Ecuador and was surprised when he was called an “eco-colonialist”. The former Brazilian President Lula da Silva declared that “Brazil was not for sale” and that “these well-intentioned outsiders” were ignorant of the reality of the Amazon rainforest and should stick to trying to influence their own governments” (Vidal 2008).

Similar criticism comes from Argentina: In Patagonia (southern Chile and Argentina) about 200 wealthy North American citizens bought millions of acres in the name of wilderness preservation. For example, Douglas and Kris Tompkins (with their clothing empires North Face and Patagonia), CNN co-founder, Ted Turner, financier George Soros, actor Christopher Lambert, and actress Sharon Stone as well as the owners of another clothing empire, Luciano and Carlo Benetton, have all bought land with the aim of creating the first coastal national park in Argentina. Within Argentina, they have been criticized for seizing control of water supplies, putting Argentinian farmers out of business, and contributing to the rise of land prices (Vidal 2008).But the establishment of national parks is only one form of Green Grabbing.

A second form of Green Grabbing is the appropriation of land stimulated by global policies of climate change mitigation. As the following examples show programs for biocarbon sequestration, biofuel production, and renewable energy production expand rapidly, as they are all crucial elements of climate policy, but have ambivalent impacts on ecosystems and often negative effects for the local population.

One example of a green legitimization of on-going projects is the fast expansion of large scale infrastructure of renewable energy installations built for export. In the Mexican state of Oaxaca, in the region of Istmo de Tehuantepec, transnational corporations are building ten thousands of windmills. Local citizens criticize that the corporations and the Mexican State are ignoring agrarian laws and indigenous rights (Lehmann 2014). Conflicts within the communities are intense and social inequalities are reproduced. In Honduras, dams like Aurora I and II, that meant the violent dispossession of several indigenous communities, are co-financed by the Clean Development Mechanism (Heuwieser 2015). The ministries of environment are promoting these kinds of “green economy” projects; 47 projects for renewable energy have been given state subsidies since 2009 (directly after the coup), which can count on banks for (Central American) regional integration and development banks and private investors from Central America, Europe, and China (ibid: 133ff).

Numerous projects that have been legitimized with environmental arguments have highly questionable ecological effects: In many areas, for example, the expansion of palm oil monocultures are promoted with the arguments that a) they produce agrofuel and, therefore, are sustainable and b) they serve as a carbon sink and, therefore, qualify to receive money on international carbon markets. The Kyoto Protocol aims at establishing an international market of emissions trading with the underlying logic that the emission of CO2 at one place of the planet can be compensated for by a fixation of the same emissions elsewhere in the world (Seiwald and Zeller 2011). Therefore, emissions rights were created as tradable certificates on capital markets and brought big forest areas into the interest zones of financial capital. This has paradoxical effects:

“Under the logic of the Kyoto Protocol, a small farmer who maintains mature forests on his land would not be eligible for carbon credits. Yet, a rancher who plants African oil palms (Elaeis guineensis) on denuded pastures would be counted as providing an additional CO2 “sink” […], despite scientific evidence that a mature tropical forest is a better carbon sink than a monoculture plantation, not to mention other biodiversity indicators. Such distortions have led to African oil palm planters buying up ten thousands of hectares of farmland in northern Guatemala.” (Grandia 2007: 488). New green markets are developed for CO2 sink – the best known program is probably the REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). In many parts of the Americas, pilot projects are developing schemes under which local communities or land owners can potentially benefit monetarily from deciding not to clear, but to protect forests. The different schemes have different, but almost everywhere controversial effects (Seiwald and Zeller 2011; Hackfort 2012).

A third form of Green Grabbing is often linked to ecotourism and can be illustrated very well with an example from Colombia: The production of nature for tourist consumption in Tayrona National Park, of which more than 90% was concessioned to private hands, has contributed to dispossession and criminalization of the local population and their livelihood strategies as peasants, fishermen, transporters, food vendors, and tour guides (Ojeda 2012: 357f). The tourism promotion went hand-in-hand with the militarization of tourist spots. The lifestyle of the local population has been framed as destructive actions of “invaders” and “illegal occupants” that destroy the biodiversity of the place (ibid. 364). Within (different parts of) Colombia a certain racialization and ethnicization of “green” behavior can be observed: “Black communities” and “indigenous communities” are produced as “green” subjects that have to be educated by development agencies as entrepreneurs for activities like palm oil production (Cárdenas 2013: 309). In contrast, mestizo populations are seen as lacking a specific culture and ancestral roots to the land and, therefore, not “green enough” (Ojeda 2012: 367f).

In many countries in the Americas the expansion of palm oil production is presented as a green technology, financed by international mechanisms and very much linked to forced displacement of many persons: Within the Americas, Colombia is the biggest producer and exporter of palm oil; in the world it is the fifth largest producer and the sixth largest exporter. In many parts of the country this production was made possible due to forced displacement of the local population by paramilitary groups (Mingorance Cruz 2009: 280 ff). Honduras probably has one of the most acute on-going agrarian conflicts after Colombia (Edelman and León 2013: 1699). Both the market based agrarian reform of the 1990ies and state and international financial institutions favored palm oil production. Many palm oil companies received loans from the International Financial Cooperation (a sub-organization of the World Bank) and, at the same time, carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol. Within the region there is not much opposition to the crop itself, but rather to whom it is producing for and how – as the appropriation of land is closely linked to violence, including forced displacement, murder, and disappearance (ibid. 1714ff).

Theoretical considerations: actors, discourses, effects

The above mentioned examples show that compared to the processes of land appropriation in the 18th and 19th century, new actors and new discourses are involved. A huge number of are involved in Green Grabbing: from pension funds and venture capitalists, commodity traders and consultants, brokers and aggregators to GIS service providers and technology procures, business entrepreneurs, and salespeople (Fairhead, Leach and Scoone 2012). Furthermore, an uncountable number of green activists and NGOs from the grassroots and local level up to the big international NGOs like the WWF, Conservation International, and ecotourism providers are part of the process on all scales. Additionally, it is possible to recognize actors that have always been involved in land conflicts: peasants with and without land titles, indigenous and afro-descendant communities, rural social movements and their supporters, the rural elites/oligarchies, state agencies, mining companies, the (para)military, agrarian federations composed by big or medium-size farmers, and, last but not least, international organizations such as the World Bank, regional development banks, such as the Inter-American Development Bank, bilateral agencies, such as USAID, giz and others.

Despite the new actors involved, the effects for the local population are quite similar. With very few exceptions, Green Grabbing means displacement of vulnerable and historically disadvantaged social groups from their lands and rising social conflicts in the areas. Therefore, local resistance to these dynamics is developing and many local activists, who are defending their communities against dispossession, are victims of violence both from the State and private actors. The number of murdered activists is rising – especially in Central America, Colombia, and Brazil (Global Witness 2015).

Some authors propose to analyze Green Grabbing as a continuation of primitive accumulation that separates people from their land and causes a substantial restructuring of possession and production relations (Backhouse 2013). Green Grabbing can be seen as a strategy to handle the multiple (economic, financial, environmental, climate, and food) crises, as it creates new fields of financial investment that are framed as green, but at the same time avoid redistribution among the poor and legitimize the dominant position of the elites (Nowak 2013:260). What is new about these enclosures is that they are often motivated by developmental, climate, and energy projects with new green legitimation narratives and modes of implementation (Backhouse 2013: 279).

Several discursive transformations have to be realized to create “green commodities”: There would be no carbon trading without science-policy discourses on global warming, no enclosures without identifying a threat to biodiversity beforehand, or no payments for ecosystem services without a particular framing of the value of nature for human beings (Fairhead, Leach and Scoone 2012). Forests have to be understood as “otherwise disappearing”, agrofuels have to be casted as sustainable, and biodiversity has to be given a monetary value first (ibid.) Often these discursive operations are combined and justified with degradation narratives – the argument that the local population is “over-using” fishing grounds or “over-exploiting” soil, e.g. due to “over-grazing” (Benjaminsen and Bryceson 2012; Nalepa and Bauer 2012). Geo-spartial technologies, such as GIS and remote sensing, are used to frame land as “marginal land”, which means land that is not used for food production and can therefore be used for agrofuels without negative consequences (Nalepa and Bauer 2012).

Critical acclaim and conclusion

Critiques of the concept of Green Grabbing address the fact that very different policies and activities are summed up under the same term without differentiating between activities that are only a “green-washing” of policies destroying the environment on the one hand, and activities with real ecological impetus and effect on the other hand. However, it is not easy to distinguish between the two, for in real life different actors have different interests and strategies for doing the same thing; the term Green Grabbing, therefore, does not evaluate the ecological effect, but focuses on attempts of legitimization. Furthermore, one could ask why many authors in the discussion do not include all types of so-called green energy. Up to now, there is no discussion around sun energy, which could also lead to the dispossession of land and the conflicts around it.

The examples given in this text show there is an existing dilemma between environmental protection and private appropriation of land, water, and resources, even in the cases where the appropriation avoids their destruction. In many cases “green” arguments only serve as legitimization and do have questionable ecological and social effects – Green Grabbing is a term to highlight these effects.

Anne Tittor

Please cite as:
Tittor, Anne. 2016. “Green Grabbing.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/g_Green_Grabbing.html.


Backhouse, Maria. 2013. "Grüne Landnahmen in Brasilien. Das Beispiel der Palmöl-Expansion im Amazonasbecken" Pp. 263–283, in Die globale Einhegung - Krise, ursprüngliche Akkumulation und Landnahmen im Kapitalismus, edited by M. Backhouse, O. Gerlach, S. Kalmring, and A. Nowak. Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot.

Backhouse, Maria, Olaf Gerlach, Stefan Kalmring, and Andreas Nowak, editors. 2013. Die globale Einhegung - Krise, ursprüngliche Akkumulation und Landnahmen im Kapitalismus, Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot.

Benjaminsen, Tor A. and Ian Bryceson. 2012. "Conservation, green/blue grabbing and accumulation by dispossession in Tanzania" Journal of Peasant Studies. 39:335–355.

Cárdenas, Roosbelinda. 2013. "Green multiculturalism. articulations of ethnic and environmental politics in a Colombian a "black community"" The Journal of Peasant Studies. 39:309–333.

Edelman, Marc and Andrés León. 2013. "Cycles of Land Grabbing in Central America: an argument for history and a case study in the Bajo Aguán, Honduras" Third World Quarterly. 34:1697–1722.

Fairhead, James, Melissa Leach, and Ian Scoone. 2012. "Green Grabbing. a new appropriation of nature?" Journal of Peasant Studies. 39:237–261.

Grandia, Liza. 2007. "Between Bolivar and Bureaucracy. The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor" Conservation and Society. 5 (serial online):478–503.

Global Witness. 2015. How many more? https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/how-many-more/

Heuwieser, Magdalena. 2015. Grüner Kolonialismus in Honduras. Land grabbing im Namen des Klimaschutzes und die Verteidigung der Commons, Wien: Promedia.

Hackfort, Sarah. 2012. "Machtkämpfe im Paradies - Mit REDD+ zwischen Klimaschutz und Landkonflikten in Chiapas, Mexiko." Interdisciplinary Research on Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation, Discussion Paper 02/2012. www.uni-kassel.de/uni/fileadmin/datas/uni/umwelt/REDD__Hackfort.pdf.

Lehmann, Rosa. 2014. "Mehr als nur (heiße) Luft: Windparks im mexikanischen Bundesstaat Oaxaca verfestigen Ungleichheiten" Peripherie. Zeitschrift für Politik und Ökonomie in der Dritten Welt. 34:427–444.

McAfee, Kathleen. 1999. "Selling Nature to Save It? Biodiversity and the Rise of Green Developmentalism" Environment and Planning D: Society and Space April 1999 17: 2: 133 -154.

Mingorance Cruz, Fidel. 2009. "Las Consecuencias Sociales de la Explotación de Recursos Renovables - el Cultivo de la Palma Aceitera en Colombia" Pp. 277–287 in Lateinamerika im Fokus, vol. 5, Biokraftstoffe und Lateinamerika. Globale Zusammenhänge und regionale Auswirkungen, edited by D. Franik. Berlin: wvb, Wiss. Verl.

Nalepa, Rachel A. and Dana M. Bauer. 2012. "Marginal lands: the role of remote sensing in constructing landscapes for agrofuel development" Journal of Peasant Studies. 39:403–422.

Nowak, Andreas. 2013. "Es grünt so grün. Green Grabbing und Akkumulation durch Enteignung" Pp. 247–262, in Die globale Einhegung - Krise, ursprüngliche Akkumulation und Landnahmen im Kapitalismus, edited by M. Backhouse, O. Gerlach, S. Kalmring, and A. Nowak. Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot.

Ojeda, Diana. 2012. "Green pretexts. Ecotourism, neoliberal conservation and land grabbing in Tayrona National Natural Park, Colombia" Journal of Peasant Studies. 39:357–375.

Seiwald, Markus and Christian Zeller. 2011. "Die finanzielle Inwertsetzung des Waldes als CO2-Senke. Nutzungsrechte und Nutzungskonflikte im Rahmen der nationalen Entwicklungsstrategie in Ecuador" Peripherie. Zeitschrift für Politik und Ökonomie in der Dritten Welt. 31:421–446.

Vidal, John. 2008. "The great green land grab" The Guardian. 13.2.2008, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2008/feb/13/conservation, accessed 18.3.2014.

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