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COP26 summit: How 'green colonialism' is plundering North Africa

Renewable energy projects, just like traditional ones, have fuelled dispossession, exploitation and socioeconomic exclusion across the region
Morocco set the goal of increasing its share of renewable energy to more than 50 percent by 2030 (AFP/file photo)

Human-made climate change is already a reality in North Africa, undermining the ecological and socioeconomic basis of life in the region. Countries such as Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco are experiencing recurrent severe heat waves and prolonged droughts, with catastrophic impacts on agriculture and small-scale farmers.

This past summer, Algeria was gripped by unprecedented and devastating wildfires; Tunisia experienced a suffocating heat wave, with temperatures soaring close to 50C; and southern Morocco struggled with terrible droughts for the third straight year. In the years ahead, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that the Mediterranean region will see an intensification of extreme weather events, such as wildfires and flooding, and further increases in aridity and droughts.

These types of big renewable projects, while proclaiming their good intentions, ultimately sugarcoat brutal exploitation

Addressing this global climate crisis requires a rapid and drastic reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, but if a transition towards renewable energies has become inevitable, justice has not. Such transitions can maintain the same practices of dispossession and exploitation, reproducing injustices and deepening socioeconomic exclusion.

The case of Morocco provides insight into "green grabbing" and "green colonialism" within North Africa through transitioning to renewable energy. While "green grabbing" refers to some of the dynamics of land grabs that take place within a supposedly green agenda, "green colonialism" points to the extension of colonial relations of plunder and dispossession to the green era.

Basically, the same oppressive system remains but with a different source of energy: from fossil fuels to renewable energies while all the political, economic and social structures that generate inequality, impoverishment and dispossession remain untouched.

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Morocco set the goal of increasing its share of renewable energy to more than 50 percent by 2030. But the Ouarzazate solar power station, launched in 2016, has failed to benefit the impoverished surrounding communities; the Amazigh, whose lands were used without their consent to install the 3,000-hectare facility, were especially affected.

The project also requires extensive use of water in order for the solar panels to be cooled and cleaned, putting a strain on the semi-arid region of Ouarzazate by diverting water from drinking and agriculture.

'We are oppressed'

Another phase of Morocco’s solar power plan, the Noor Midelt project, involves developing a facility in central Morocco. For this project as well, the state confiscated around 4,000 hectares of land - which had previously been managed by ethnic agrarian communities - through national laws and regulations that allow expropriation in order to serve the public interest. 

Reminiscent of an ongoing colonial environmental narrative that labels land desired for expropriation as marginal and underutilised, and therefore available for green energy projects, the World Bank asserted in 2018: “The sandy and arid terrain allow only for small scrubs to grow, and the land is not suitable for agricultural development due to lack of water.” The report goes on to state that “the land acquisition for the project will have no impacts on the livelihood of local communities”. 

Solar mirrors are seen at a plant outside Ouarzazate, Morocco, in 2015 (AFP)
Solar mirrors are seen at a plant outside Ouarzazate, Morocco, in 2015 (AFP)

The tribespeople of Sidi Ayad, who have used this land to graze their animals for centuries, beg to differ, with one young shepherd explaining: “Our profession is pastoralism, and now this project has occupied our land where we graze our sheep. They do not employ us in the project, but they employ foreigners. The land in which we live has been occupied."

The people of Sidi Ayad have been voicing their discontent for years, with one protest leading in 2019 to the arrest and imprisonment of Said Oba Maimoun, a well-known local activist and union member.

Deepening control

The Moroccan state has also been partaking in "green colonialism" in the disputed territory of Western Sahara, where renewable energy projects are being carried out to the detriment of the Sahrawis.

There are three operational wind farms in the Western Sahara, with a fourth under construction in Boujdour and several more in the planning stages. According to the advocacy group Western Sahara Resource Watch, 95 percent of the energy that the Moroccan state-owned phosphate company OCP needs in order to exploit the Western Sahara’s non-renewable phosphate reserves in Bou Craa is generated by windmills. 

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Such projects are clearly being used to deepen Morocco’s control over the Western Sahara.

Meanwhile, several other examples from the North Africa region focus on developing a series of projects that would deliver low-cost power to Europe. Once again, the same relations of extraction and land-grabbing are being maintained, while North Africans are not even self-sufficient in energy.

These types of big renewable projects, while proclaiming their good intentions, ultimately sugarcoat brutal exploitation. A familiar colonial scheme seems to be playing out before 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 refugees from reaching its shores.

Lack of engagement

There is an erroneous assumption that any move towards renewable energy must be welcomed, and any shift away from fossil fuels - regardless of how it is carried out - is worthwhile.

The lack of engagement with affected communities can be attributed to the dominant role played by neoliberal institutions and think-tanks in writings on sustainability, energy transitions and environmental issues in North Africa. Many fail to reflect upon the subject adequately, ignoring questions of class, race, gender, power and colonial history. Locals are often painted as inefficient and backwards. 

A green and just transition must fundamentally transform and decolonise our global economic system

And yet, it will ultimately be the small family farmers, fishers and pastoralists whose lands are being appropriated for mega-solar plants and wind farms, workers in the fossil fuel and extractive industries, and informal workers and pauperised classes in North Africa whose lives will be most affected by the climate crisis, and by the top-down and unjust methods being used to address it. 

They are actively sidelined and prevented from shaping their own future. A green and just transition must fundamentally transform and decolonise our global economic system. 

In the context of discussions around climate justice at COP26 in Glasgow, we must always ask: Who owns what? Who does what? Who gets what? Who wins and who loses? Whose interests are being served? Talk of sustainability and green transitions must not be a shiny facade for neocolonial schemes of plunder and domination.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Hamza Hamouchene is the North Africa Programme Coordinator at the Transnational Institute (TNI). His writings appeared in the Guardian, Huffington Post, Counterpunch, Jadaliyya, New Internationalist and openDemocracy. He tweets @bentoumert
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