Climate Crisis and Racial Capitalism: Deconstructing the European Development Model in Africa

The forces of colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism cause, or even create, disasters in the Global South (floods, droughts, etc.), displacing millions of people, putting them out of work, and making them support economies around the world, e.g., as a “reserve army of labor” in the centers of capital in the Global North. Here, the most vulnerable, least protected, and most exploited could become agents of system change, argues Jennifer Kamau in her contribution to BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series, highlighting the environmental impacts of racial capitalism and how it affects Kenyan workers.


The destruction of the planet and its catastrophic consequences are felt primarily in the Global South. The Global North is responsible for the crimes of environmental degradation and colonial violence that have destroyed the livelihoods of formerly colonized, racialized people and places through resource extraction, land dispossession, pollution and predatory methods of climate change adaptation. The continued satisfaction of “exotic tastes” has exacerbated socio-environmental pressures. The consumerism of the Global North has set “quality standards” that farmers in the Global South must meet.

More than 30 years ago, Prof. Wangari Maathai spoke out about racial capitalism and environmental injustice. She challenged the capitalist greed that was rapidly destroying livelihoods. In 2004, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her everyday message that the plight of the poor – environmental degradation, deforestation, and food insecurity – are deeper problems of disenfranchisement and disempowerment. Communities in the Global South are demanding an end to the colonial ideology of “explore and conquer,” whose injustices are inscribed in the post-colonial model of “development” based on the capitalist exploitation of resources and labor.

Cash crop colonies

To put this in perspective: Agriculture in former European colonies like Kenya was set up to provide cheap goods for the home market. Kenya grows world class coffee and tea (so-called cash crops, which is essentially the continuity of production for their markets). Multinational corporations such as Unilever run the plantation system to create these “cash crop colonies.” In order for the plantation systems (large scale single crop farming) to thrive and expand, local communities have been displaced, water resources have been depleted, and their environment has been polluted with industrial waste.

There is a long tradition: Working conditions are difficult and wage dumping is a hallmark of “the best cup of Java coffee” – one of the shameless displays of racialized labor. Java is an island in Indonesia where the Dutch East India Company used slave labor to produce the “best quality” coffee. The Dutch forced millions of Javanese peasants to grow huge quantities of coffee. Ceylon tea would be another example of how global economics and politics make it difficult to improve conditions for workers. In fact, the power structures of racial capitalism enable similar conditions of exploitation in many other sectors, including the flower farms in the rich agricultural areas of Kenya.

Most flowers in Europe are produced under harsh working conditions and environmentally destructive systems. They are one of Kenya’s biggest exports to Germany, but are grown at the expense of farmland and are known to be exploitative fields for workers. Workers are exposed to high levels of hazardous chemicals and have no medical coverage. Female flower pickers are subjected to sexual and gender-based violence. The socio-ecological pressures of flower farms have been highlighted for decades. They continue to destroy the local ecosystem and enslave the local population through wage dumping.

The coloniality of power

This system is a legacy of the colonial era. After all, the formal independence of African states from colonial rule did not mean a change in the economic and social structure. The capitalist patterns of agriculture, trade, and land ownership established during the colonial period persist. The racialized capitalist order has created ecological, unjust, and inequitable economic arrangements. The cycle of oppression created by the global North’s trade policies and so-called free trade agreements clearly shows that in the world of global economics, the welfare of local and indigenous communities does not matter.

The fate of Kenyan workers in the agricultural sector is determined by global trade policies such as the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the EU and the East African Community (EAC) and the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). These trade agreements are a blatant display of the coloniality of power. Free trade and export policies come at the expense of people and ecosystems. The ecological impact of pollution by multinational corporations in Kenya can be illustrated by the local fishing industry. For years, companies have been dumping their waste into Lake Victoria, one of Africa’s freshwater lakes. The lake basin is a vital source of food, energy, drinking water, and irrigation.

Multi-layered collage: Aerial view of Lake Victoria; worker among waste dumped into Lake Victoria; workers fleeing Unilever coffee plantation in Kenya; coffee beans formed into a pathway between North and South. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2023 (cc by nc).
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2023 (cc by nc)

The dumping has caused an explosion of the invasive weed known as water hyacinth, a free-floating tropical aquatic plant apparently introduced to provide biofuel, but now choking the life out of the lake. Not surprisingly, the lake is experiencing an ecological collapse and fish are no longer able to thrive in the lake. This results in a dwindling livelihood for the fishermen in the area, exacerbated by competition from multinational companies with advanced technologies.

The lake is bordered by Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Fishing conflicts are on the rise. Declining fish populations and increasing demand for seafood increase the risk of conflict. Fights over resources are causing internal conflicts between countries bordering the Indian Ocean (Kenya and Somalia are fighting over resources). This conflict affects communities that depend on each other for survival.

The link between social life and the effects of climate change is obvious. Not only in the examples above, there a other examples. One of the major impacts of the climate crisis is flooding. Most countries in the Global South do not have systems in place to mitigate floods, whose destructive impact on infrastructure and services such as schools, hospitals, farms, and transportation is enormous. In addition to this vulnerability, polluting industries are often located in or near these communities, causing health problems and adverse environmental impacts.

Worker emancipation

Workers in Kenya have been forced to adapt to the environmental impacts of racial capitalism. However, the failure to address the climate crisis has greatly increased their vulnerability. There have been droughts in the Horn of Africa, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and South Sudan due to the climate crisis. This year, the region is in its fifth failed rainy season. This, coupled with the capitalist expansion of ‘cash crop plantations’ and the recent ‘greening’ agenda, has exacerbated vulnerability. According to the Famine Early Warning System, from October 2022 to January 2023, a total of 36.4 million people in these countries were affected, 18 million faced extreme hunger, 1.5 million were displaced, and 9.5 million livestock died.

In short, the majority of people in the Global South can no longer feed themselves, in part because flooding and monocropping have depleted soil fertility. The cost of production for agriculture is high; now farmers have to use fertilizers and buy new seeds for each planting season because racial capitalism has destroyed traditional knowledge and resources through so-called “hybrid” and genetically modified seeds. Kenya has been a testing ground for big seed companies like Bayer-Monsanto (they merged to expand their toxic product empire). The company’s technology is not suitable for subsistence farming.

Greenpeace Africa has done extensive research into the machinations of Bayer-Monsanto, which was originally a chemical company. They have turned their herbicides and pesticides into weapons of war. The hoax of organic food here in Germany while producing the most toxic chemicals to “boost” food production in Africa is ironic. This is a good example of the transformation of capital greed. Kenya is still recovering from the effects of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPS) imposed on health and education systems, and other economic sanctions by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that limit investment in local knowledge and skills.

These and the growing debt burden have affected livelihoods and led to rural-urban migration. It should be recognized that migration within Africa is increasing as the “slow violence” inflicted by the fossil fuel industry on racialized and poor communities makes them socially and economically vulnerable. In recent years, urban migration has increasingly become international migration: dispossessed workers are crossing national borders and the borders of the African continent. However, those who flee disasters at home by leaving the African continent and trying to reach Europe, for example, are severely limited in their ability to obtain visas and thus seek asylum; the same opportunities that Europeans enjoy are denied to those from the Global South. In Africa, on the other hand, the colonizers left behind colonial constitutions that still allow them to return as tourists, experts, researchers, or investors.

The borders of Europe

The specter of dark-skinned migrants threatening national borders and bringing crime, disorder, and disease haunts public debates about climate change. Looking at the struggles of migrant workers from Africa, it is important to note that there is no shortage of skills and knowledge. However, techniques of exclusion, differentiation and valuation have “othered” migrant workers along racial lines and made them targets of extreme exploitation.

The struggles of migrant workers can be viewed in three dimensions. First, exploitation: Migrant workers from Africa face exploitation in low-wage jobs in the Global North. Wage dumping is well known. A good example is experienced by tomato farmers from Ghana who travel to Italy to work. Instead of being hired based on their skills, they are hired as manual tomato pickers and paid peanuts. They also live in deplorable conditions, lacking basic amenities. Examples of the exploitation of skilled African migrant workers are numerous and well documented.

Second, vulnerable status: Migrant workers, especially women, may have a precarious immigration status that makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by employers. For example, there is an expectation that female migrant workers in Germany will automatically fit into care work or service industries (housekeeping and cleaning). Of course, vulnerability is not inherent, but is created by the system. Third, family separation: Many migrant workers are forced to leave their families behind, creating emotional and social challenges. German laws and bureaucracy make it impossible for families to be reunited, even when all requirements have been met.

A part of the struggles of migrant workers in Europe can be explained by the so-called “integration procedures.” In Germany, for example, one is expected to learn the language to communicate and understand the way of life. This integration reflects the intertwined nature of capitalism and racial regimes. Migrant workers are expected by the “host” country to form new social relations and culture. Sadly, the migration of labor within the current racialized and militarized borders of Europe replicates the pattern of colonization where territories in Africa were “conquered for the good of the home country.” Migrant workers are the new territories to be “conquered” and their labor used for the benefit of the “home economy.”

Against this background, are alliances between racialized migrant workers and white workers in the centers of capital possible? If so, what are the preconditions? International law has been deeply complicit in the project of racial capitalism. It has been used to justify successive interventions by the North in the Global South. As a result, movements in the Global South have been at the center of pushing back and demanding a change in the social-ecological order and capitalist domination. They have challenged and called for a re-evaluation of the neo-colonial orders that shape the “governance” of climate crises and their ecological, economic, and socio-political consequences. There is a need to decolonize structures of social organization and activism, including large-scale protests. There is a need to deconstruct the power dynamics whose existence projects the image of one race as superior to the other. Racialized communities from the Global South are challenging the notion of white workers as “saviors” of the planet. Redemptive power comes from unequal access to resources and spaces for organizing.

To give an example: the International Women’s Space (IWS) has created solidarity around the common struggles of migrant workers, e.g. by organizing No Border Campaigns, initiatives against EURODAC, cooperation with the initiative UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, and interventions at the level of the Berlin Senate. There is more to come.

Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series. For more content, visit the “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look:

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