Green Extractivism and Expropriation of Emission Rights: Are Rural Workers in the Global South Subsidizing the Next Leap of Postcolonial Capitalism?

Multi-layered collage: A scientist and farmer experimenting with climate-smart agriculture in Canada, his transparent experimental box containing an amorphous carbon grid; white farmers in khaki uniforms playing with climate-smart agriculture; a woman picking peas in the Mount Kenya region for the Two Degrees Up project to study the effects of climate change on agriculture; a cargo ship loaded with containers that appears to be emerging from the woman’s embrace. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2023 (cc by nc).
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2023 (cc by nc).

Market-based solutions to the climate crisis, such as carbon markets, generate new business opportunities for the Global North, but create a heavy burden that ultimately falls on rural working people – disproportionately on rural women – in the Global South. Affected households increasingly rely on women’s unpaid productive and reproductive labor to respond to the ongoing loss of resources and livelihood strategies, Natacha Bruna argues in her contribution to the BG text series “Allied Grounds”.


The agrarian and economic policies of many African countries have been the main driving force behind the dominance of extractivism and the production and reproduction of underdevelopment. Large-scale extractive investments are a major driver of dispossession in general and land expropriation in particular, with the intensification of localized poverty (along with external wealth creation and accumulation), accompanied by the intensification of pre-existing gender inequalities. The direct impact of the current environmental crisis has become a major challenge given the level of environmental vulnerability identified in these countries.

Nevertheless, the ostensible solutions to the crisis, mostly market-based, once again focus on the resources of developing countries, especially biodiversity-rich African countries.As a result, in the midst of the intensifying global environmental crisis and the international goal of achieving net-zero by 2050, the new scramble for Africa has become “greener” than ever, not necessarily because of its environmental friendliness, but clearly because of its green legitimization strategies and supporting narratives.

Over the years, land-based investments, projects, and policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change have increased, aiming at the production of carbon credits and natural resources to feed the energy transition and the global imposition of emission reductions or offsets. This piece explores how, once again, it is the resources and labor of the Global South that feed or subsidize global industrialization, accumulation, and lifestyles at the expense of the rural working people of the Global South (especially women) by reducing their necessary consumption and further promoting the self-exploitation of their own labor.

Carbon markets and the production of carbon credits: Green extractivism and expropriation of emission rights

Beyond diagnosing the direct impacts of climate variability or extreme weather events, looking at the impacts resulting from the implementation of climate change mitigation measures allows us to understand how these “climate solutions” represent yet another market-driven and highly financialized resource frenzy hiding behind mitigation and green policies and narratives with high profit rates for different groups of powerful actors. Similar to previous rushes and grabs, negative impacts and social exclusion are also verified (Bruna, 2022; Bruna, Monjane e Samuel, 2022; and many more). These trends constitute the new accumulation frontier and mechanisms to extract and exploit natural resources with little or no compensation.

One of the most prominent is the emergence of carbon markets. Most climate change mitigation projects that aim to “produce carbon credits” are directed to rural areas through various mechanisms: (1) re-establishment of conservation areas to maximize carbon sequestration (e.g. REDD+); (2) enforcing the transformation of traditional farming practices to “more sustainable” farming systems (e.g. climate-smart agriculture); (3) mandating the use of “clean” technologies (such as clean cooking stoves or solar devices) for rural households seeking to reduce their emissions; (4) promoting “green” investments such as tree planting, biofuel production, renewable energy projects that are large-scale and land-based.

These projects, apart from increasing the rush for land and resources, lead to disruptions in rural households’ ways of living, relationship with their land, farming techniques, and overall livelihood strategies. And these changes imply more labor-intensive farming techniques and livelihood strategies for the household, i.e. more self-exploitation of labor by rural households to compensate for their loss of livelihoods and resources. In addition, carbon sequestration schemes as a whole result in reduced access to forest resources and other ecological ‘assets’ that are critical to rural livelihoods. In other words, in order to generate carbon credits, rural households must avoid or refrain from emitting, or refrain from emitting so that the buyers (polluters) can compensate for their emissions elsewhere in the world.

This is the core of what is known as green extractivism, where the commodity being extracted is actually the “emission rights” of rural populations, which are then transferred to external actors (multinational corporations and industrialized regions) as carbon credits – giving the polluters additional “licenses to pollute.” Accordingly, green extractivism is based on the expropriation, extraction and transfer of emission rights, based on market and highly financialized mechanisms that imply further commodification of nature and negative impacts on the rural poor. By using the extractivism framework, it is possible to understand how emission rights are expropriated from the rural poor, transformed into carbon permits, and transferred in favor of external accumulation/industrialization. Conceived thus, emission rights, especially in the case of rural households, are the ability to rightfully use and benefit from ecological assets: to use forest resources for livelihoods, to practice agriculture without imposed restrictions, and so on (Bruna, 2023).

The extractivist logic of carbon credits is that climate change mitigation is based on the premise that a subsistence farmer in rural Mozambique, for example, must stop hunting or fishing in order for a factory in an industrialized region to continue emitting greenhouse gases. Overall, not only the direct impacts of the climate crisis, but also the solutions to the climate crisis are falling on the shoulders of actors who have not contributed significantly to the crisis: poor countries and rural populations. Multiple adversities are falling unfairly on them to accommodate the demands, ways of living, and production of industrialized regions.

Further exploitation of labor subsidizing global economic and environmental demands: Gendered implications

Understanding labor dynamics in the context of green extractivism is an area that still needs to be explored. What is clear, however, is that it is important to understand how different projects aimed at climate change mitigation, carbon sequestration, and emission reduction (in sum, the production of carbon credits) constitute and increase the burden on the labor of affected rural households. Although less labor is exploited in cases of green extractivism for conservation compared to other variations of extractivism, such as agrarian extractivism, different experiences from rural Mozambique showed that if we consider labor exploitation within the household as a strategy to cope with the loss of resources and livelihood strategies resulting from green extractivism, the understanding is different.

Rural people may not be directly employed by such projects, but the process of expropriation of emission rights undermines social reproduction and places an additional burden on them, especially on rural women. This is in line with Shivji’s take on the concept of working people, who explains that primitive accumulation under neoliberalism is “the process of surplus extraction by capital based on the expropriation of part of the necessary consumption of the producer. This is then the material base common to all sectors of what I have called working people” (Shivji, 2017). Shivji’s concept of working people describes different segments of the rural population that are subject to exploitation, including formal workers, informal workers, peasants, women, the rural poor, and so on.

Through the lens of Shivji’s concept, it is possible to understand the process by which rural working people and their labor, in differentiated degrees according to gender and class, effectively subsidize both global environmental goals and the economic agendas hidden behind climate change mitigation narratives and goals. The burden of market-oriented and ultimately “post-colonial capitalist” (Kalyan Sanyal) solutions to the climate crisis is ultimately borne by rural women, as affected households increasingly rely on women’s unpaid productive and reproductive labor to respond to the ongoing loss of resources and livelihood strategies.

Ways forward: Redirect political energy to pursuing non-extractivist alternatives

Despite opposition and criticism, carbon markets are being promoted as both a climate solution and a growth opportunity for African countries by the African Carbon Markets Initiative (supported by the UN, USAID, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations and others), which aims to transform carbon credits into one of the most exported commodities in Africa.

This text aims to draw attention to the fact that before prioritizing carbon markets and the production of carbon credits, we should understand that it can lead to expropriation of resources and land, negative environmental impacts (i.e. in the case of tree plantations), negative impacts on rural livelihoods and development (Bruna, 2022; Bruna, Monjane e Samuel, 2022; Jindal et al, 2012; Tramel, 2016; Tienhaara, 2012). Knowledge, regulatory and legal gaps (regarding property rights, compensation mechanisms, pricing, etc.) contribute to the risk embedded in these schemes.

The bottom line is that those who did not contribute to the current crisis are bearing a heavier burden in multiple ways: both the direct impacts of climate change and the negative effects of market-based solutions. Thus, considering how the rural poor are affected by top-down, market-based climate change mitigation policies that support extractivist development models and unequal economic and ecological exchanges between developed and developing countries should be a starting point for rethinking climate change strategies and solutions. Such a rethink should not only take into account, but also prioritize local challenges and interests, with the participation of local actors and the recognition of local knowledge being key.

Moving away from top-down solutions to co-constructing solutions to the climate crisis is a way to move away from exclusion and exploitation. Incorporating historical and current contributions to the environmental crisis and holding those who have contributed the most accountable is a first step. Carbon markets, emissions reduction and trading may be the solution, a business opportunity for Annex I countries, but it does not necessarily mean that it is the solution and priority for ‘developing countries’ where these projects are targeted.

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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