The Environmental Destruction and Resource Exploitation of African Land Grabs

In addition to infringing on property rights, economic rights, and food and water rights, land grabs have also significantly violated the environmental rights of African people.  Environmental rights assert that all human beings deserve to live in a clean, healthy environment regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, religion, and/or gender, and future generations deserve an environment in which they can continue to live and thrive.  Environmental injustice happens when environmental degradation not only takes place, but the environment of disenfranchised, poor communities is destroyed.  This is often the case with African communities forced to leave their land.  The ways in which land from land grabs is used is often detrimental to existing ecosystems, and research has shown that when communities’ environments are damaged the result is violent conflict.  To take away one’s land is certainly unjust, but to destroy an ecosystem leaving it unfit for further human use is blatant injustice.  In this article on environmental rights and land grabs, I will discuss the environmental degradation that often comes with land grabs as well as the existing laws that protect people’s environments. 

Economic Development or Environmental Injustice?

As briefly discussed in the previous articles on land grabs, resource extraction, agribusiness, and industry are the predominant usages for land taken through land grabs.  Timber, mining, and oil production are relatively old industries in Africa dating back to colonialism while growing produce for biofuels is relatively new.  All these industries are incredibly detrimental to the environment in that they cause deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water and soil pollution.  They are not only incredibly detrimental to the land, but also to human health for both the laborers working the mines and the communities living nearby.  The byproducts from the industrial process are often toxic and hazardous to human health and end up in the natural water sources around the industrial sites.  Moreover, these industries, especially agribusiness, require extensive amounts of water that is already a scarce resource in Africa.

In addition to the negative side effects of biofuel production, waste distancing is another relatively new environmental challenge for Africa.  Waste distancing is when a rich government or community is able to pay to have their waste dumped within or nearby an impoverished community.  One of the first environmental justice cases on waste distancing happened in Koko, Nigeria where a farmer was paid a small fee to take toxic-waste drums from Italy[1].    In Ghana, children drag magnets through e-waste landfills hoping to collect metals like coltan, gold, and tungsten that are used in electronic devices. Those metals are then bought by Chinese brokers and reused in new electronic products[2].   A number of studies on environmental justice have shown that “poor neighborhoods and communities, including those made up largely of people of color or Native peoples, tend to be targeted for the siting of landfills and other toxic activities”[3]  because they usually do not have the resources or political clout to resist the waste dumping and need the income that waste scavenging brings in.

Protecting Human Rights and Human Habitats

Because of the impending negative environmental and social consequences of climate change, environmental protection is an increasingly important endeavor for governments and communities all over the world.  This is especially true for Africa as it is expected to experience some of the worst effects from global climate change.  Many international laws have been implemented to protect environmental rights, prevent biodiversity loss, and promote sustainable resource development.  The African Union Convention on the Conservation of Natural Resources was created to promote the sustainable development of African resources while also protecting the surrounding ecosystem from exploitation and pollution.  Additionally, there are two conventions that prohibit waste distancing and monitor the transboundary movement of hazardous materials in Africa:  Bamako Convention on the Ban of the Import into Africa and the Control of Transboundary Movement and Management of Hazardous Wastes Within Africa and the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal.  Both conventions call for “the reduction of hazardous waste generation and the promotion of environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes, wherever the place of disposal, [as well as] the restriction of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes except where it is perceived to be in accordance with the principles of environmentally sound management.”[4]   Additionally, countries like Namibia and South Africa have strong environmental justice laws protecting both the rights of the people in their habitats as well as the ecosystems of their territories[5].  

Nonetheless, more can be done to protect the environment for all people by preventing land grabs.  The forcible removal of people from their land is wrong, but destruction of land sanctioned by the government adds insult to injury.  One cannot assume that pollution would not take place if African communities were not disenfranchised from their land or the economy.  However, it is much easier to pollute land one has no connection to instead of a homeland where one and one’s family must survive for years to come.  As with the previous rights issues surrounding land grabs, it is not that laws to prevent environmental injustice are lacking.  Environmental injustice takes place because of government and corruption a lack of law enforcement.

As we have already witnessed decades of violence, sickness, and death resulting from the environmental degradation caused by Dutch Royal Shell in Nigeria’s delta region, one can expect more violence and conflict to occur throughout the African continent if environmental damages continue.  Investment, industry, and economic growth are all essential to Africa’s development for the future.  However, a healthy, pollution-free environment with enforced human rights law is also essential to Africa’s future.  Land grabs are not an economic activity that supports the social justice and environmental protection that sustainable development is about, which is why these types of deals must stop.  As with any healthy democracy, people must rally for government transparency and protection of their rights.  Obviously, this is no easy task.  However, without civil protest Africans will continue to be disenfranchised from their land and suffer environmental injustice.