New enclosures of the carbon market, Part I: Sub-Saharan ‘land-grabs’ as accumulation by dispossession

Naomi Millnerby Naomi Millner, University of Bristol

In late September 2011, news of another ‘land grabbing’ fiasco briefly hit the international headlines (Al Jazeera 2011; Lang 2011; Vidal 2011a; 2011b) before being added to the encyclopaedic archive of cases pursued by international advocates and activists across the last decade. This time, more than 20,000 farmers had been evicted from the Mubende and Kiboga districts of Uganda after a deal made by the Ugandan government with The New Forests Company, a ‘sustainable and socially responsible’ forestry company which is 20% owned by the HSBC bank. An Oxfam report released in September had evidenced that, despite the company’s insistence it had appropriately consulted all inhabitants of the land before their ‘voluntary’ departure, thousands of families had been forced from their long-term homes. Residents – who were called ‘illegal encroachers’ by the company and the Ugandan government – had lived on the land for up to 40 years as a result of inherited and bought tenancies, but were presented by armed police with only three months notice, and received no compensation (Grainger and Geary 2011). The former village school in Kiboga is now a Headquarters for the New Forests Company (Vidal 2011a), whilst the majority of the previous infrastructure – of village and government structures, local council systems, schools, health centres, churches, permanent homes and farms – has been destroyed. Nor is this an isolated case. Oxfam estimates that 227 million hectares of land – an area the size of north-west Europe – has been sold, leased or licensed in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2001, predominantly to international investors of secretive deals (Grainger and Geary 2011). Similar stories are also being told in Central Asia and Latin America (Alden Wily 2011).

Associated with new fears over food security, such large-scale land acquisitions are justified as a necessary securing of food production sites – especially as more land is given over to biofuel production (Li 2010). But in the Ugandan case the land acquired was to be used for ‘carbon-offsetting’. Its use was not directly linked with the issues of food scarcity and energy in Uganda itself – despite the fact that large areas of the country have been wasted across the last five years by flooding associated with climate change. Instead the plantation’s value is measured in terms of foreign investment into the country – an investment judged ‘ethical’ by international standards, as a reforestation project planned to balance carbon usage elsewhere. Of course, the 22,500 or so farmers who have lost their means to support themselves do not figure in this ‘ethical’ calculation – and Oxfam warns that, correspondingly, such projects are ironically likely to worsen, rather than mitigate, food security (Grainger and Geary 2011).

But what initially appears as a terribly dark quirk of global capitalism – that poor farmers are being forced from their land to pay off the global North’s bad conscience – turns out to be all rather logical. Harvey (2003) develops the term ‘accumulation by dispossession’ to explain how the appropriation and enclosure of common lands marks a continuation of the capitalist logic. For him, the privatisation and commodification of common assets like land and water are part of a further commercialisation of basic goods, which see the means of basic subsistence in the global South converted into commodities. Meanwhile, the manipulation of global crises by global actors, and the pressure of institutions like the World Bank and IMF forces already crippled national economies to place such goods on the international market (Li 2010). This issue is further amplified as investors seek new speculative outlets to match the flooding of the new market with capital, its devaluation, and a crisis of overaccumulation. And while some investors into land like the Mubende and Kigoga plantations might claim to have experience in agricultural production, others are only buying lands speculatively, anticipating price increases – a practice known as ‘land banking’ (Alden Wily 2011).

Geographers have recently used Harvey’s terminology to explain and disturb the way that carbon-offsetting in particular has provided a new rationale for international investments into foreign land, especially in the global South (Bond 2011; Bumpus and Liverman 2008; Lohman 2008). The need for radical adjustments in production and energy use have been finally acknowledged at an international level, as fossil fuels deplete, and the evidence of climate change becomes more difficult to deny. But the conversion of responsibilities for such changes into tradable ‘credits’ and ‘offsets’ has opened a whole new market for international investment. Rather than reducing emissions, offsetting means producing the equivalent reduction elsewhere – for example, by planting a lot of trees in another country, even if the land for this use is currently being used by thousands of farmers for subsistence living. The conversion of the climate issues into abstract, equivalent – and therefore tradable – units which apply to any time and place in practice results in the real cost being distributed unevenly – in the main, becoming displaced onto areas already affected by poverty and resource inequalities. Offsetting credits are portrayed as the production of a kind of a ‘commons’ – an investment in breathable air and fertile land which it is in everyone’s interest to protect. But the administration of this commons through financial markets results in new forms of enclosure, which in practice make a mockery of the common land and air which precede social life and markets. This is land parcelled up for foreign investors, for the benefit of governments and companies in the global North who would rather not acknowledge their own historical role in either climate change and dispossession.

Besides the emerging critical work in this area, creative imaginations and actions are also called for which reclaim the ‘commons’ as part of practices which don’t just pay lip-service to ideas of sustainability. The creative tactics developed by subsistence farmers to cope with resource crises in apparent ‘wastelands’ offer one important resource (Alden Wily 2011). The mobilisation of ‘climate justice’ terminology by global activists, especially in South America, offer another (Bond 2011). Here the rationale behind carbon credits is reversed, with imaginations for change which direct responsibility proportionally towards countries whose economies are built on environmental destruction and colonial appropriation. The new kinds of authority being established at such sites of experience and exchange are sites of the production of a commons which debunks the ‘common good’ marketed by carbon off-setting. Through such acts of taking and reappropriation we may insist that such a commons is not the only one – and it is certainly not a sustainable one.


I would like to acknowledge the input of Dr Mark Jackson to this post; Mark brought these news articles to my attention and raised many of the academic references cited in a highly stimulating conversation.


Al Jazeera (2011) Oxfam warns of ‘land grabs’ in Africa. 22 September (last accessed 22 December 2011)

Alden Wily L (2011) The tragedy of public lands: Understanding the fate of the commons under global commercial pressure. International Land Coalition. (last accessed 22 December 2011)

Bond P (2011) Emissions trading, new enclosures and eco-social contestation. Antipode doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2011.00890.x

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Bumpus A and Liverman D (2008) Accumulation by decarbonization and the governance of carbon offsets. Economic Geography 84(2):127-155

Glassman J (2006) Primitive accumulation, accumulation by dispossession, accumulation by ‘extra-economic’ means. Progress in Human Geography 30(5):608-625

Grainger M and Geary K (2011) The New Forests Company and its Uganda plantations. Oxfam Case Study 22 September (last accessed 22 December 2011)

Harvey D (2003) The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Lang C (2011) Ugandan farmers kicked off their land for New Forests Company’s carbon project. 23 September (last accessed 22 December 2011)

Li T M (2010) To make live or let die? Rural dispossession and the protection of surplus populations. Antipode 41(s1):63-93

Lohmann L (2008) Carbon trading, climate justice and the production of ignorance: Ten examples. Development 51(3):359-365

McGroarty P (2011) Moves to snap up land in Africa draw scrutiny. Wall Street Journal 22 September (last accessed 22 December 2011)

Vidal J (2011a) Ugandan farmer: ‘My land gave me everything. Now I’m one of the poorest.’ The Guardian 22 September (last accessed 22 December 2011)

Vidal J (2011b) Oxfam warns of spiralling land grab in developing countries. The Guardian 22 September (last accessed 22 December 2011)