Just when the so-called ‘natural climate solutions’ are being touted as common-sense response to climate change, the devastation of the world’s largest forests by wildfires grabs international attention.


Thick smoke forest fire Canada

This blog was written by Adeniyi Asiyanbi, a BIOSEC fellow who has recently started Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council(SSHRC)-funded research based in the department of geography at the University of Calgary.

Just when the so-called ‘natural climate solutions’ are being touted as common-sense response to climate change, the devastation of the world’s largest forests by wildfires grabs international attention.

One is compelled to ask whether forests and other vegetal landscapes are, as some claim, the mighty but forgotten bulwark against climate change? Nature4Climate, an initiative of the world’s largest environmental agencies and NGOs, suggests that “if we did things differently and allowed nature to be the powerhouse it can be, it can absorb 11 gigatonnes of CO2 a year… about the same as stopping the use of oil annually”. As corporations from the aviation to the oil and gas sectors turn to forests and other nature-based climate solutions often undergirded by market-oriented approaches, we are told here lies the untapped opportunity to avert climate breakdown and produce “positive impact on other critical environmental, social and economic benefits”, as Nature4Climate puts it.

Yet, these claims ring louder at a time when significant impacts of climate change on forests and other ecosystems become more evident. Changes in timing, duration, intensity and frequency of extreme temperature, precipitation and events such as wildfires, storms, pests and disease infestation put ecosystems (and human dependence on them) at significant risk. This year alone, wildfires have so far consumed 13 million hectares (or the size of Greece) of the Siberian forests, the world’s largest forests. And the number of fires in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest so far in 2019 has increased by 85% year on year, with even higher increases of 114%, 104% and 145% reported for Bolivia, Peru and Guyana respectively. Moreover, these supposedly natural landscapes are increasingly vulnerable to global, national and local socio-economic and political dynamics from contested ownership and management of land and forests, to global commodity markets, to local and national political tensions.

Is it time we asked how initiatives seeking to mobilise forests as underutilised spaces of opportunity in addressing climate change co-exist with increasing recognition of forests as risky spaces of physical and socio-political vulnerability and climate hazard? How, by whom and with what effects are these seemingly divergent visions of forests and other ecosystems being mobilised under the changing climate? How are these visions being mobilised, reconciled, contested and with what effects? These questions are so crucial to the on-going struggle to define the role of forests in efforts to address the climate crisis – a struggle that sits at the very heart of significant claims of decarbonisation by governments, corporations and the civil society.

My new Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)-funded research based in the department of geography at the University of Calgary will investigate some of these questions in the Canadian context, where the national climate change blueprintelevates the role of forests in emissions reduction and where public and private forest-climate investments and initiatives are being rolled out at the national, provincial and municipal levels.

Yet, Canadian forests are increasingly impacted by climate change, limiting their capacity to contribute to emission reduction on the one hand, and on the other hand, making them a significant climate hazard. Wildfires now burn an average of over 2.5 million hectares of Canadian forests each year – about twice the area burned in the 1970s – costing up to  $1.4 billion annually in fire management alone. Area burned by wildfire is expected to almost double in most parts of the country by the end of the century. As forest fires become more expansive, destructive and unpredictable under the changing climate, direct and indirect consequences for society will not only grow in significance, they will also affect the public unequally and these consequences will also be mobilised towards various ends.

The new project, which builds on my research on REDD+, focuses on the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia to understand how regimes of opportunity and risk are co-emerging around forest carbon economies and forest fires. How are these regimes being assembled, mobilised, reconciled, and contested? And what are the implications for equitable and effective governance of the forest-climate interface? Ultimately, this research seeks to bring some insights into the contested mobilisation of forests in climate action and what this means for global and local environmental politics.


— Blog first published by BIOSEC project, University of Sheffield on 1st October, 2019.

We can’t choose between economy, environment

Source: We can’t choose between economy, environment


Politicians are increasingly treating the tension between the economy and the environment as though we can happily choose one and ignore the other.

The current provincial government is promising the moon when it comes to the economy. But it seems to treat any indication of sound environmental action – from local environmental regulation to climate change – with disdain

Battle is declared on environmental groups with “war room” rhetoric. Even the quiet business of law making continues to relegate the environment. For instance, of the 14 bills and amendments that have received royal assent under the new government, none strengthens action on the environment. Rather, some partly roll back environment regulations.

To dismiss the environment in these ways is to dispel myriad critical issues that touch the life of every Albertan. These include local environmental use, air and water pollution, disposal of toxic wastes by industry, and the impact of extreme and unpredictable weather on our agriculture, and safety of life and property.

To be clear, we must not take for granted our economic strength. Indeed, our relative wealth has and will continue to provide some degree of bulwark against environmental stress. But that has its limits. Even the insurance industry is rethinking risk and insurable assets in the face of environmental stress. And failure to respond appropriately to environmental imperatives will not only undermine our economic base, we also deny ourselves the opportunity to lead the world in the economies of the future.

And we should not delude ourselves that we can somehow stay untouched by environmental instability in other parts of the world. Our food, clothing, electronics and other daily necessities depend on webs of supply chains that connect us to distant corners of the world. The powerhouse of our internet is based in places as far as Belgium and Finland. Our phones rely on cobalt mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even our wastes had to be sent as far away as the Philippines – who have recently sent back our dodgy export.

A lot is possible within the space where we pay equal attention to the economy and the environment. When trade-offs are inevitable, they should not be left to self-interested powerful lobbies or supposedly neutral market logics. The power of robustly informed public debate and civic participation must prevail.

Niyi Asiyanbi

Decolonising the environment: race, rationalities and crises

By Adeniyi Asiyanbi, 09 August 2019

First Published on the website of the Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID) 

Colonialism was a thoroughly environmental project. And the environment remains dangerously colonial today at a time of significant environmental crises.

From the plundering of resources for imperial expansion to the constitution of the colonies as the playground of Western environmentalism; from imposition of the ideas of ‘wilderness’ on landscapes to the consequent removal of peoples across vast areas, the environment in the colonial era was the site of struggle over racialised representations, exploitation, exclusion and control.  The legacies of this colonial history persist in the ways the environment is represented, lived in, researched, managed, and protected today.

As Wainaina reminds us in his witty satire How to write about Africa, the colonial gaze lives on not only in the pervasive and persistent racist representations of Africa’s peoples but also of its landscapes, animals and efforts to conserve them. Such representations continue to be etched into public subconscious through popular culture – whether in the pervasive microaggression in Disney animations or in the normalisation of  white saviour mentality by celebrity conservationistsprojecting images of unpeopled idyllic landscapes and the heroic white conservationists ‘saving’ these landscapes.

What is even more concerning is the way that colonial and racialised systems of relation, modes of representation, laws and practices that would otherwise generate public outrage in other domains are made to appear completely normal, sometimes even virtuous in environmental contexts.

Attempted displacement of millions of indigenous people from forestlands now claimed as ‘state forests’ in India. The global race to grab the land of the world’s poorest for so-called ‘natural’ and ‘cheap’ climate change solutions while fossil fuel continues to burn and investors seek profit. Foreign troops and ex-service men jostling as if in war to supposedly ‘save’ African elephants and rhinos from Africans. Decades of shoot-to-kill policy in protected areas reserved for paying eco-tourists. Consideration of capital punishment for wildlife crime in Kenya. How have these activities and practices become normal and acceptable?

Or take Cross River in Nigeria, an area contiguous with Korup in Cameroon and one which has long been a subject of racialised idyllic representations through such British figures as colonial administrator Amaury Talbot, the naturalist Gerald Durrell and evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley. Conservation in Cross River is still guided by a set of forestry laws with a slew of colonial clauses, which were first introduced in southern Nigeria by colonial foresters in 1916. An important example of such clauses is one which puts the burden on the accused forest offender to prove innocence, flipping the fundamental legal principle of the presumption of innocence – a principle so fundamental it is enshrined in article 11 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite three separate revisions to the forestry law between 1990 and 2010 under internationally-supported conservation programmes, colonial clauses remain intact in the forestry law of Cross River State.

While these clauses have facilitated the rapid criminalisation and militarisation of the local forest economy under the on-going carbon sequestration REDD+ programme, the pervasiveness of these trends in environmental contexts more generally warrants that we ponder why the persistence of colonial legacies in the environment remains seemingly impervious to even principles of human rights?

Clearly, these legacies have often been enthusiastically adopted even amplified both unwittingly and strategically by independent governments and elites of former colonies, whether to bolster their own powers or in exchange for international economic favours or for reputational capital. Yet, the systemic persistence of these environmental legacies in ways that would otherwise be impossible in other domains entails much more than just the will and purpose of postcolonial governments. This is hardly possible without either the tacit approval or active cooperation of powerful international actors including foreign governments, international NGOs, multilateral institutions, corporations and global elites including celebrities, royalty and investors.

Moreover, many of the big conservation NGOs some of which are colonial in origin have barely changed their key operating principles today. It is why the recent international opprobrium at the WWF for funding “guards who have tortured and killed people” was surprising. Such practices are not exceptional; they and their disturbing ideological underpinnings are far more widespread.

While contemporary environmental projects and interventions are constituted by partly novel and more diverse purposes and interests than was the case during colonial times, the wholesale transplantation of tropes, laws, principles, strategies and practices must be recognised for what it is. This is not least to help locate more accurately the origins of many of the uniquely racist practices in environmental management but to also help render them familiar while at the same time signalling the tough struggle needed to break such long-standing and deeply-ingrained practices.

Even more important in perpetuating colonial legacies in such a way as to make otherwise outrageous practices seem normal is the strategy of rationalisation. A decolonising project must, thus, ask: how are colonial legacies and racialised environmental relations continually rationalised, beyond the fundamental dynamics of racial othering – that is, the systematically manufactured premises of race upon which hierarchy, exclusion, marginality and inequality are persistently predicated?

Decolonising the environment entails that we pay attention to powerful environmental rationalities which are often projected as value-free, unproblematic and universal, and have remained strikingly persistent: the duality of nature and society, intrinsic value of nature, disinterested objectivity of environmental science and conservation practice, simplistic globalism with respect to environmental crises, interventions and custodianship, to name a few. Often reflecting Eurocentric biases   and the privileges of global conservation elites, these rationalities continue to veil self-interest, inequalities and suppressed rationalities.

The painful irony is that these same rationalities mask how current environmental crises – from climate change to biodiversity extinction – must be understood in part as a result of the persistence of colonial environmental logics. These crises are also a reflection of the racialised inequalities between the winners of the rapacious global capitalist system and those who are impoverished by it, those who produce the greatest environmental burdens and those who bear its worst consequences; those who make claim to ‘global’ resources and those whose claims to territory, livelihood and wellbeing are extinguished at the local level; those whose luxury is being protected and those whose survival is being sacrificed.

If rationalities are central to the persistence of colonial legacy, it naturally follows that one critical focus of decolonising efforts must be at the level of thought, where relentless questioning can prise open a wide range of possibilities in terms of uncovering pernicious rationalisations and fostering decolonised environmental imaginations and relations.

Consider what a simple question “Why is my curriculum white?” is doing to the education sector. About the environment, one could ask many questions: Why is mainstream conservation white, as Mbaria and Ogada poignantly questioned in their book, The Big Conservation Lie? Who speaks for the intrinsic value of nature? Whose environment can be ‘globalised’, whose cannot? Who can legitimately research whose environment? Who speaks for the global environment? Who protects whose nature and from whom? Who profits from racialised environmental destruction? Which human lives are expendable in the race to save the environment? How do racialised inequalities intersect with other structures of inequalities? How and why are colonial environmental legacies exalted and retooled by post-independence governments, former imperial powers, corporations and civil society actors including NGOs?

Such questions open up multiple possibilities of debate, reflection, and action, that might help to decentre colonial legacies and outright racist environmental representations, policies and practices which sometimes masquerade as disinterested, virtuous environmental management. If, as Ward notes, decolonization would require that the environmental movement abandons its colonial roots and gets refashioned ‘from the ground up by those with the most at stake’, then the range of responses will necessarily be diverse, adaptive and creative in order to be effective.

Above all, insofar as colonial legacies have co-produced our current environmental crises, decolonising the environment is both a humanising project and one important step towards resolving these environmental crises.

Why Global Efforts to Address Climate Change Through Forest Conservation are Failing

This blog was first published here as a blog post of the Department of Development Studies, SOAS, University of London. 

Photo credit: UNFCCC

Beneath the euphoria of recent progress in international climate change negotiations in Paris and Marrakech lies the reality that schemes to curb carbon emissions through forest conservation are failing. From the Brazilian Amazon rainforests to the Congo Basin forests, these schemes have not addressed climate change, stemmed deforestation, or improved the livelihoods of forest communities.

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation plus sustainable forest management (or REDD+) is a major global initiative to address climate change. Touted as a means to ‘cheaply’ reduce carbon emissions and drive green growth for both developed countries and developing countries alike, REDD+ aims to reduce global carbon emissions by transferring cash incentives (through grants, credits, and ultimately through the sale of carbon offsets) from developed to developing countries in order to help reduce deforestation in the latter.  Global expectations of the scheme are high. The coordinator of the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility declared: it is hoped that REDD+ will “transform rural landscapes, conserve forests, make a difference in climate change trajectories and, most importantly, bring prosperity to the rural poor”.

Yet evidence from our research and that of other researchers shows that these expectations are far from being met. In Nigeria, where REDD+ was adopted in 2010 as a means to protect the country’s last stretch of rainforest and a global biodiversity hotspot in Cross River, our research found that early optimism and expectations have given way to disillusion. Complexities surrounding institutional arrangements, carbon estimation, property rights and forest monitoring have slowed progress. In expectation of a financial reward, and partly in response to global REDD+ requirements, the Cross River State government has replaced the forestry law, halted revenue generation from timber, and imposed a total ban on forest exploitation. Years on, however, the financial reward anticipated by the government and forest communities is yet to materialise. Meanwhile, tensions surrounding REDD+ policies have not only had destabilising effects on government institutions and local forest governance, they have also led to the marginalisation of forest communities and increased deforestation, as documented elsewhere.

Failing expectations

In many REDD+ countries, deforestation is now increasing rather than decreasing, in spite of billions of REDD+ funds being invested in capacity building, institutional restructuring, law enforcement, forest monitoring, among other REDD+ processes. For instance, in the Brazilian Amazon, deforestation has increased steadily since 2014, despite Norway’s US$1 billion REDD+ funds to the country between 2009 and 2015. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s flagship REDD+ country, deforestation has increased steadily since 2011, reaching a 14-year peak in 2014. Similar trends are also observable in CameroonGhanaCote D’Ivoire and Madagascar.

Increasingly, governments are returning to forest-intensive sources of revenue including industrial agriculture, mineral resources, commercial timber concessions, and bogus forest-based infrastructural projects. For instance, the former Cross River State governor lamented in 2015 that “REDD+ is not yielding returns on investment”. His successor recently proposed a bogus 20km wide and 260km long ‘super highway’ through the state’s rainforest, a project that is the focus of local and international campaigns and protests. Like the Nigerian government, many governments have devoted scarce state funds and manpower to implementing REDD+ with the hope of receiving huge green finance. A recent study showed that 84 per cent of sub-national government institutions involved in the REDD+ initiatives studied are putting more into REDD+ than they are getting out.

Tens of thousands of indigenous communities across REDD+ sites have been coerced or sweet-talked into committing to REDD+ based on promises of alternative livelihood support, including regular cash payments. In some cases, governments – sometimes colluding with conservation organisations – have forcibly removed forest communities from their ancestral forest lands in order to create space for REDD+. In East AfricaNigeria, and Brazil, governments have imposed bans on local forest access while deploying state military and private security with sophisticated surveillance equipment and weapons.

Yet, REDD+ payments and compensations have largely failed to reach many of these forest communities, as recent studies on UgandaMadagascarBrazil and cross-country reports by CIFOR also confirm. Disbursed REDD+ funds have been far less than pledged, and much of what has been disbursed has been sunk into capacity building and consultancies facilitated by international REDD+ partners, and international and local NGOs. There is little basis for optimism that things will be radically different in the more advanced stages of REDD+ that promise even greater funding.

So why is REDD+ failing?

When the renowned American Physicist Freeman Dyson declared in a 1977 seminal paper that “the carbon dioxide generated by burning fossil fuels can theoretically be controlled by growing trees”, he was making a theoretical claim. Practically controlling carbon emissions through tree planting and forest conservation is bound to be complex, even messy. The global policy optimism that has propelled REDD+ has not only downplayed the practical complexities of this scheme, but this optimism is itself founded on problematic assumptions, putting REDD+ on shaky grounds from the very start.

Indeed, many of these assumptions do not hold up. Neither the suggestion that reducing global emissions through forest conservation in developing countries is ‘cheap’, nor the claim that REDD+ will achieve win-win outcomes for all involved stand up to empirical scrutiny.  Besides, the top-down implementation of REDD+ often only offers a simplistic treatment of complex tropical forest ecosystems and the variety of interactions between people and forests in different landscapes. For instance, assumptions that governments and communities can and will act to stop forest conversion only in response to monetary incentives treat lightly the myriad drivers of and explanations for human-forest interactions – drivers that vary from global economic forces and changing national circumstances to local complexities reflecting different political economies, histories, and cultures.

International REDD+ partners are also sometimes themselves contradictory. For instance, while Norway committed $1billion REDD+ funds to Brazil, it ironically negotiated access to Brazil’s crude oil fields.  Furthermore, REDD+ is being pursued through problematic traditional development approaches that are short in life-cycle and as well as top-down, highly technical and consultant-dominated.

So, while policymakers and researchers are coming to terms with the reality of what some researchers have described as just another ‘conservation fad’, the world needs more nuanced and contextually-appropriate responses to the complex socio-environmental challenges of our time.

Author: Adeniyi Asiyanbi