UK climate aid decimates multiple indigenous communities in the Global South

Artwork of a renewable energy land-grab in Nepal. The image is split in two by an basic image of the UK and UK bank notes flowing from it. On the left, terraced fields and a village on a green mountainside, where a lady harvests crops. On the right, a huge hydropower dam.
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This is the third of a five-part investigation into how UK government climate finance aid is grabbing land, displacing communities, and furthering colonialism in indigenous communities – under the guise of renewable energy like solar. You can read part one here and part two here

Since 2007, UK climate and development aid has funded at least 16 large-scale renewable energy projects where there are reports or allegations of displacement of indigenous and land-based communities. This means, on average, the UK has funded approximately one green energy land grab a year over the past 15 years. In the latest of a series of investigations into colonial greenwashing, the Canary can reveal a broader picture of UK green energy land grabs in the Global South.

The Canary identified that UK aid has funded four wind, six solar, and six hydropower projects that have resulted in allegations of displacement of the host communities. The projects are found across the Global South, in parts of South Asia, Central and East Africa, and Central America. The UK has funded them over 20 years through development aid and International Climate Finance (ICF) programmes, as well as projects tied to investments made by the government’s private development bank, British International Investment (BII).

The investigation also included projects the UK has funded through the Clean Technology Fund (CTF), a multilateral climate investment fund. Using biennial reports that the government submits to the UN, the Canary found that the UK has contributed nearly £1bn towards the CTF since 2011. Such financial support for climate-impacted communities is vitally important and the clear responsibility of industrialised nations like the UK. However, our investigation shows that UK climate aid is also trampling over the rights of marginalised communities. 

You can explore the Canary’s findings in the map below. Every land-grabbing project we identified with links to UK climate and development aid is displayed. Clicking on a project will reveal further information on UK aid financing streams, and reports by media and other organisations on issues that the project raised for the host communities.

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The great green energy land rush

Countries around the world are now attempting to transition away from fossil fuels and make the shift to renewable energy sources. However, Gaurav Dwivedi of the Centre for Financial Accountability (CFA) in India told the Canary we need to recognise that renewables are:

The kinds of projects which have become vehicles of mass land grabbing.

The CFA monitors the role of national and international financial institutions like the World Bank and their impact on human rights and the environment. In a report they produced in 2021, the CFA heavily critiqued the World Bank and IFC’s role in the Rewa solar park project in India. The report found that the solar park led to the displacement of tribal families and impacted local pastoral communities.

The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis estimated that in India alone, the wind and solar infrastructure needed to meet net zero by 2050 will take up between 65,000 to 95,000 sq kilometres of land.

Dwivedi asks:

Where is all this land coming from?

And he also says that:

These projects are coming up at the cost of people’s livelihoods, homes, land, traditions, social security and identity. It’s important to ask if such projects are really required at such costs to the common people or there can be alternatives which are decentralised, small, people-oriented.

The Environmental Justice Atlas (EJAtlas) is a crowd-sourced database that records information on human rights abuses linked to large-scale industrial, mineral extraction, and energy projects. It identifies over 2,500 projects which have caused – or EJAtlas contributors anticipate will cause – land dispossession and displacement. A significant number of these relate to renewable energy projects. At the time of publishing, there were over 500 wind, solar and hydro projects on the map. With over 400 entries in the database, most of these were hydropower dams. Over two-thirds of hydropower projects list displacement or land dispossession among their direct impacts. 

The frequency of land-grabs for renewable energy projects shows that green-grabbing is the new face of colonial resource theft. Alongside land-grabs for mineral extraction, food monocultures, and livestock farms, the land rush for renewables is also becoming a common capitalist trend.

How is the UK funding these renewable energy projects?

The Canary found that other industrialised nations are listed in cases appearing on the atlas. For example, the US, Germany, France, China, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Japan have all funded listed renewable energy projects. The data showed them using development aid to fund these projects within the last 25 years. According to the database, these governments provided financing for the projects mostly bilaterally – that is, aid sent directly to the recipient country.

The 16 projects that the Canary has identified with links to UK development aid and climate finance were mostly facilitated through bilateral funding, and through BII investments.

The UK also funded some of the projects through the CTF. Wind farms in Mexico and the Rewa solar park in India are two such examples. The CTF is a multilateral fund that the UK pays into alongside other participating governments. It is through the CTF that the UK is part-financing a solar park in Neemuch, which is set to displace pastoralists and farming communities from three villages. Meanwhile, the UK also contributed to other multilateral funds, such as the Global Environment Facility and the Green Climate Fund.

But these channels do not account for all of the UK’s climate aid. The Canary looked at its biennial reports to the UN. They show that much of this has historically gone to large financing institutions, the same institutions that Gaurav and his CFA colleagues have vigilantly monitored. For example, alongside CTF funding, Rewa solar park also involved financing from the World Bank and its private lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC).

Obscuring accountability?

EJAtlas lists the involvement of large multilateral development banks (MDBs) in multiple renewable energy projects throughout the world. These include the World Bank and IFC, the Asian Development Bank, the African Development Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank. The Canary researched the renewable projects that raised displacement, land dispossession, and other social and environmental issues for local communities. We found a crossover between these institutions and issues on nearly 40 hydropower, solar, and wind projects. The development banks assisted all of these projects within the last 20 years. 

As part of its international climate finance and development aid contributions, the UK regularly provides funds to these institutions. For example, between 2011 and 2021, the Canary found that UK has contributed over £11bn in funding to the World Bank alone. 

Since the funding is not earmarked, it isn’t possible to track which projects these funds support. The degrees of separation make it difficult to identify if the UK has funded these MDB-led projects that have violated human rights, or that local communities have resisted. It suggests there could be further problematic projects funded by UK climate aid beyond the 16 already identified by the Canary.

These multilateral channels are obscuring the accountability of donating nations. Meanwhile, their funds enable developments that harm marginalised communities and dispossess them of their land. 

UK greenwashing aid

In Nepal, the Canary‘s investigation found that the UK has financed and provided technical expertise to hydropower projects complicit in the displacement of indigenous, land-based, and marginalised communities. 

BII is a public limited company owned solely by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). BII is also one of the government’s main development finance arms. In 2020, it tweeted about the Upper Trishuli-1 hydro-electric power plant it helped to fund. It says of the project’s job creation successes: 

But a lawyers organisation in Nepal has documented a number of issues with the project. For example it violated free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) policies, which enable project-affected communities to refuse land acquisition, or else negotiate the terms of their resettlement and compensation. The Lawyers Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP) found that Upper Trishuli-1 also violated key performance standards of the IFC. It also said that it failed to apply national and international human rights instruments. 

Tamang indigenous and marginalised Dalit communities make up the majority of the people who lived in the three project-affected villages. They faced displacement from their ancestral lands for the project. 

Issues ignored

The project developer has since implemented the FPIC process. However, LAHURNIP continued to provide legal support to the communities due to ongoing grievances over the handling of this process, as well as due to the impacts of the project on their lands and livelihoods.  

BII makes no mention of these issues on the web-page linked in the tweet or anywhere on its website. The government claims to have created over 20,000 jobs through the renewable energy project. But LAHURNIP says that few went to the 7,000 people in the three villages it directly affected. LAHURNIP’s report found that many of the construction jobs promised went to labourers from outside the area instead. They did not go to people from communities in Rasuwa.

The UK government has also remained notably quiet on the problems caused by the Noor Solar Power Complex in Ouarzazate. Noor is located in the disputed territory of West Sahara. The project dispossessed over 8,000 villagers of their collective ancestral pasture in exchange for low compensation and jobs, which the developers never even delivered. 

Instead, on the UK government’s key webpage detailing their ICF efforts, it celebrates the solar park, stating: 

This groundbreaking 500 MW Concentrated Solar Power complex, which UK funding helped establish, supplies clean power to 1.1 million Moroccans. Its sheer scale has driven down the costs of this cutting-edge technology by 50%, enabling the Moroccan government to raise its renewables energy target to 42% by 2020.

Colonial aid by design?

The UK government continually celebrates the successes of its development aid without acknowledging the problems that these projects have caused. This reflects a broader discourse around so-called ‘development’ finance.

Aid is perpetuating the paternalistic colonial structures popularised by the British Empire. The International Development Committee is a House of Commons Select Committee that monitors the government’s Official Development Assistance spending. It published a report in June 2022 that found that:

Racism manifests in the very structure of international aid; the sector still reflects the power relationships of colonialism.

The report highlighted that the sector weaves colonialism into the very fabric of international aid, since colonial officers:

went on to shape the multilateral ‘Bretton Woods’ institutions including the World Bank and IMF as well as some UN agencies at the forefront of the aid sector.

It goes on to say that:

the UK’s involvement in the slave trade and wealth extraction from around the British Empire contributed significantly to the economic development of our nation, at the direct expense of others. In turn, this has contributed to many of the conditions that necessitate the aid sector to exist today.

This is equally applicable to climate finance. The UK’s slave trade and resource theft facilitated the industrialisation of the nation. Colonial plunder created the capitalist and carbon-intensive conditions that caused climate change. As a result, the climate crisis disproportionately impacts the countries that are least responsible for it, that have faced centuries of colonial exploitation. And these conditions have made them more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. 

The committee also expressed that:

Decisions around aid spending are still often made in the headquarters of European and North American donors and INGOs. They are detached from the communities that organisations serve geographically, politically and culturally which can lead to programmes being less effective.

Top-down aid is colonial in nature

The findings from a report produced by the Rainforest Foundation Norway demonstrates this top-down approach. It states that less than 1% of international climate-focused aid between 2011 and 2020 went directly to Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs). At the same time, the World Resources Institute estimated IPLCs look after 80% of the world’s biodiversity. 

This plays into larger conversations around what constitutes ‘development’. Is development always a good thing? Who benefits from it? Does it actually serve the needs of communities that the Global North’s governments and institutions claim it will help? And, importantly, are local communities driving the direction of development while empowered with agency and control over aid funding? 

Anuradha Munshi is also from the Centre for Financial Accountability (CFA) in India. She has scrutinised the development aid and rhetoric of large financing institutions like the World Bank. Munshi confirms that, from her experience, this top-down colonial mentality is what’s taking place with climate finance. She told the Canary:

The likes of the World Bank, IFC and Asian Development Bank – they have been driving the narrative of what development and sustainable development should look like. And I think the mindset they both approach [it from] is based on the development model of the West.

These are dominated by countries who have been colonisers and we see that in the approach towards development and also towards the kind of policy push they give in the global south. And I don’t see the whole conversation around climate in a different way.

The UK might be helping less industrialised countries shift to renewable energy, but it is harming marginalised people in the process. Global solidarity is necessary to tackle the existential threat of the climate crisis. Instead, what has emerged is a global commitment by industrialised nations to the decimation of indigenous communities in the Global South. This, in turn, is entirely in keeping with the continuation of colonial strategies from centuries past that strip people of resources, land, and livelihoods.

Solving the climate crisis is imperative. How industrialised nations do this, however, matters because it speaks to the kind of world we want to build. One that is equitable, just, and inclusive, that celebrates and uplifts the rights of communities? Or, a world where the same inequalities continue to exist – greener but no less exploitative.

Featured image via Hannah Sharland

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