What Is ‘Green Colonialism’ And How Do We Decolonise Policy?

by Millie May

What is Green Colonialism?

Green colonialism occurs on a global scale as a large proportion of countries in the Global North have achieved high living standards via exploiting the land, labour, and health of many countries in the Global South. Climate change policies and projects urgently need to prioritise Indigenous rights and Indigenous Knowledge to address Green Colonialism [1].

Indigenous peoples have tenure rights covering 38-million km² of land across 87 countries, over 40% of the Earth’s protected areas [1]. Despite this, Indigenous peoples’ rights are excluded from climate change policies . Green colonialism can be defined across global, regional, and community settings [1] 

The IPCC’s sixth assessment report claimed that ‘historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism’ cause climate change vulnerability for ecosystems and people [2]. This statement acknowledges that colonial attitudes are woven into climate-related policies since pro-climate policies designed mainly by Western institutions have been criticized for failing to address neoliberal and colonial thinking [3].

Green Colonialism in Climate Change Policies 

Green colonialism persists across national and international climate change policies and has caused the ongoing exploitation and curtailing of Indigenous peoples’ rights. These examples demonstrate how this issue is far-reaching and stretches across many corners of the world. On a national level, when conservation or renewable energies are implemented, it often occurs at the expense of Indigenous communities.

Green energy transition policies promoted by the Global North embody Green Colonialism as they risk the exploitation of Indigenous people and resources. During a UN summit in New Youth, the advocacy group Cultural Survival highlighted how copper, cobalt, lithium, and nickel mining, resources used in electric car batteries, create issues for Indigenous communities around the globe [4]. The chairman of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian reservation, Brian Mason, highlighted how lithium extraction policies in the USA are constructed to meet the Biden administration’s net-zero strategy [4]. Mason claimed that 70 lithium mining applications on Paiute lands had been constructed without their consent, which violates the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. 

Another example of Green Colonialism is the Fosen onshore wind farm project [5]. Gunn-Britt Retter from the Saami Council warned against ‘Green Colonialism’ regarding sustainability projects on Indigenous Sami lands. This includes unabated windfarm development on reindeer herding grounds, despite the Norwegian supreme court ruling in defence of Sami lands [4]. Research has shown that wind turbines disrupt the migration and grazing of the Saami’s semi-domesticated reindeer due to noise [6].

Government inaction and lack of support for coastal Indigenous communities additionally encompasses Green Colonialism. Human Rights Watch has raised concerns about the ‘ongoing government delays’ threatening Panama’s Indigenous Guna people’s rights [7]. Gardi Sugdub is only situated one meter above sea level and belongs to Panama’s Caribbean coast. 

Around 1,300 Guna people are situated on this small island that faces devastating flooding that damages livelihoods and homes. Panama’s government pledged in 2014 to support relocation and provide housing, however, these efforts have been delayed. The Guna people face overcrowding, lack of access to fresh water and children lack access to education resources [8]. Human Rights Watch claims that Gardi Sugbud reflects the global hazards that coastal communities face and it estimates that 28,000 people will need relocation due to sea level rise across 38 Islands in Guna Yala [8].

Green Colonialism also affects the viability of non-governmental organisations and conservation projects.  The Rima Raya REDD+ project in Indonesia was funded by Shell Canada. The preservation of 80,000 hectares of forest was claimed to be paid for via selling carbon credits to offset Shell’s destructive gas and oil operations [9]. The Director of the Environmental Rights Action (FoE Nigeria), Nnimmo Bassey and the Indigenous Environmental Network denounced this project as greenwashing by Shell, which fails to address illegal environmental destruction, gas flaring, and oil spills caused by Shell [1][9]. These examples demonstrate how Green Colonialism is far-reaching and stretches across many corners of the world.

Decolonising Climate Change Policies

Several steps and acknowledgements are needed to address Green Colonialism in order to decolonise climate change policy. 

Climate change policies need to address climate justice. The need to decolonise climate policies is evident based on the persistent framing of climate change through a Western lens [3]. China is often referred to as the largest GHG emitter, however, China emits far less than the USA per capita (7.05 tonnes in comparison to the USA emitting 16-56 tonnes) and the USA is responsible for almost twice the amount of historic CO2 emissions compared to China’s [10][11]. 

Policies need to advocate for climate justice by acknowledging the differing economic and social impacts on Indigenous communities and the Global South through long-term adaptation and mitigation strategies [1].   Global North systems and approaches regarding climate change need to be more inclusive. They need to acknowledge how the Global South has a right to produce CO2 to meet baseline education, housing and income needs and rights  [3]. 

Renewable energy and conservation programmes need to be created in collaboration with Indigenous communities and need to encourage their active participation. This involves incorporating Indigenous Knowledge, vital for the implementation of resilient environmental protection systems [1]. 

A report by the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization highlights how Indigenous communities in Latin America act as the best forest protectors as rates of deforestation decreased by 50% on Indigenous land [12]. Conservation projects should pay for the environmental services by Indigenous communities, which has proven to significantly reduce deforestation in Peru, Mexico, and Ecuador [1]. 

UN agencies such as the World Health Organisation need to implement and develop policies that promote the safety of Indigenous girls and women. Lahela Mattos of Ka’L?hui Hawai’i, representing the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus at the UN summit pushed for fighting against ‘violence against Indigenous peoples, specifically Indigenous women who are protectors and bearers of life on this planet’ [4]. Even though a recent human rights treaty body recognises ‘environmental violence’ against Indigenous girls and women, this connection between climate change and human rights abuses has failed to be widely acknowledged in UN policies [4] [13].   

The UN’s international governing bodies should prioritize and guarantee an ‘equal footing’ when it comes to decision-making on climate change policy. Mejía Montalvo from the Zenú peoples of San Andrés Sotavento urged that UN bodies and policies to provide a set quote of guaranteed decision-making taken by Indigenous people such as providing voting power, which Indigenous communities do not have [4]. This is evident through the ineffective ‘loss and damage’ fund featured in COP27; the agreement failed to explicitly reference Indigenous peoples.


[1]  Earth.Org (2021) ‘What is Green Colonialism’. Earth.ORG, 1st September 2023, URL https://earth.org/green-colonialism/[2] IPCC (2022) ‘Summary for Policymakers.’ IPCC Report, 2nd September 2023, URL:https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGII_SummaryForPolicymakers.pdf

[3] Nair, C (2022) ‘The IPCC has called for decolonisation- the climate change industry must start now!.’Cluboforme, 2nd September 2023, URL: https://www.clubofrome.org/blog-post/nair-ipcc-decolonisation/

[4] Monet,J (2023) ‘Green colonialism:’ Indigenous world leaders warn over west’s climate strategy.’ The Guardian, 31st of August 2023, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/apr/23/un-indigenous-peoples-forum-climate-strategy-warning

[5] Orange, R (2022) ‘Sweden’s ‘green transformation’ promises to help Europe fight the climate crisis. So why is it uniting radical environmentalists, ecologists and Semi reindeer herders in protest?’ The Guardian, 2nd September 2023, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/21/green-industry-wants-to-take-our-land-the-new-battle-for-the-arctic 

[6]Fjellheim,M,E.Carl, F (2020) ‘’Green’ colonialism is ruining Indigenous lives in Norway.’ Aljazeera, 1st August 2020, URL:  https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2020/8/1/green-colonialism-is-ruining-indigenous-lives-in-norway

[7] Human Rights Watch (2023) ‘Panama: Indigenous Community Needs Further Support to Relocate.’ Human Rights Watch, 31st of July, 2023, URL: https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/07/31/panama-indigenous-community-needs-further-support-relocate

[8] Aljazerra Staff (2023) ‘Climate displacement threatens Indigenous Guna people in Panama.’ AlJazeera, 31st July 2023, URL: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/7/31/climate-displacement-threatens-indigenous-guna-people-in-panama-hrw

[9] Carbon Trade Watch (2013) ‘Protecting Carbon to Destroy Forests: Land enclosures and REDD+.’ Carbon Trade Watch, 1st September 2023, URL: https://www.tni.org/files/download/redd_and_land-web.pdf

[10] Klasa, A et al (2022) ‘ESG’s legal showdown: ‘There’s nothing to suggest DWS is a one off’. Financial Times, 30th September 2023, URL: https://www.ft.com/content/1094d5da-70bf-40b5-98f4-725d50620a5a

[11] Bennett, E, S (2019) ‘Why We Need to Confront Climate Change’s Colonial Legacy.’ Columbia University, 1st September 2023, URL: https://climatesociety.ei.columbia.edu/news/why-we-need-confront-climate-changes-colonial-legacy

[12] FOA (na) ‘Forest governance by indigenous and tribal peoples.’ FOA, 2nd September 2023, URL:https://www.fao.org/americas/publicaciones-audio-video/forest-gov-by-indigenous/en/

[13] UNHCR (2022) ‘UN women’s committee in latest guidance urges better protection of indigenous women and girls.’ UNHCR, 1st September 2023, URL: https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/10/un-womens-committee-latest-guidance-urges-better-protection-indigenous-women
Categories Climate Justice

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