GREEN EXTRACTIVISM and the green frontier

by Oct 14, 2022All Articles

A camel that died as a result of drought in northern Kenya. Since 2000, Mozambique, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, and Kenya have been among the hardest-hit countries in the world.

AS WE EMERGE FROM THE pandemic, the impact of Covid-19 has exacerbated the converging social, economic, and ecological crises, which emerge from the systemic and colonial legacy of extractivist patriarchal capitalism. These crises include climate, ecological and accompanying humanitarian distress; debt (sovereign and individual); hunger; water deprivation; war, civil conflict, and associated displacements. These crises layer one upon the other, deepening existing crises and introducing new crises.

The climate crisis is growing rapidly, with the main costs being carried by sub-Saharan Africa and small island states. Heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, cyclones, storms, locust plagues, flooding, sea level rise and other climate related disasters are becoming increasingly commonplace. Since 2000, Mozambique, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, and Kenya have been among the hardest-hit countries in the world. About 60 percent of African people, the majority being women, depend on agriculture and local food systems to survive. So food insecurity levels are intensifying, and livelihoods are at severe risk.

Since 2005, the world has experienced the ten hottest years in recorded history, with temperatures in Africa rising faster than the global average. The sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that, when the earth warms to median temperatures of 2°C above pre-industrial levels, Africa’s median temperature will have risen by 3.6°C. Whilst Africa carries these climate impacts, the continent has contributed just 3.9 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions. This figure includes South Africa, which ranks 13 in the world’s highest carbon emitters.

Contemporary capital accumulation is mostly based on “extractivism”. Under-industrialised Global South countries work as extractive “hubs” by supplying raw materials, primary commodities, cheap labour, and energy to industrialised countries of the Global North. Extractivism has contributed to deepening inequalities within and among nations, the growing power of transnational corporations, and the erosion of sovereignty and decision-making power in national contexts.

This model of development has triggered complex changes in social relations of gender, class, and ethnicity, and fuelled extreme sexual violence against and exploitation of women and young girls in areas impacted by extractives. WoMin has theorised that this violence is profoundly embedded in the character of extractivist capitalism, which violently cuts down forests, forcibly relocates communities, pollutes air and water bodies, exploits and abuses low-paid workers, and brutally penetrates the earth in search of its natural wealth.

The Global South pays

Cop26, like all other intergovernmental negotiations on climate change, has failed to achieve the deep-binding carbon emission cuts needed to stem climate warming and guarantee the basis for life on earth. Big corporations are promoting false solutions such as “net-zero”, carbon markets, and supposed “nature-based solutions” (including timber plantations and genetic crop modification). These enable them to open new markets and opportunities to profiteer from the climate crisis, whilst escaping their responsibility for the needed carbon emission cuts.

The costs of these false solutions are carried by peoples of the Global South, including Africa, whose forests and lands are expropriated and financialised. “Green Extractivism” is a new form of extractivism. It refers to the continued subordination of human rights and ecosystems to endless mega-extraction, in the name of “solving” climate change.

This new variant of extractivism includes energy generation through “green” gas, hydrogen, and mega-dams; “green” metal and minerals extraction to support energy production and storage; new green technologies such as electric cars; as well as components needed for large-scale solar plant and wind farms, and false solutions to climate change, including REDD+, carbon sequestration, cloud seeding etc.

International public and private sector players continue to exhibit enormous predatory interest in Africa’s vast natural resources and markets. This is fuelled by the “green” energy transition underway in the developed Global North. Green minerals and metals are needed for energy storage, for the construction of wind turbines and solar panels, and for green technologies, including electric vehicles. Combined investments in low-carbon energy technologies have now reached 30% of global energy investments.

Demand for “green” metals

The term “green metals” is used to refer to metals and minerals that are used in the applications, products and processes that enable the energy transition from fossil fuels to “cleaner” energy sources and technologies, typically in historically developed economies in the Global North and parts of the developing Global South. Their applications range from electric vehicles and battery storage to wind turbines and solar panels. An example of green metals and their use in various applications would be vanadium, lithium and manganese in the production of batteries for electric cars or inputs into wind turbines that prevent corrosion. Green minerals and metals extraction, shipping, beneficiation and then disposal are far from green and sustainable. This is all part of the greenwashing scam.

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) study on the demand for metals in support of the energy transition estimates that in the coming decades it could reach as much as 3 billion tons: A typical electric vehicle battery pack, for example, needs around 8 kilograms of lithium, 35 kilograms of nickel, 20 kilograms of manganese and 14 kilograms of cobalt, while charging stations require substantial amounts of copper. For green power, solar panels use large quantities of copper, silicon, silver, and zinc, while wind turbines require iron ore, copper, and aluminium. 

This will demand a massive scaling up of resource extraction, which is still unlikely to meet global supply. This reality will, no doubt, fuel a new round of conflict, as nations vie for control over scarce and valuable resources, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine being one case in point.

The type of infrastructure development which is required to attract foreign investment in extractives projects is extremely costly. It is borne by the state, and ultimately its citizens. Extensive loans are required to implement these projects, creating significant debt which the state must service. This results in austerity controls and cuts in social and public services, which once again impact negatively on poor and working-class women.

Dirty energy corporations, major financiers of energy projects, northern governments and wealthy consumers owe a great debt to peoples of the Global South, and very specifically Africa, already burdened by histories of slavery and colonisation, extractivism, and the growing climate and ecological crisis. These debts are impossible to separate from centuries-long extractivist, racist and patriarchal capitalism, which continues untrammelled in this decade under a new “green” cloak.

Supplies of several metals that are crucial to the green energy transition are heavily concentrated in just a handful of nations. Figures are as a percentage of the market.

Extractivism in South Africa

The history of extractivism in South Africa is long and extensive. It takes a uniquely toxic form due to the legacy of colonialism and apartheid and the economic dominance of what has come to be known as the “Minerals Energy Complex” (MEC). This relies on cheap labour and power from coal to extract South Africa’s minerals and metals to industrialise the country. The MEC accumulation path is in crisis and the pillars on which it rests have been difficult to sustain in post-1994 South Africa, particularly following the multiple economic and financial crises that unfolded in the 2000s.

A major leg of the state’s strategy to navigate South Africa out of its economic crisis is the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan (ERRP). This plan aims to create jobs, re-industrialise the economy, and accelerate economic reforms largely focused on the extractives sector. Since July 2019 the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC) has led the development of 14 industry-specific masterplans. Many of these masterplans centre on green extractivism, including Operation Phakisa (the Oceans master Plan), the Renewal Energy masterplan (SAREM), the Hydrogen roadmap/master plan and the Strategic Integrated Plans which address infrastructure requirements. In support of the SAREM and other Master Plans, the state has gazetted 62 Strategic Integrated Projects (SIPs), which can follow an expedited path through regulatory processes.

Role of Northern Cape

One of these projects is the Boegoebaai Port Development, located between Alexander Bay and Port Nolloth in the Northern Cape. This includes the development of a natural deep seaport, and a rail infrastructure project. The South African government, and Transnational Corporations like Sasol, have pinpointed the Boegoebaai Harbour as key to the export of green hydrogen and ammonia. This harbour will form part of a R14 billion plus green energy development project to produce Green Hydrogen. Green hydrogen development will require massive cold storage facilities, electrolysers to split hydrogen from water, and about 260,000 hectares of land for renewable energy like solar panels and wind turbines. Boegoebaai will function as a hub on a shipping corridor for green hydrogen to Rotterdam, which is establishing itself as the main gateway for green hydrogen and other low-carbon fuels into Northwest Europe.

The Northern Cape has been identified as a global hub for green hydrogen because of its superior renewable energy endowment of both onshore wind and solar, the presence of Platinum Group Minerals (PGM), and the “availability of large tracts of relatively cheap land for renewable energy production”. Most of the land identified for these mega projects is communal land held in trust by the state for peoples who are considered “first nation” and has yet to be transferred to the community. In the Northern Cape, four green metals are mined: iron ore, copper, zinc, and manganese. South Africa hosts 75% of global manganese resources. Manganese is central to the production of steel. It is widely used in several low-carbon technologies, including wind turbines and electric vehicles. In Pella in the Northern Cape, Vedanta’s Zinc International has a mega zinc mining operation and plans to start smelting there by 2023. Zinc is commonly used in electric and hybrid cars, solar panels, and wind turbines. Orion’s Namaqua-Disawell Project plans to upscale the extraction of copper, and new copper mines in towns like O’Kiep and Concordia in Namaqualand are in the pipeline.

A lithium mine in northern Chile. A typical electric vehicle battery pack, for example, needs around 8 kilograms of lithium.

The Department of Trade and Industry, in partnership with transnational corporations, has identified two special economic zones with existing port infrastructure as ideal to produce green hydrogen and green ammonia a gas widely used to make agricultural fertilisers. Worryingly, special economic zones permit the state and corporations to escape normal environmental requirements. Building solidarity between communities affected by these new “green” projects across the country will be critical to strengthening organising, securing the rights of impacted communities, and stopping the most damaging effects on people and oceans.

The Master Plans will require significant new finance, which Government intends to access from international finance institutions, as well as private sector investors. In addition, South Africa will be the beneficiary of a new package of $8.5 billion of grants and concessional loans which aim to accelerate the retirement of coal plants and support the uptake of renewable energy, with a special focus on green hydrogen production and electric vehicle manufacturing. The possibility of a new slew of loans is alarming given that South Africa’s debt servicing commitments have ballooned since 2008/2009 – “the interest costs of this debt have risen beyond the annual budgets for health and basic education.”

Along the west coast of South Africa, the “blue” and “green” economies intersect. Operation Phakisa, with its focus on exploiting oceans, aims to contribute R177 billion to GDP by 2033 and to create one million jobs. “Blue” investments include ports, boatbuilding, aquaculture, scientific and seismic surveys, coastal and marine tourism, small harbours, and marine protection services. Government sees the biggest financial possibilities in new-generation offshore oil and gas extraction projects and seabed mining.

We need alternative models

As the Blue Economy grows and seeks new capital opportunities, the commons of the ocean is being enclosed. On the West Coast of South Africa, fishing communities are saying no to oil and gas extraction, as well as mining which they say could threaten fishing stocks and vegetation and pose health risks for residents. In Lutzville, the fishers are confronting mining for mineral sands used in industry, including zircon, ilmenite, rutile, magnetite, and garnet. ilmenite, rutile, magnetite, and garnet. Studies have confirmed that natural rutile could significantly reduce global titanium industry co2 emissions. Currently, there are at least 10 applications for prospecting for drilling for gas and oil as well as diamond mining. At the end of September, the first oil rig will arrive in the coastal town of Hondeklipbaai.

The rise of green extractivism is alarming and fails to address the developmental interests and needs of women and their communities across South Africa. Electricity generated by largescale renewable energy projects, and the energy generated from green and other hydrogen projects, will largely benefit corporations and the elite in South Africa, given the privatised nature of our energy systems. Most of the green hydrogen will be produced for export to fuel the energy transition of the Global North.

The rapid upscaling of green minerals and metals extraction will only deepen the crisis confronting rural communities across South Africa. Their lands will be grabbed and livelihoods destroyed with minimal or no compensation and benefit. Every week communities hear of new applications for prospecting – companies colluding with the state to make more empty promises. It is obvious that with the ongoing energy crisis as seen through load shedding, we need alternatives to the current extractive model of development.

Alex Hotz is an activist and the lead for the SA program of WoMin. She is a member of the Amandla! Collective.

Share this article:


Latest issue

Amandla 90/91