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  • What does it mean to fight for "climate and environmental justice" in the Maghreb ?

  • By : Hamza Hamouchene


    It has become a tradition for me to state clearly from the outset where I stand politically and ideologically because I simply don’t believe in neutral discourses. My perspective is not one of academics and university people who choose to be neutral in face of injustices and oppression, and who justify this by saying they are objective in order to be accepted by the dominant discourses and other structures of power. My perspective is one of an activist, which I hope is progressive, radical, and decolonial in the sense that it is anti-systemic and resolutely in active solidarity with the oppressed and the "wretched of the earth" in their struggles to achieve social justice.


    I am going to explore three themes in this article. I will start by giving an idea about the ecological and climate crises in the Maghreb region (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia) then go on and illustrate how the neoliberalisation of environmental governance is being enacted there. I will end by putting forward a critique of some of the concepts of "justice" used to talk about the injustices of facing and dealing with environmental degradation and anthropogenic global warming.


    The ecological and climate crises in the Maghreb region


    Anthropogenic climate change is already a reality in the Maghreb and it is undermining the socioeconomic and ecological basis of life in the region. Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco witnessed severe heat-waves during the summer of 2015 and an ongoing drought this year (2016), which has been catastrophic for agriculture (particularly for small peasants in Morocco). The desert is growing, eating the land around it. This places huge pressure on already-scarce water supplies. Seawater intrusion into ground water reserves, as well as groundwater overuse will put these countries in the category of those who suffer from absolute water poverty.[1]


    The effects of climate change and the climate crisis are compounded by environmental degradation and the exhaustion of natural resources caused by a productivist model of development based on extractive industries : oil and gas in Algeria (and to a smaller extent, Tunisia), phosphate mining (in Tunisia and Morocco), other forms of mining (silver, gold, and manganese in Morocco), and the water-intensive agribusiness model paired with tourism (in Morocco and Tunisia).


    Alongside pollution, environmental destruction, and the rising prevalence of some diseases like cancer, throughout my research visits to extraction sites of fossil-fuel and mining industries, I saw clearly what David Harvey calls "accumulation by dispossession"[2] as well as what Samir Amin describes as "development of under-development".[3] It is possible to state with confidence that the poverty in these areas is related to the existence of significant natural resources. There are numerous examples : the gas and oil towns of Ain Salah and Hassi Messaoud in Algeria, the Gafsa phosphate mining basin and Gabes in Tunisia, the industrial town of Safi and the silver mining town of Imider in Morocco.


    This is the paradox of extractivism under capitalism, where sacrifice zones are created in order to maintain the accumulation of capital. When I say sacrifice zones, I really mean it : Ain Salah in Algeria is one of the richest gas towns on the African continent but it is an ugly town with very poor infrastructure. Residents call the one hospital they have the "hospital of death". Gabes in Tunisia, the only coastal Mediterranean oasis in the world, used to be called "a paradise on earth" before the installation of a chemical factory on its shores to process the mined phosphate in the 1970s. That factory has caused an ecocide in the oasis by pillaging its waters, polluting its air and sea, and killing some of its fauna and flora. Some even talk about environmental terrorism in a context of highly saturated, anti-terrorism discourse. These are just two examples amongst many, underlying some of the ills brought about by extractivism.


    What do I mean by extractivism ? The term refers to those activities that remove large quantities of natural resources that are not processed (or processed only to a limited degree), especially for export. Extractivism is not limited to minerals or oil. It is also present in farming, forestry, fishing, and even tourism with its intensive water use. I was appalled to see the construction of golf courses in arid and semi-arid regions in Morocco. Fanon has been right all along with his critique of tourism, which he regarded as a quintessential post-colonial industry where our elites have become “the organisers of parties” for their Western counterparts in the midst of overwhelming poverty.[4]


    The extractivist model of development has been a mechanism of colonial and neo-colonial plunder and appropriation. It has been put into practice regardless of the sustainability of extractivist projects or even the exhaustion of resources.[5] Dependency on metropolitan centres via the extraction and export of raw materials has remained practically unaltered to this day in Maghreb countries, albeit with some changes to a few relevant aspects of traditional extractivism by bringing about increased state intervention into these activities.


    You might think that I am exaggerating, but I was surprised and saddened to repeatedly hear in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia statements comparing the ravages of post-colonial industries to the colonial ones. In some instances, it was even suggested that the French colonialists were more clement. To me, these comparisons call into question an internal colonialism, facilitated by an extractivist model of development that dispossesses populations and shifts the resulting socio-environmental costs to them.


    People in these regions have long-standing grievances and sometimes these burst into uprisings. Examples include the case of Ain Salah, where people rose up massively in 2015 against plans to frack their land and pollute their waters ; the emergence of an unemployed movement in 2013 in Ouragla, close to the oil wealth pole of Hassi Messaoud ; the 2008 uprising of the Gafsa mining basin (met with bloody repression by Ben Ali’s regime) ; and the ongoing struggle of Imider communities against the royal holding silver mines that are robbing the commune’s natural resources (including water) and impoverishing the area.


    The neoliberal governance of the environment in the Maghreb


    Faced with all these injustices and destruction, who is shaping the environmental discourse and crafting a response to climate change in the Maghreb ? 


    Institutions like the World Bank, the German GIZ, and European Union agencies are ubiquitous and vocal, organising events and publishing reports throughout these three countries. They highlight some of the dangers of a warmer world, argue for urgent action, more renewable energy, and adaptation plans. Given the shortage of alternatives, they seem to have comparatively radical positions when compared to that of local governments.


    However, these institutions are politically aligned with the powerful. So their analysis of climate change and the ecological crisis doesn’t include questions of class, justice, power, or colonial history. The World Bank’s solutions are market-based, neoliberal, and take a top-down approach. They re-empower those who have wealth, without addressing the root causes of the ecological and climate crises. Instead of promoting the necessary emissions reductions, they give polluting permits and subsidies to multinational and extractive industries. There is no reference to the historic responsibility of the industrialised West for causing climate change, of the crimes of oil companies like BP and Shell, or the climate debt owed to the Global South.


    The vision of the future pushed by the World Bank, GIZ and much of the EU is marked by economies subjugated to private profit and further privatisation of water, land, and the atmosphere. The latest episode of this development includes the Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) being implemented in every sector, including the Moroccan renewable energy plan. These privatisations and grabs for resources fall under the rubric of "green capitalism," clearly visible in the agricultural model of these countries, especially in Morocco where water-intensive, export-oriented agribusiness dominates. The government’s 2008 Plan Maroc Vert (Green Morocco Plan, PMV), supported by the World Bank and setting out the country’s agricultural plan for the period between 2008–2020, aims to quintuple the value of export-oriented crops by shifting land-use away from staple cereal crops, promoting private investment in agriculture, and removing restrictions that stand in the way of private property rights.[6]



    These hegemonic institutions have the financial and human resources to shape and co-opt local civil societies by funding and helping to set up numerous environmental organisations. I was astonished to see the huge number of such associations and organisations that claim to be working on environmental issues in Tunisia and Morocco. To my knowledge, most of them are apolitical and seek actively, and sometimes opportunistically, EU and foreign funding. 


    This phenomenon has sometimes been dubbed the "NGOisation of the world." It is supposed to "empower civil society," and yet contributes to the creation of an artificial and non-independent civil society sphere, useful only for deepening the marketisation and privatisation of the social. One example worth mentioning here is the emergence of some environmental mafias where supposedly-green organisations connected to real estate circles campaign to close down the chemical factory in Sfax, Tunisia, so the land can be developed for private profit. In a few words, the funding that comes from these neoliberal institutions won’t be destined to fund progressive initiatives committed to a radical transformation of society. On the contrary, this funding is a powerful tool for continued domination.



    Decolonising concepts of justice : are they applicable to the Maghreb ?


    I want now to focus a little bit on the decolonial part of my work, which has involved an attempt to deconstruct some of the concepts I have been using. Based on my conversations with people in the Maghreb, the concept of "climate justice" is alien and unintelligible. This is not the result of a fault with "Orientals." The reason behind its unintelligibility lies in the fact that the concept is foreign and has no roots (at least not yet) in the region. The Arabic translation sounds odd and has no resonance with the locals. Even the larger concept of "environmental justice" is not widely used.


    My work in the Western NGO world introduced me to such concepts. Beyond environmental and climate justice, we have energy justice and democracy, as well as food and trade justice. It is understandable that NGOs come up with these terms to talk about certain issues through the lens of justice and democracy, all in order to attract an audience. I feel that there are some risks involved in going down that path. The tendency to fragment such notions as justice and democracy could give the illusion that one can have justice (or democracy) in one field without the other, without putting into question the whole capitalist system that generates these interlinked injustices.


    Activists, intellectuals and organisations in the Maghreb working on issues of climate change and environmental degradation generally do not use these concepts. And in the few cases where they are used, it is the exception rather than the rule. In some instances they are imported from Europe without critical reflection and proper definitions. I strongly believe that importing and imposing concepts on populations is not only counter-productive but could end up helping to maintain some of the hegemonic structures between the North and South, as this domination can also exist discursively and epistemologically. While it is still useful to interact with and learn from movements elsewhere, we need always to contextualise our concepts and discourses and look at their history.


    For example, environmental justice (EJ) is born (in its sociological usage) in the United States as the result of struggles against waste dumping in North Carolina in 1982. Since the 1980s, hundreds of reports have shown that "people of colour" and low-income populations have suffered from greater environmental harm from waste sites, refineries, and transportation infrastructure than white and well-off communities. For the people involved in this struggle, the fight against environmental injustice was equated with the fight against racism.[7]


    Climate justice has been introduced and developed by Environmental Justice Organisations and emerged during the early 2000s in an era of extreme, globalized state and market failure. Climate justice only arrived on the international scene as a coherent political approach in the wake of the failure of a more collaborative strategy between major environmental NGOs and the global capitalist managerial class.[8] It was the outcome of linking social justice to geographically-specific ecological problems. The lineage of the climate justice movement includes a variety of traditions and shows that it was never separated from other struggles such as anti-racist environmentalism, the fight against Northern financial domination of the South, and the global justice movement that came to the foreground around the 1999 Seattle WTO protest.


    Do we have then to rely on terms such as "climate justice" to talk about the unjust politics of dealing with climate change ? Or, do we need to rethink our concepts, situating them more precisely to focus on specific issues that directly affect the livelihoods of, in this case, Maghrebi people ―issues such as water scarcity, drought, industrial pollution, and sovereignty over resources. I am one of those who favour the latter scenario. There is always an ecological element in the struggles I’ve come across, but that dimension was secondary to more pressing issues of socio-economic rights such as jobs, development of urban and rural infrastructure, the distribution of generated wealth, more popular inclusion in decision-making processes. Therefore, environmental problems in the Maghreb (and elsewhere) need to be analysed in a comprehensive way with consideration to social justice, entitlements, and fair redistribution.




    How can we plan for a just transition towards renewable energies and sustainable ways of producing our food and materials when our natural resources are being plundered by multinationals and when our land and water resources are taken over by agribusiness and destructive industries ?


    We need to fight for sovereignty and democratic control over natural resources and energy and food systems. We need to fight against land and water grabs. And we must strive for more transparency against the corruption in extractive industries.


    Every year, the world’s political leaders, advisers, and media gather for another United Nations Climate Conference of the Parties (COP). But despite the global threat, governments allow carbon emissions to rise and the crisis to escalate. Corporate power has hijacked the talks and promotes more profit-making “false solutions.” The Paris COP (COP21) in December 2015 received much attention, but the political leaders failed to deliver the necessary cuts to ensure survival. In this respect, the COP22 that will be held in Morocco in November 2016 won’t be different.


    In order to design and implement a just transition away from fossil fuels, we need to recapture our environment from the clutches of market mechanisms and recast the debate around issues of justice, accountability, and the collective good. We must move away from the logic of capital that compartmentalises, commodifies, and privatises our livelihoods and our lands. At the centre of this lie meaningful and radical forms of local engagement and organising, as a counterpoint to the hegemony of those formalized international negotiations that submit to the dictates of the market.

    This paper has been published in : "Elements for a World : Stone, Sky, Wood, Water, Fire", ed. Ashkan Sepahvand, five volumes English/Arabic, as part of the exhibition "Let’s Talk About The Weather : Art and Ecology in a Time of Crisis", curated by Natasa Petresin-Bachelez and Nora Razian, Beirut : Sursock Museum, 2016.


    [1] Hamza Hamouchene and Mika Minio-Paluello. The Coming Revolution in North Africa : The Struggle for Climate Justice (in Arabic and French), 2015. Ed. Platform, Environmental Justice North Africa, Rosa Luxemburg and Ritimo.

    [2] David Harvey. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford, 2005. Oxford University Press.

    [3] Samir Amin. Delinking : Towards a Polycentric World, 1990. Zed Books

    [4] Franz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth, 1967. Penguin Books

    [5] Alberto Acosta : Extractivism and Neoextractivism : two sides of the same curse. In "Beyond Development Alternative visions from Latin America", 2013. Transnational Institute / Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

    [6] Adam Hanieh. Shifting Priorities or Business as Usual ? Continuity and Change in the post-2011 : IMF and World Bank Engagement with Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, 2014. Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 42:1, 119-134.

    [7] Joan Martinez-Alier et al. Between activism and science : grassroots concepts for sustainability coined by Environmental Justice Organizations, 2014. Journal of Political Ecology, Vol 21, 19-60.

    [8] Patrick Bond, Politics of Climate Justice : Paralysis Above, Movement Below, 2012. University of KwaZulu-Natal Press