Environmental and Climate Justice in North Africa

By Hamza Hamouchene

In an account of his environmental activism and research in North Africa, Hamza Hamouchene insists that we cannot discuss the ecological and climate crisis without talking about social and economic justice and also without tackling national and popular sovereignty on natural resources.

 A boy holding a placard with a slogan: No to Shale Gas. Protest in Ain Salah, Algeria on February 2015. Photo Credit: BBOY LEE

The ecological crisis in North Africa finds its clear expression in acute environmental degradation, land exhaustion and loss of soil fertility, water poverty, over-exploitation of natural resources, pollution and disease, as well as effects of global warming such as desertification, recurrent heat waves, droughts and rising sea levels.[1] My view, based on my work around environmental and climate justice in North Africa for the last eight years, is that we can’t talk about the ecological and climate crisis without talking about social and economic justice and without addressing questions of national and popular sovereignty on natural resources.

In 2013, during my work at a radical NGO called Platform London that focused then on the human rights and environmental abuses of the fossil fuel industry, I was researching British energy and armament interests in Algeria and the UK’s desire to grab more Algerian gas from a rentier system like the Algerian one. This research opened a new dimension in my activism and connected me with other environmental struggles over the world, and specifically the role of the fossil fuel industry in the climate crisis.  So for some time, I had a specific focus on anthropogenic climate change and I wrote around climate justice issues in North Africa at the time of the World Social Forum in Tunis and the Climate Talks in Paris, COP21 in 2015.  There was no doubt to me that the injustices associated with the climate crisis quintessentially epitomise the capitalist and imperialist exploitation of people and the planet.

When I started conducting field work in few of the Maghreb countries (Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco) to document certain cases of environmental injustices and how people affected were responding and organising, I realised that the language of ‘climate and environmental justice’ needs to be adapted to the realities on the ground in order to avoid Eurocentric parachuting of campaigns, discourses and strategies. In other words, rather than using completely novel and imported concepts such as ‘climate justice’, we need to rethink and situate them more precisely in order to focus on specific issues that directly affect the livelihoods of people in the Maghreb/North Africa ― issues such as water scarcity, drought, industrial pollution, and resource sovereignty. In this respect, the West African revolutionary leader Amilcar Cabral was absolutely right when he said: ‘Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.’[2]

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.

This important realisation led me to work more specifically on questions of energy democracy and popular sovereignty on energy resources (fossil fuels and renewable) in the Maghreb and place them in a context of (neo)colonial relations as sovereignty on resources is limited and has been curtailed by the power of authoritarian local elites, the EU and predatory private companies, domestic and foreign.

Throughout my travels in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, I witnessed the material reality of the ‘paradox of abundance’ or as it is also called the ‘resource curse’: poverty, unemployment, toxic waste, flares, dumped poisons, and resource pillaging take place in areas rich in natural resources. [3] It would be simplistic (and misguided) to purely pin the responsibility of this on corrupt local elites and rent-seeking despicable dictators. The biggest culprit is neo-colonial relationships that continue plundering our countries, mediated by multinationals, trade rules and agreements, the debt system, international institutions such as the World Bank and IMF, etc.[4]

For those who see history as a competition, our backwardness and poverty are merely the result of our failures; we lost, others won. But to paraphrase the Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano: ‘the winners happen to have won thanks to our losing. The history of Africa’s (Latin America and Asia’s too) underdevelopment is an integral part of the history of world capitalism’s development.’

So for me, we must reframe the environmental issue to take into account relations of capitalist exploitation and imperialist domination of people in the Maghreb. In addition we must be sensitive to racial hierarchies that maintain environmental destruction and worsen the ecological crisis, whose impacts are felt more by the most vulnerable in the global South. That framing had to grapple with the extractivist (under)development model imposed on these countries since colonial times, a model that furthers their subordinate insertion into the global capitalist economy (on the one hand as a market for the dominant Western economies, and on the other, as a reservoir of cheap labour and natural resources) and entrenches practices of resource plunder and wealth robbery.

Extractivism refers to activities that overexploit natural resources destined particularly for export to world markets. As such, it is not limited to minerals and oil: it extends to productive activities which overexploit land, water and biodiversity, such as agribusiness, intensive forestry, industrial fish farming and mass tourism. It has been unleashed all over the world with the European conquest of the Americas in the 15th century and has been shaped by colonial violence, cruel dehumanisation of the ‘other’ (slavery) and sheer theft of resources. Extractivism in the Maghreb/North Africa is not a new phenomenon. As a mode of accumulation and appropriation, it was structured through colonialism in the 19th century to respond to the demands of the metropolitan centres.

The Maghreb region plays a geostrategic role when it comes to the extractive sector, due to its proximity to Europe and the richness of its soil. Algeria is the third largest provider of gas to Europe, while Morocco and Tunisia are very important players in the production of phosphates, which are used as agricultural fertilisers, feeding global agrarian capitalism. Moreover, Tunisia and Morocco export considerable quantities of agricultural produce to Europe. This strategic importance is reflected in the North’s attempts to control these resources through political, military and economic pressure. The latter is seen in the use of ‘free trade’ deals, such as the ongoing negotiations around the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements with Tunisia and Morocco. It is also seen in attempts of multinationals to have more control of Algeria’s natural resources through a new hydrocarbon law that they influenced to offer them more incentives and concessions as well as open the door for profitable exploitation of shale and offshore resources. In the case of occupied Western Sahara, extractivism is one aspect of colonial control. As in Libya, it becomes clear that we cannot disentangle the extractivist drive from the global war machinations and the militarist governance of the world as the country is the victim of the violence caused by fossil fuels, and the Western fighter jets and bombs that go searching for their abundance.

The creation of sacrifice zones (with sacrificial people) in order to maintain the accumulation of capital mainly in the centres of empire, goes hand in hand with the racial character of capitalism. It is important here to reflect on the mechanisms of dehumanising the other and the power of representing and constructing imaginaries about them in order to entrench structures of domination and sheer robbery. Edward Said’s Orientalism offers an excellent framework of analysis for the past and the present. What is described in Orientalism as ‘disregarding, essentialising, denuding the humanity’ of another culture, people or geographical region, environmental or otherwise, continues today to be employed to justify violence towards the other and nature, violence in the shape of displacing populations, land and resources grabbing, making people pay for the social and environmental costs of extractivism, bombing, massacring, letting people drown in the Mediterranean and destroying the earth in the name of progress.

It follows that talking about just energy transitions need to take into account all the above because 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?

Surely, we need to fight for popular sovereignty and democratic control over natural resources, energy and food systems as well as over productive capacities and technologies. We need to fight against land and water grabs. And we must strive for more transparency against the corruption in extractive industries. If our belief that the global ecological crisis is a consequence of the crisis of Western civilisation, the crisis of neoliberal capitalism and productivism, then the solutions we would need to propose must imagine a new world where our relations to nature and amongst ourselves are reconfigured so exploitation of nature and human beings will be brought to an end.

We need a radical break with the vision of capitalist development, a profound rupture with market mechanisms that enclose nature and a decoupling from predatory extractivism. We need to abandon the illusion that we are able to reproduce the economic growth model of industrialised countries, for our sake and for the sake of our countries. In this vein, it is paramount to continue the tasks of decolonisation and delinking in order to restore our denied humanity.[5] Through resistance to colonial and capitalist logics of appropriation and extraction, new imaginaries and counter-hegemonic alternatives will be born.

Hamza Hamouchene is an Algerian researcher-activist, commentator and a founding member of Algeria Solidarity Campaign (ASC), and Environmental Justice North Africa (EJNA). He recently joined the Transnational Institute (TNI) as their North Africa Programme Coordinator. He previously worked for War on Want, Global Justice Now and Platform London on issues of extractivism, resources, land and food sovereignty as well as climate, environmental, and trade justice. Hamza has written for the Review of African Political Economy and was recipient of the ROAPE Lionel Cliffe Memorial Research Scholarship.

Featured Photograph: A boy holding a placard with a slogan: No to Shale Gas’ during a protest in Ain Salah, Algeria on February 2015 (BBOY LEE)


[1] El-Zein, A et al. (2014) ‘Health and ecological sustainability in the Arab world: a matter of survival’, The Lancet 383(9915): 458–476. See also Hamouchene, H. and Minio-Paluello, M. (eds.) (2015) The Coming Revolution in North Africa: The Struggle for Climate Justice. London-Tunis-Paris: Platform, Environmental Justice North Africa, Rosa Luxemburg and Ritimo. See also Lelieveld, J et al. (2016) ‘Strongly increasing heat extremes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the 21st century’, Climatic Change 137(1-2): 245-260.

[2] Amilcar Cabral. Revolution in Guinea, stage 1, London, 1974, pp70-72.

3 Alberto Acosta. ‘Extractivism and neoextractivism: two sides of the same curse’. In M. Lang & D. Mokrani. (eds).  Beyond Development: Alternative visions from Latin America. 2013. Quito & Amsterdam: Rosa Luxemburg Foundation & Transnational Institute.

4 Nnimmo Bassey. To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa. 2012. Dakar & Oxford: Pambazuka Press.

5 Samir Amin. Delinking: Towards a Polycentric World, 1990.  Zed Books and Samir Amin. The Implosion of Capitalism, 2013. Pluto Press.

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