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SEI’s Now & Then Podcast episode: Green transition or green colonialism?

The latest episode of SEI’s Now & Then podcast explores climate justice, green colonialism and just transitions, and what that means for Indigenous peoples in Northern Europe. Listen to the episode or read the transcript below.

Published on 7 June 2023

The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Climate inequality can manifest itself in different ways: the richest 10% of the world’s population is responsible for 48% of global emissions, compared to only 12% emitted by the poorest half. Inequality is also apparent when it comes to the consequences of climate change with those in the Global South bearing the brunt of the floods, droughts, fires, and other extreme weather events that are more frequent and more devastating than in the Global North.

Being the stewards of up to 65% of the world’s land, local and Indigenous populations are some of the most exposed not only to climate change, but also to its mitigation. The issue of Indigenous lands that have been taken away from the communities that inhabit them has been persisting for centuries, but new pressures are being placed on the remaining lands in the name of green transition. Indigenous lands are rich in minerals necessary to transition away from fossil fuels and the lands that are managed by Indigenous peoples are often also rich in biodiversity crucial for climate mitigation, however, Indigenous peoples struggle with recognition of their knowledge, needs and rights.

I asked Annette Löf and Laura del Duca, SEI researchers working on rights and equity issues what “climate justice” and “just transitions” mean in this context.

Laura Del Duca: When we talk about climate injustice, we mean that we analyze for whom this process is unjust, and we identify how we can dismantle the systemic and structural causes behind this.

When we think about climate injustice, we think about different things. We think about recognition justice, which is about acknowledging that there is differential harm. When we think about spatial justice, we think about injustices across communities and countries, or we think about distributive justice, about who will cut down emissions and who has the burden to do de-growth, for example. And I’m really interested in temporal justice, so intergenerational justice overtime. So this is about past, ongoing, and future injustices.

Annette Löf: One important thing is that it’s easy to lose track and talk only of climate justice or just transitions, but these issues, just like Laura says, they’re embedded in all of these relations of power and what has already happened in the past. So groups, peoples, communities that already are marginalized, they will also suffer the greatest harms.

We need to understand these contexts as embedded in larger structures, but also in terms of environmental justice more broadly, so you can’t really separate the climate justice from that. But what is interesting, when we talk about climate justice, environmental justice and just transition is that there are also contradictions and tensions in between where the transitions also exert a pressure and may have negative consequences that tend to hit those that also are marginalized and most exposed already to climate change impacts.

And this is precisely what we see happening now for example, in Sapmi, homeland of the Saami people.

The Saami are the Indigenous populations of the Sápmi region, spanning the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Reindeer herding and husbandry, Saami people’s traditional means of livelihood, requires vast areas of land which is at risk from, among other things, growing pressures from mining and wind farm projects in the name of “green transition”, but the shiny green surface might hide “climate colonialism” and centuries old injustices.

A.L.: Herding is practiced over large tracts, which means you need a lot of land at your disposal. With the change that we see we also know that the need for a more diverse, varied functional land is in fact increasing – so you need more land now, and tomorrow, and in the years to come than you needed before just to balance a lot of these negative impacts that we can see are quite likely to happen as a consequence of climate change. So it’s a double pressure: not only are you suffering the consequences of climate change, but this land is also assumed to provide Sweden, and Norway, and Europe with a green production of energy and this is just one among a lot of industrial developments. We have the mining situation as well, this race for critical minerals, but of course a lot of them are also located on Saami lands.

L.D.D.: Annette and I work on how transitions can be just for all – Annette with a strong focus on indigenous peoples and land and me more with a focus on gender and social justice.

And one of the projects I’m working on is this mining on Saami lands in Sweden project where mining is being framed positively as “green transition”, but it’s actually also an example of an unjust transition. It’s an example of ongoing green colonialism in Sweden, where the foreign appropriation of land and resources for environmental purposes results in unjust development.

A.L.: Perhaps many people don’t think that Sweden has been colonized, but also many people don’t know that there are actually two peoples in Sweden: we have the Saami who are an Indigenous people and then you also have the Swedish State. Contrary to many other parts of the world where there’s been sort of a more intense period of colonization, a certain point in time. We can talk about the blue water colonization, for example, where the colonizer came over the water and then they arrived in America and they discovered these lands, right? Obviously that’s not what happened, but that’s how we talk about it. But this has not played out in the same way in Sweden, it’s been this slower, ongoing process.

There’s a different understanding and recognition about colonization in Sweden and in Sapmi. Now we start talking about green colonialism, but in order to understand green colonialism, we also need to understand the historic conditions that have led up to the present and what we have is centuries of where the Nordic states have ruled and slowly claimed the Saami land and have had a more slowly ongoing colonization process.

Most recently, Norway was at the center of controversy over green colonialism, where protests were held against the building of windfarms on Sami lands in Fosen, despite the country’s Supreme Court’s ruling that this violates human rights of the Saami people since it would disrupt reindeer herding activities.

Åsa Larsson Blind, Vice President of the Saami Council, has shared her perspective on the case and on what climate justice means for the Saami peoples.

Åsa Larsson Blind: If we start with the the notion of sustainability and just transition, I’m not sure that the meaning is that different from a Saami perspective than it is in another context. I see that the “justice” part of it is to have the balance and influence, and that the rights and interests of different groups and different peoples are taken into consideration when decisions are being made, so that their priorities are included. I would say that that’s what is unjust in the situation we have today – I don’t see that those aspects are taken into account.

Q: And do you see any avenues that exist to actually be included in those processes to make them just? Is there a way to have influence over that?

A.L.B.: Well, this is really complex because of the unequal power balance due to the history of colonization and the current ongoing structures that we still live with.

When it comes to including different perspectives, my view is that the only way of actually doing that is to include people with different perspectives. When we look at the situation in Sweden and also in other parts of Sapmi, the Saami people, living as a minority, can never have that equal influence and equal voice of our perspective, and equal participation in the national systems. We are, as people, always in a minority when it comes to numbers.

But when we then start to talk about the status of the Saami as an Indigenous people, as a people, we have the right to be treated as equal partners and the discussions and the processes should be designed as a discussion between two peoples – and this is non-existent, I would say, in the Nordic system.

We need to balance these power structures because living as a minority, we can never air our concerns equally in the national systems, and this needs to be adjusted, but I would say that the recognition of this is not there.

When we look at the differences between the Nordic states, I would say that Norway has at least taken the step of recognizing that Norway is founded on the territories of two peoples. Sweden does not even say that, and to my knowledge, not Finland either. And that recognition is an important step.

Q: Norway, despite being one of the countries, in contrast to Sweden and Finland, recognizing that it’s based upon two peoples, has recently been accused of green colonialism for the building of wind farms in Fosen, on Indigenous land. What was your perspective on that?

A.L.B.: Well, the Fosen case is a is an interesting case because it raises so many of these aspects. On the one hand, as you say, we can define it as “green colonialism” because when we talk about green colonialism, it’s highlighting the so-called green transition of today that is based on priorities of the majority society. And since these societies – Sweden, Norway, Finland – haven’t cleaned up their own colonial history, they haven’t broken those colonial structures, adjusted these power balances. So that means that they still exist. We can see them surfacing and we see them more clearly in these areas of conflict – in perspectives and conflicts in priorities between the Saami people and the majority society.

The development of the green and renewable industries is one of those. We can see that from the Saami perspective, it’s of course positive that we can find renewable sources, but when it comes to the Saami traditional livelihoods as reindeer herders, frankly, it doesn’t really matter if it’s a windmill, a power plant or if it’s a new railroad. What it means is that it destroys pasture lands. It destroys the foundation on which we base our culture and our tradition. So in that perspective, it’s still damaging.

Whether labelled “green” or not, colonialism and various transitions causing harm to marginalized communities are not exactly new. There are historical precedents, and these processes are embedded in long standing power structures, although new issues do come to light.

A.L.: In a way I wouldn’t even say that the transition is new, because already during World War Two we had this rapid expansion of hydropower in Sweden where we needed to fuel the country with cheap energy. And hydropower has already been the backbone of the Swedish green energy system for almost the past hundred years. Even back then, already this was considered an urgent issue and rapid transformation was needed for the sake of the country.

But already back then, of course, a lot of reindeer herding land and some lands and communities were being flooded and were not compensated for the land or the negative impacts that they suffered. So in a way, it’s also history repeating itself. So the question is, of course, what can we learn from the past and make sure that we don’t repeat the same mistake again?

L.D.D.: That is really important. One thing that I think is new now is that we start asking who’s knowledge counts in those processes and we start thinking about epistemic justice. And that’s actually something that we work on in the mining project. Because policies are based on science, you need to figure out what is scientific in the first place? And indigenous research methodologies are not, or often not considered objective and scientific enough. Just because it starts with a lot of Indigenous knowledge not having a reference attached to it, or then there’s the kind of hegemony of English – a lot of knowledge is not in English.

A.L.B.: When we say “we need more knowledge” – which has also been highlighted in the Fosen case, the government has said that we need a better knowledge base for our decisions – those with decision making power can decide what knowledge to base their decisions on. They can decide what knowledge is prioritized.

And what is relevant when we hear the way that we talk about these knowledges – the parallel knowledge systems – is an example of how the people, society, our knowledge and our priorities are set aside as an add-on, as something to inform the real decision-making. It’s politics. It’s a value-based decision on what’s prioritized and what is not.

The Fosen case is also really interesting when we talk about human rights: it is putting to the test the fundamental system of the nation state and the rule of law: the region Supreme Court has ruled that the concession for this windmill park is illegal because it violates Indigenous rights, it violates the right to culture. It clearly says in the verdict that it’s a violation of human rights, but the Norwegian government chooses not to respect this verdict. So this puts to the test the structures of our society.

What this is actually highlighting is that this is not a case of Saami rights, it’s not only a case of Indigenous rights, it’s a broad example of what happens if the states can pick and choose what verdict from their own court systems to respect or not. Whose rights are then put aside the next time? So this is actually a test to the Norwegian government and Norway as a state and not only a case of Saami rights.

Who’s knowledge counts, who’s values are prioritized and who is included in decision-making, are big questions. And the answer has implications not just for any single government, nation or people, but for democracy as such and the respect for human rights within it. So, what needs to happen in order for democracy and human rights to be upheld in sustainability transitions?

A.L.B.: What needs to happen is that Saami representatives and Saami representative bodies need to be included in policy processes and in decision-making. What we need is full and effective participation, because I’m convinced that no one else can take into account our perspectives, we can’t ask someone to consider us, that’s not equal and that’s not equity. We need to have our own representatives bringing forward our priorities and it needs to be in processes designed to participate on an equal level.

So I go back to the notion of two peoples, because that’s the core. We are now still seen as an interest group, but we are not a group with certain interests, we are rights holders and representatives of a people.

We can see that there have been small steps taken. Of course, we have the Saami Parliaments. The Saami Parliaments have very little room for making their own decisions and I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a form of self-determination, since it’s so strictly controlled by the state.

The transition not actually green or just if human rights are violated doing it and that the priorities are chosen. I think that when we talk about this transition we all know what needs to happen to have a future or a more sustainable society: everyone will need to make compromises and everyone really needs to adapt. The core is that if we are to say that the transition is green and just, then we need to balance the field so that also Saami priorities can be taken into account and there also needs to be compromise from the other side.

It’s time and time again that one group that takes the decision-making power over another group and decides that the Saami priorities are not important. Saami culture is not important enough and Saami traditional livelihoods, our economies that we base our society on, are not important enough. That power relation needs to be adjusted.

A.L.: It will be very difficult to produce a transition that is equally just to all and doesn’t reinforce the inequities that we have already produced in the societies that we have. I think that’s one of the key points that it’s not possible to do a transition that is sustainable or that is perceived as just if you do not take these already existing vulnerabilities and inequities to heart, it needs to begin with that.

And this was also recognized in the IPCC report where they say that we need to understand adaptation and sustainable adaptations in this context. It needs to address these power relations. It needs to address inequities, marginal marginalization, etc.

But it’s also, in the end, in terms of distribution – what is desirable and what is not? That is always value-based. That is always political. So it’s also about making it transparent when we’re faced with a situation where not all actors can benefit equally or where some people’s values must be lost, then it needs to be much more transparent how those decisions are made.

One of the tools that we use to do that are rights-based approaches. You can think of rights-based approaches as sort of a red line: not willing to sacrifice certain things and violating, for example, established human rights is one of those.

L.D.D.: I would hope that more people start understanding climate and environmental changes as social and political struggles, in addition to the environmental and economic problem that dominates the current discourse, and that this is also followed by political will.

A.L.: What we’ve seen in our research is that now when we talk about transitions, we talk about adaptation in a way that is imagining the future. So rather than being reactive, which we see that a lot of the actual adaptation measures are and we highlight the urgency of wind power or critical minerals. When something is urgent, you have a tendency of pushing through and then perhaps sort of skipping some of the other principles that tend to be important.

For example, democratic principles in terms of who is included in decisions and who is heard and how consequences are measured. There is a reason sometimes that decisions need to take time. This is one of the key tensions here, I think, because now a lot of these issues are, in fact, urgent. But we can’t let the urgency let us overrule a lot of other urgent democratic matters.

We also try to work with different methods, where the future is not just something that happens, it’s something that we create right here, right now with the decisions that we make, if we actually start acknowledging that we that we actually have the power, in a way, to imagine better, more just and equitable futures. But then we also need to be willing to take the measures – even though they may be very difficult – that are needed to take us there.

Featuring

Annette Löf
Annette Löf

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

Laura Del Duca
Laura Del Duca

Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

Episode produced by

Silvija Marcinkevičiūtė
Silvija Marcinkevičiūtė

Communications and Impact Officer

Communications

SEI Headquarters

Ng’endo Machua-Muniu
Ng’endo Machua-Muniu

Engagement and Impact Officer

Communications

SEI Africa

Design and development by Soapbox.