Beating, kicking, tearing down houses – how police, RWE, and the German state are causing climate catastrophe in the German Rhineland

Lützerath has become a battlefield, where police forces defend fossil capital at all costs, enforcing climate catastrophe and destroying habitats.

By: Andrea Brock


The eviction of Lützerath, the last village to be destroyed by coal mine operator RWE to get to the thick layer of lignite coal underneath, is officially over – all protesters evicted, trees houses torn down. Pinky and Brain, the two tunnellers who blockaded a tunnel underneath the village, left voluntarily, after spending several days underground.

But while the village might have been lost, the fight continues. The last week has seen protesters block coal train tracks, occupy excavators and electricity infrastructures, burn down police vehicles, shut down offices and roads, and sabotage machinery. Solidarity action with Lützerath prisoners included the burning of Amazon cars in Berlin, the blockade of the German embassy in Poland, and ‘subvertising’ (fake advertising) actions across Germany. On Saturday, protesters locked themselves onto RWE’s entrance gate in Essen, and hundreds walked through neighbouring villages. As police continue to protect fossil capital, facilitating RWE’s operations and enforcing ecological destruction, people continue to fight back.

The eviction started on 10 January, ‘Day X’. Brought in from 14 German states, almost 4000 police officers evicted people from occupied tree houses and ropeways, monopods and tripods, farm houses and other structures. Several hundred people were resisting the eviction by climbing up trees and barricading themselves in occupied buildings, locking on and gluing on. They hung on ropeways in wind and rain, as safety ropes were cut and trees were felled, falling over just meters away. At least one protester dropped several meters, I am told, left hanging upside down following actions by the police height intervention team and had to be transported away by paramedics. Elsewhere, people fought back, through sabotage and arson attacks on RWE coal trains.

On Saturday the 14th of January, 35,000 people joined a demonstration near the village, many making their way through the mud fields to get to Lützerath and the edge of the mine. Countless protesters broke through police lines and forced police to retreat, some entered the opencast mine.

The eviction was shaped by police brutality and violence. When they realised that they were unable to stop thousands of protesters during the mass demonstration, police beat up people with batons and pepper spray, kicking and pushing them to the ground. In small gangs, they charged into groups of protesters. Police dogs attacked activists, just meters away from the steep edge of the Garweiler II opencast coal mine, and used water cannons and horses. They dragged people by their hair, and used pressure points to cause pain and intimidation.

Photograph by Barbara Schnell

Between 100 and 200 protesters were injured – exact numbers are difficult to get, because reporting injuries would require identification and thus risk further police repression. Dozens of people had head injuries, many had broken bones and one person had to be transported away by helicopter. “I’ve seen every bone in the human body broken today”, an action medic tweets afterwards.

Since 2017, police officers in North Rhine Westphalia are no longer required to wear identification numbers, one of the first official acts of the current minister of the Interior, Reul, and his party.

So even if the political will to hold officers accountable existed, it would be unlikely it would yield results.

Reul is known for his support of RWE and repressive policing, having previously caught lying about meeting with RWE bosses, and being responsible for the illegal eviction of the neighbouring Hambacher forest occupation (see below).

Despite numerous videos of police violence, Reul maintains that police conduct was ‘professional’, framing protesters as radicals, extremists, and violent criminals. Major media reproduce this narrative to delegitimize resistance.

Resisting divide-and-conquer attempts

For years, RWE, police, and politicians have tried to divide-and-conquer the Rhinish anti-coal movement, asking groups to distance themselves from more ‘radical’ elements of the resistance, but this time, it was unsuccessful. Despite its diversity – eco-anarchists and liberal environmentalists, Fridays-for-future kids and church groups, students and grandparents – and despite political pressure, there has been no “distancing” from actions and forms of protest over the past week, as so often occurs. No condemnation, no appeals for ‘nonviolence’ or ‘peaceful protest’. People have embraced a diversity of tactics, not letting the state and RWE divide and rule.

The resistance in and around Lützerath is the product of many years of organising. For two and a half years people had prepared for ‘Day X’ – built camps, barricades, tree houses, and tripods, and occupied houses to stop the destruction of the village. They rebuilt community in an area that had long been politically neglected, inhabitants intimidated and paid off, slowly cut off from infrastructures.

The Lützerath camp became a space to share and live together, lough and enjoy, mourn and cry. To take action against RWE, from digger occupations to sabotage. A space that tries to exist outside of capitalism and state structures, anti-colonial and anti-patriarchy, organised non-hierarchically and fostering solidarity and mutual aid.

A history of combative resistance

The Rhinish coal mines have been resisted for many decades. Local groups were fighting back against RWE as early as the seventies. For over 10 years, the Hambacher Forest occupation resisted (and eventually stopped) the destruction of the ancient forest and the expansion of the neighbouring Hambach coal mine – building tree houses, tunnels, walkways, and blockades, occupying diggers, burning police cars and electrical infrastructures, and sabotaging machinery.

Forest defenders have always had to defend themselves from violence of police and security services that regularly attack them – cutting safety ropes, pepper spaying toilet seats, beating up protesters.

Following a meeting between RWE and NRW Interior Minister Reul, the forest occupation was last evicted in 2018, in an intervention that took weeks and thousands of police officers from across Germany, and was stopped by the courts and later declared illegal. The official justification? Fire safety – the lack of fire escapes and access roads for emergency vehicles. A flimsy excuse that was made up to have a reason to evict and facilitate RWE’ cutting operations , as secret recordings of North Rhine Westphalian minister president Laschet have shown.

The 12,000 year old forest is now safe – thanks to years of resistance by forest defenders and citizen groups, numerous evictions and re-occupations, legal challenges and creative actions, arson and sabotage. However, as RWE continues to lower groundwater levels – the mine is up to 450m deep – and dig away soil at the edges of the forest, exacerbated climate change, the forest is slowly drying out.

The forest occupation, just like Lützerath, has always been not just about stopping a coal mine, but about alternative ways of living and organising together, about solidarity and mutual aid, about anarchist values and practices – a world without coal, police, prisons, and borders, a fight against colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and the state.

It inspired forest occupations all across Germany and beyond, from #Dannibleibt, the occupation to protect the Dannenröder Forest from road building, to #Fecherlebt, a forest occupation near Frankfurt that was evicted just days ago. But Hambacher Forest defenders have actively supported other struggles too – including the Pont Valley campaign in the North of England in 2018. When plans for a new opencast coal mine led to the growth of the resistance movement, Hambi defenders helped set up a camp to occupy the land, living in tents through months of snow and ice. Solidarity is part and parcel of combative resistance.


Lützerath is the latest of dozens of villages that have been evicted for lignite coal in the German Rhineland, tens of thousands of inhabitants have been expelled and dispossessed over the past century. Old Nazi legislation elevated the extraction of lignite coal for electricity generation to ‘strategic military status’ in 1935, to strengthen wartime capabilities and enable the eviction of entire communities for coal excavation. Today, German police continue to facilitate these evictions.

Photograph by Barbara Schnell

Financed by Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, and HSBC Bank, among others, RWE are planning to extract a further 280 million tonnes of coal for electricity generation.

Some say that the struggle has become a symbolic fight, a fight about the power of the anti-coal movement, and the green credentials of the government. But according to environmental defenders and researchers, it’s more than that. To keep the German pledge to a 1.5 degree target, this coal cannot be burnt, a study by the DIW Berlin has shown.

The coal is not actually necessary for Germany’s energy supply, according to studies, even in case of a gas shortage, as the DIW states. It is part of a deal between RWE and the Green-Conservative coalition government which brings forward the end date of lignite coal mining in Germany from 2038 to 2030, allegedly “saving” five remaining villages that were meant to be evicted under earlier coal mine expansion plans, but sacrificing Lützerath. But modelling by Aurora Energy Research showed that by reconnecting two generating units and increasing annual extraction, the amount of total coal burnt is hardly reduced at all.

By agreeing to this deal, the German Greens have ‘sold out’, according to many protesters. Some believe that this was always RWE’s goal – to split the climate movement from the Green party. For many, it was a wake-up call – they have realised that no governing party will stand up to RWE or take meaningful climate action. It’s people power, they argue, that will make the difference.

RWE in the Rhineland – power and politics

‘Unrivalled and barely manageable, RWE is ruling over one of the largest monopolies of the Western world’ (Spiegel, 1979)

RWE’s interests have always been closely entangled with the state’s interests in the Rhineland, indirectly subsidised and politically supported. Few corporations in Germany are as powerful as RWE.


Politicians from all parties – from mayors to parliamentarians and Members of the European Parliament – have been on RWE’s payroll. Revolving door relationships have lubricated the political manoeuvring to defend coal at all costs. Just recently, the office manager of Germany’s minister for foreign affairs and leader of the Green Party has become an RWE lobbyist. In 2015, it emerged that the district administrator responsible for policing anti-coal protest at the time was himself a paid member of RWE’s board of directors.

RWE’s PR and CSR work, including the nature restoration work, and the support by regional media led to the image as good neighbour and ‘responsible corporate citizen’ among parts of the public. Police have long collaborated with RWE on the ground, retweeting RWE press messages, using their vehicles to transport protesters, and communicating closely.

Paying out communities in shares, not taxes, decades ago has meant that many communities and cities are financially dependent on RWE’s financial wellbeing. 25% of RWE’s shares are owned by communities and cities. That means local authorities are shareholders, licensers, clients, constituencies, employees, and tax collectors at the same time. Through payments for attending advisory councils and supervisory boards, politicians have lucrative side incomes.

RWE representatives can be found everywhere – in church choirs and town councils, school board and universities. The company has financed police barbeques and fire trucks, sponsored football clubs and festivals, concerts and exhibitions, viewing platforms and historic castles. They put up baking carts and public book shelfs, have paid for school buildings, organised volunteering activities and tours through the mine. They have gone into school and hand out lunch boxes to first graders, offering school trips into power stations, zoo schools, and environmental education initiatives.

Their teaching materials, role-playing games, and girls’ days in their training centres all reinforce narratives of the inalienability of coal for German energy security, painting picture of blackout and doom, and emphasising RWE’s research into alleged solutions, including carbon capture and storage, that have yet to materialise.

Decades of lobbying, misinformation campaigns, and repression of scientific studies have facilitated the continued expansion of coal mining in Germany. As late as in 2006, the company continued to deny a causal link between the burning of coal and climate change in a court case.

To understand and manage resistance, RWE has conducted large-scale acceptance studies, organised roundtables, and collaborated with researchers, conservation organisations, and environmental volunteers. In RWE’s regular conservation conferences, volunteers and researchers are given a platform to present their findings and RWE celebrate their nature restoration work. In return, they don’t mention the company’s role in causing climate catastrophe.


All of these are classic counterinsurgency strategies to repress, pacify, and co-opt dissent – a combination of psychological operations, intimidation, and surveillance – including rape threats and sexual abuse – combined with physical violence and beatings.

Pressure on the press

The violence inherent in coal mining, climate catastrophe, and RWE’s repression of dissent is covered up by a well-oiled propaganda machine that consists of PR agencies, RWE departments, police forces, and other state structures.

Intimidation and violence against the press help to reduce negative coverage, with threats of withdrawal of advertising and cancellation of subscriptions, campaigners have reported. In time for the Lützerath eviction, RWE published guidelines that restricted media coverage by journalists, requiring additional police accreditation and limiting access to certain areas, to day-time, and only when accompanied by RWE representatives. Much of the eviction – and police violence – took place at night and in other areas, however. When no journalists were present, protesters report, police were not only physically violent but used psychological violence, verbal abuse, and intimidation.

Power in the courts

A few days ago, RWE announced that they will be suing for compensation payments from the resistance movement for additional costs during the Lützerath eviction.

But soon, the company will itself be in court – RWE is being tried by Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a Peruvian farmer supported by the German NGO Germanwatch, to pay for adaptation measures to protect his land from melting glaciers. RWE is responsible for 0.47 percent of global climate change, so he is asking for 0.47 percent of adaptation costs. The hearing will take place in front of the Higher Regional Court Hamm. If successful, this could be ground-breaking.

At the same time, RWE has announced that it will be suing for compensation payments of 1.4 million Euro from two protesters who had blockaded RWE’s Neurath power station during the COP 26 negotiations in 2021. The action had forced RWE to reduce its operations by 32% and saved 8000 tons of CO2, according to activists.

While they were on trial, another group blockaded the same power station, showing RWE: we will not be intimidated.

The struggle continues.

(Hyperlink fixed!) These are the new members of the POLLEN Secretariat 2022-2024

In mid-August LUCSUS (Lund University’s Centre for Sustainability Studies) became the new home of POLLEN’s Secretariat. We present you the eight people who will be actively involved with the duties of the Secretariat:

New POLLEN Secretariat (from left to right): Juan Samper, Kelly Dorkenoo, Torsten Krause, Fabiola Espinoza, Lina Lefstad, Mine Islar & Wim Carton

Torsten Krause: Torsten is a Senior lecturer at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, Sweden. His research involves the fields of forestry and forest governance, conservation science, traditional ecological knowledge, ethno-biology, and environmental justice. He is part of the MaCoBioS project ( on Marine Coastal Ecosystems, Biodiversity and Services in a Changing World. MaCoBios is a four-year project funded by the EU H2020. Its main objective is to ensure efficient and integrated management and conservation strategies for European marine coastal ecosystems to face climate change. He is also part of the new 3 year BiodivERsA project EPICC (funded through FORMAS in Sweden) with a focus onEnvironmental Policy Instruments across Commodity Chains Multilevel governance for Biodiversity-Climate in Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia. Within EPICC I will study gold and cattle commodity chains in Colombia.

Mine Islar: Mine Islar is an associate professor at LUCSUS. She obtained her PhD degree in sustainability science. Her expertise is on transformative governance, social and environmental justice as well as collective action towards sustainability in both urban and rural settings. Apart from this, she also acts as a scientific expert in UN Intergovermental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services (IPBES) as a Lead Author (2017-2020) for  policy tools and instruments for the Values Assessment and Global Assessment of Biodiversity where she leads a section on governance challenges of SDGs with a special focus on SDG7 goal on energy and its potential implications on biodiversity.

Wim Carton: Wim is a Human Geographer with a background in Development Studies, International Relations and History. His main academic objective is to help understand society-nature relations, and how these are changed and articulated through various sustainability challenges. His primary research focus is on the political ecology of climate change mitigation in carbon forestry and agriculture, and related discussions on negative emissions in climate policy. His current research centers on the politics, political economy and political ecology of climate change mitigation, with a particular focus on negative emissions / carbon removal. The research projects that I am part of for example study the politics of modelling negative emissions in integrated assessment models; the assumptions underpinning projections of large-scale carbon removal; the extent and form in which these are being taken up by policy makers in different countries; and the various narratives and imaginaries about negative emissions that are being produced by corporations, policy makers and in civil society.

Kelly Dorkenoo: Kelly is a Ph.D Candidate at LUCSUS. Her doctoral research focuses on the differentiated socio-economic and ecological impacts from extreme weather events associated with climate change, and how they affect people and society. In particular, she explores the occurrence of disproportionality or disproportionate losses and damages and their relationship with socio-economic development processes. Kelly holds undergraduate degrees in international business administration from Montpellier Business School and applied economics from Paris South XI; and a master’s degree in environmental management and policy from the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics (IIIEE) at Lund University.

Fabiola Espinoza: Fabiola is a doctoral student at LUCSUS. Her research takes place in the context of the MaCoBioS (Marine Coastal Ecosystem Biodiversity and Services in a Changing World) project. The aim of the project is to fill the knowledge gaps on the inter-relation between climate change, biodiversity, and ecosystem services to ensure an efficient and integrated management and conservation strategies for European Marine Coastal Ecosystems (MCE) to face climate change. MaCoBioS will study three ecoregions with different climates.She holds an undergraduate degree in biology with a specialization in fisheries management from the National University of San Marcos and a master’s degree in environmental science, policy, and management from the Central European University. Prior joining LUCUS, Fabiola was working as a fisheries and finance consultant at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Additionally, she worked on marine protected area management in Peru

Lina Lefstad: Lina is a Ph.D Candidate at LUCSUS. Her doctoral research is about the imaginaries of carbon capture and storage in Scandinavia. She has an interdisciplinary background with a degree in International Business Management from the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht, and a MSc in Ecological Economics from the University of Leeds. She is working towards driving change through, among other things, her role as a core member of the Post Growth Institute, the activist-researcher platform “DegrowthTalks” and as an elected coordination committee member of the Post Growth Economics Network. Lina is interested in degrowth, post-growth and equity in just socio-ecological transformations.

Juan Samper: Juan is a Ph.D Candidate at LUCSUS, where he investigates the symbolic and material elements of the defense of the territory in the Colombian Amazon. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Law from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana (Bogotá, Colombia) and a master’s degree in environmental studies and sustainability science from Lund University. Prior to his doctoral research, Juan conducted ethnographic research in the Andean-Amazonic region of Putumayo, Colombia, and policy analysis of climate politics focused on Green New Deals.

Conservation, culture, and consciousness: awakening to a re-imagined vision of nature co-existence

Cebuan Bliss, Radboud University

Conservation, culture, and consciousness: awakening to a re-imagined vision of nature co-existence

Do you have a personal ritual in nature? A place where you feel particularly connected and in awe of the intricacy of it all? Perhaps there is a special tree under which you seek solace, or a walk you take at sunrise just to hear the dawn chorus of birds. This is not unusual, as humans we have revered the natural world in our cultural and spiritual traditions throughout time. Nature is recognised as essential for our physical and psychological health (White et al., 2019). However, awareness of its necessity for our spiritual health has been lacking, especially outside of traditional contexts. But this is changing, and it is likely to benefit conservation too.

Conservation programmes historically relied on the ecological and natural sciences to achieve their desired outcomes, such as the recovery of a particular ecosystem or species, sometimes at the expense of certain displaced groups of humans and non-human entities. For example, the ‘fortress conservation’ model where parks are fenced off and local people excluded. The narrative in recent decades has become more inclusive of traditional beliefs and practices, understanding them as advantageous to conservation (Hill et al., 2020). This ontological turn requires more direct engagement with and explicit acknowledgement of indigenous knowledge (Todd, 2016). Nevertheless, more can be done to re-awaken a sacred awe for nature, not only in traditional settings, but also in modern cities and developed countries, where many have become disconnected from the natural world. Doing so may enhance conservation outcomes in a more ethical and equitable manner.

This so-called awakening of consciousness, encompassing new, re-imagined or personal spiritual practices is already occurring.  For example, growing numbers of people are embracing plant medicine (which includes the likes of ayahuasca and psilocybin-containing ‘magic’ mushrooms) to heal themselves and to connect to a higher spiritual dimension (Gandy et al., 2020). With the psychedelic decriminalisation movement gaining ground in the United States, this age of ‘awakening’ looks set to continue. Certain modern mindfulness techniques are also practiced for and within nature (Willard, 2020). People exploring such practices often develop a profound sense of connection with the natural world, which encourages them to protect and restore biodiversity within their own environ and beyond (Gandy, 2019).

Preparation for plant medicine ceremony, Netherlands, July 2019 (photo credit: James Calalang)

On fieldwork in the Netherlands, Kenya and South Africa, when asking different types of people who do not participate in traditional cultural practices whether they have a spiritual connection with nature, the answer was a resounding yes. Through such personal spiritual practices, people are becoming more conscious of their ecological footprint. Often these are individuals living in developed areas, whose consumption habits have a disproportional detrimental impact on biodiversity through the resources that have to be extracted from natural areas (often far from where they live), in order to produce the products they use (Wiedmann & Lenzen, 2018).

Consciousness calling

Concurrently, our understanding of consciousness – the ability to have subjective experiences – is evolving, and not just of our own. The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness states that ‘humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness’, non-human animals also possess this ability (Low et al., 2012). This will have implications for what is considered ethical practice in biodiversity conservation. For example, there is increasing recognition of non-human sentience, such as enshrined in Article 13 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty (EU, 2012). There is also growing awareness of the sentience of cephalopods like octopus (Birch et al., 2021), and even plants are said to have their own form of intelligence (Calvo et al., 2019).

This recognition has paved the way for ideas such as compassionate conservation, in which the lives of animal individuals are valued in conservation, as well as species as a whole (Ramp & Bekoff, 2015), and multi-species justice, which sees non-humans as worthy subjects of justice (Treves et al., 2019). In practice, it is argued that ‘a comprehensive conservation ethic should promote an ethics-of-care together with the codification and enforcement of animal claims so as to provide explicit ethical guidance in our mixed-community’ (Santiago-Ávila & Lynn, 2020). Furthermore, some are calling for the recognition of animal agency in conservation, where interventions could even be co-designed with the animals themselves (Edelblutte et al., 2022; Hathaway, 2015). For example, choosing where to place wildlife road crossings based on the preferred routes of the animals living in the area (Greenfield, 2021). This would represent a radical departure from the conservation norm.

Lion in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, February 2022. Photo taken by the author.

Additionally, as more people begin to sense the inter-relationality of natural systems and beings, the important role of emotion in conservation is coming to the fore. It is argued that emotion is not detrimental to conservation (preserving our life-sustaining ‘Gaian mother’ is inherently emotive) and emotion can even be utilised to enhance conservation outcomes (Batavia et al., 2021). Such developments inevitably encourage the promotion of ethical and equitable principles in conservation.

Equitable beyond humans

In terms of making conservation more equitable, at least for the humans involved, strides have already been made. The Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) conceptual framework acknowledges different epistemological worldviews, including a spiritual dimension of ‘living-well in balance and harmony with mother earth’ (IPBES, n.d.).

Similarly, indigenous traditions and knowledge are recognised in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Post-2020 Framework, which is currently being finalised: ‘Recognition of intergenerational equity, including the transmission of knowledge, language and cultural values associated with biodiversity, especially by indigenous peoples and local communities’ (CBD, 2020).

In this wording, nevertheless, the spiritual dimension is omitted, and recognition of modern spiritual and cultural practices is missing. Therefore, at present, it seems that there is only tacit acknowledgement of more subjective worldviews. Lee et al. (2021) found in an analysis of leaders’ discourses at the CBD’s Conference of Parties (COP), that discourses which view nature as a spiritual entity were represented only marginally. Are we afraid to admit reverence for the scared in nature?

We needn’t be. Comprehending our relationality in this living system is prudent in order to secure ‘abundant futures’ for all (Collard et al., 2015). This could occur through a self-reflexive process of ‘worlding’; making plain and learning from the many ways we view the world, including in different spiritual dimensions (Inoue, 2018).

Poster at the Pretoria Botanical Gardens, South Africa, April 2022. Photo taken by the author.

Some are pioneering this model of nature connectedness. For instance Londolozi, a private wildlife reserve adjacent to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, is reimagining conservation through ‘consciousness awakening’ and partnership with nature (Londolozi, 2022).

Transformative conservation

Building a more holistic model of conservation which acknowledges and promotes humans’ innate connection to the earth is possible and there is scope for scholars to fill this research void, explicitly acknowledging and engaging with indigenous ontologies in the process. In striving for objective conservation science, we have often been working against our innate biophilia, or love for the natural world. Recognising the value of new and re-imagined cultural and spiritual practices, in addition to traditional beliefs, has the prospect of transforming conservation. This would have implications from an ethical perspective, for example in how we manage so-called ‘invasive alien’ species or ‘surplus’ animals.

As greater numbers of people embrace the spiritual dimension of nature, it may be possible to make conservation not only more effective in terms of protecting and restoring biodiversity, but more ethical and equitable for humans and non-humans alike. A question we may wish to ask ourselves is what sort of relationship do we want with nature?


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How EU public money finances environmental sacrifice: A call for change

By Alexander Dunlap

 This is a lightly edited and expanded testimony made at the European Parliament PETI Hearing, “Environmental and Social Impacts of Mining Activity in the EU,” on December 2, 2021. It confronts the European Commission for publicly funding practices organized to persuade publics to accept mining operations. This funding stream, it is argued, should be re-directed to degrowth research and development schemes.

I want to frame this intervention by stating something obvious, but largely neglected in public policy. While this hearing is about mining today, it is really about the unrestrained industrial production, consumption and profiteering that generates enormous energy and material needs. This includes the production and rapid spread, and profiteering, of additional low-carbon infrastructures dependent on iron ore, aluminum, copper, rare earth elements and more. Modernist infrastructures and consumerism necessitates more mines, larger tailing dams, waste dumps, transportation logistics and smelting plants that have severe ecological impacts and are among the main contributors enabling and propelling the current climate catastrophe. We should not speak past the root cause of the current socio-ecological problem, which also serves to justify the expansion of mines for electric vehicles and low-carbon infrastructures.

I have studied copper mining in Peru and a coalmining in Germany, the latter research lead by Dr. Andrea Brock. Likewise, I have also conducted research on the socio-ecological impacts of wind turbines, large-scale energy transformers and high-tension power lines in Mexico, France, Catalonia and Spain.

Figure 1: Presentation Power Point Slide 3.

Now that we have heard about the insufficient ecological standards of mining in the EU and their impacts (see figure 1 & 2), let me focus on the social impacts of mining and infrastructure projects (see figures 3, 4 & 5).

Buying the Social License to Operate (SLO)?

While extraction and infrastructure companies claim to generate employment and social development, in reality these claims are often grossly overstated—especially with the rise of automation and digitization. Likewise, there are profound psychosocial impacts on people that are rarely acknowledged in public policy, such as socio-cultural change from project development, long-term landscape degradation, technological integration and changing labor regimes. This raises the question: what does “social acceptance” or gaining a “social license to operate” really entail?

The general idea is that by gaining approval for mining or infrastructure projects from the local or regional population, companies can minimize conflict, create mutual social benefits and, most of all, prevent unexpected costs, delays and maintain a steady profit stream from a given project. This, in actuality, is a negotiation process attempting to persuade people to give up their local environments, collective resources and, it many instances, their livelihoods. Social acceptance and corporate social responsibility schemes attempt to organize the sacrifice of ecosystems to enclosure, privatization and extraction to create manufacturing materials to be bought and sold on national and transnational markets. Frequently, this also involves writing off basic rights, such as informed public participation, and the duty to report environmental offences and crimes of corruption associated with mining and infrastructure projects.

People recognize extractive impositions as attacks on where they live, and as processes of unequal exchange. This is apparent by watching people with closer connections to their environments, who value the quality of water, air, food and social relationships where they live. Research has shown, contrary to the easy claims of the Not in My Backyard “syndrome,” that people recognize extractive impositions as being connected not only to environmental degradation and corruption but also to wider patterns of consumerism, profiteering and unsustainable urban lifestyles. The causal connection between mining and large-scale infrastructure projects with capitalism and climate change are all too apparent.

Gaining a social license to operate for mining, or corresponding infrastructure projects, leads us to believe that environmental justice is occurring through inclusion in project planning and decision making; equitable social development; and maintenance of the highest ecological standards. Yet, in reality, everything is done by companies to avoid addressing the hard scientific realities of water, air and soil contamination, land–use changes, the impacts on flora, fauna, existing social fabrics and governance practices. The EU, as Dr. Emmerman just reminded us, has lower environmental standards and mining regulations than four Latin American countries (e.g. Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Peru). Not to forget, mining is used for generating more profit and, in the case of wind and solar panels, privatizing common resources to extract more kinetic energy. More still, companies are designing “social license” standards that are voluntary and with minimal public oversight or enforcement. The EU, even more than other countries, foots the bill for this maneuvering, already convinced these activities are ‘green’, ‘clean’ and ‘sustainable’. This is nothing short than insanity.  

Figure 2. Power Point Slide 4, the Hambach Coalmine. Source: Perschke

Welcome to the Social Engineering of Extraction

At this point, the real issue emerges. Social license to operate, in actuality, is a weapon to control land and people, degrading ecosystems and generating profit. Take the Hambach forest coalmine (shown above), which resembles systematic attributes we can find in mining projects all over Europe, like the proposed lithium mines of Cáceres in Spain, Covas do Barroso in Portugal, or Jadar in Serbia.

Figure 3. Power Point Slide 5, RWE CSR initiatives.

In Germany, mining and energy major RWE, found various ways to sponsor politicians, town halls, and police departments. The company built coal mining museums, created bar-restaurants that celebrate mining (Terra:Nova), organized festivals and sponsored schools. They even hired ecologists to manage (required) ecological reclamation schemes, which claim ecological degradation and ancient forests eradication can be compensated using environmental ‘offset’ schemes. In Spain, Portugal, and Serbia, populations are confronted with massive public relations campaigns by Infinity Lithium, Savannah Resources, and Rio Tinto. Yet these companies ignore public risks, as Dr. Emerman has already shown us. The social response to such plans is usually branded as the uninformed opinion of a few. While this sounds innocent, it is far from it.

Figure 4. Power Point Slide 6.

This approach to obtaining a social license to operate is public relations or, more accurately, propaganda—nothing objective by any honest standard—which works to pre-empt local economic, social and ecological concerns through discursive manipulation, money, gifts and token social development. This includes setting up astroturf groups or proxy-NGOs, such as “Our region—our future” in Germany or “Mineros Touro-O Pino” in Galicia, Spain.

Figure 5. Power Point Slide 7. Terra Nova coal mining tourism site.

In Germany, Peru and elsewhere, company representatives—formally and informally—walk door-to-door, make speeches at public events or schools, companies dispense money, roll out an entire public relations apparatus. Yet these efforts to win over the public are also matched by the deployment of armed forces, whether local police or private security, to ensure local submission to ecological extraction and business as usual. These efforts display slow and long-term attempts, which erode people’s critical facilities, their ability and—and more so—their willingness to identify and report corruption and ecological damage created by the mine.  My research, and others, have demonstrated how this maneuvering closely mimics military manuals and population-centric counterinsurgency tactics deployed to occupy foreign countries.

This does not only happen in particular sites, but is systemically encouraged by the European Commission. In its 2020 Communication on “Critical Raw Materials Resilience” it identified “public acceptance” as one of four major challenges while its 2021 Raw Materials Scoreboard actually lists and recommends many of the methods used in Hambach to mitigate reactions to mining:

Tailings dam failures, chronic pollution, and fatal accidents are abrupt drivers of opinion. Changing public opposition to passive tolerance or active support requires a lot of persistent effort. Public relation campaigns, transparent stakeholder dialogues, cultural heritage (mining museums, local heritage ceremonies) may help develop positive public opinion (p. 27).

Horizon 2020 funding scheme, hosted by the European Commission, seeks to support research relevant to Europe. The Horizon 2020 grant scheme, however, has and continues to fund ‘soft’ counterinsurgency initiatives designed to enforce mining and industrial production—regardless of the ecological and climate catastrophe slowly taking place as we speak. Think about the “Vectors to accessible critical raw materials” (VECTOR) or the controversial “Mining and Metallurgy Regions of EU” (MIREU) research initiatives. The latter meanwhile admitted that key parts of their results do not comply with scientific standards.

Counterinsurgency is about capturing the ‘hearts’ and ‘minds’ of local populations, working by every means to pre-empt potential resistance. This is attempted by buying the support of local leaders; popularizing corporate science; distributing t-shirts and inundating entire regions with multi-media advertisements;  sponsoring sports clubs and events; organizing school visits and creating “educational’ materials with a distorted vision of mining. This social engineering initiatives promote a surreptitious vision that mining is good for their lives and the environment.   This, on the flipside, entails the criminalizing resistance and allowing violent action to be carried out against concern citizens.

Figure 6. Power Point Slide 9, Protests in Spain and Portugal against mining.

Take for example, the arson attacks carried out to intimidate locals protesting the EU funded San Finx tin and tungsten mine in Spain. In the name of ecological and climate policy, the EC must stop criminalizing land defense activities.

In her 2019 mission letter to Thierry Breton from Ursula von der Leyen highlighted the importance of strengthening “the link between people and the institutions that serve them”. She also stated that: [And I quote] “A stronger relationship with citizens starts with building trust and confidence. I will insist on the highest levels of transparency and ethics for the College as a whole. There can be no room for doubt about our behaviour or our integrity.”  

Meanwhile the Commission, the last five years, has allocated over 100M€ to over a dozen of Horizon2020 projects with objectives of both researching and at the same time influencing social acceptance of domestic raw material extraction. This includes mapping civic actors and campaigning at primary schools. All of the projects consortia have rejected NGO requests to disclose their public funding agreements, referring to “commercially sensitive information.” The European Commission has endorsed this activity in all cases, negating a public interest in disclosure and transparency. The Commission, moreover, has nearly financed 30 “Wider Society Learning” projects through the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) RawMaterials, with a similar objective of “building the social license” and to “achieve society acceptance” by targeting NGO’s or initiating social engineering efforts against citizens through schools and museums.  The European commission must stop the various funding streams aimed at social engineering extraction in or outside the EU in order to comply with its own standards of ethics and transparency.

Conclusion: Stop Green Washing and Reallocate Funds

Equally alarming as these insidious and repressive maneuvers are the attempts at justifying this mining by calling it “green”, “environmentally friendly”, “responsible” or the even more preposterous “sustainable.”  There is nothing ecologically sustainable about these projects, except the green 100€ notes backing and being made from these projects. The low-carbon infrastructures necessitating mining, fossil fuels, chemical leaching, smelting, manufacturing and operation are an expansion of ecologically destructive projects that are being added to the existing energy mix of coal, gas, nuclear and hydroelectric dams.  Carbon accounting is not enough for understanding ecological and climate catastrophe. Life cycle assessments are not enough for understanding the real socio-ecological harms of low-carbon technology supply webs. This money used to pacify conflict in favor of ecological and climate catastrophe must be put into actually trying to mitigate and remediate ecological destruction, not renewing and extending it. Research funds should be urgently dedicated to developing degrowth and post-economic growth strategies so the European Commission can actually start taking environmental policy seriously. Members of parliament, this destructive socio-ecological trajectory must be derailed and transformed immediately.

Privatisation and commodification: Ecotourism as capitalist expansion in Sumatra, Indonesia

By Stasja Koot, Lubabun Ni’am, Chantal Wieckardt, Roderick Buiskool, Nadya Karimasari, Joost Jongerden


Ecotourism in Sumatra, Indonesia, is driving processes of privatization and commodification. Here we explore how and why this happens by analysing recent ecotourism developments in the buffer zone to the east of the Mount Leuser National Park (MLNP). The close interaction with nature, and some specific charismatic animals, provide for spreading neoliberal values and practices through tourism to otherwise remote places (see Duffy 2013). First, we address privatisation at the Green Life volunteer ecotourism project in Batu Katak and its role in ‘green grabbing’ for conservation. Second, we focus on commodification and how value is created through human interactions with captive elephants in Tangkahan. The blog ends with a short conclusion on the implications of tourism growth more broadly and its potential effects for nature and people. It is based on research that was carried out between February 2017 and April 2020.

Tangkahan and Batu Katak (by Ni’am)

The settlements Batu Katak and Tangkahan are both situated adjacent to MLNP, which is the main biodiversity hotspot of Sumatra, consisting of tropical forest. Indonesia has one of the highest rates of deforestation, and Sumatra stands out in this regard. Most people living in the vicinity of MLNP are dependent on the forests for their sustenance and livelihoods, making the conservation of the rainforest highly important for the local population. Tourists are attracted to MLNP because of its endemic flora and endangered fauna such as the Sumatran orangutan, the black-furred gibbon, the Malayan sun bear, the Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran rhinoceros and the Sumatran elephant. Ecotourism activities include jungle trekking, wildlife spotting, caving, bird watching, camping, cultural activities and wild water rafting.

Ecotourism and Green Life in Batu Katak

Most inhabitants of Batu Katak live from smallholder farming and fishing, while some residents relied solely on monoculture agriculture such as rubber and palm oil. As a source of livelihood diversification some inhabitants of Batu Katak started to develop tourism around 2010 (Buiskool and Koot forthcoming). Besides international tourists, domestic tourism plays an important role. Most of the activities such as trekking, rafting, or caving are usually done by international tourists while domestic tourists tend to be more interested in daytrips, picnics, and photoshoots at charming natural scenes (e.g., at a waterfall). This makes international tourists more profitable.

Adjacent to Batu Katak an important conservation and ecotourism initiative, Green Life, developed since 2009 on private land. A Czech and an Indonesian NGO are the new owners and managers of the land. Green Life buys the land from local landowners, claiming to give them a very good price for land of little value. As such, Green Life could be seen as a case of “green grabbing”, which is “the appropriation of land and resources for environmental ends” (Fairhead, Leach and Scoones 2012, 238). The project aims to prevent large-scale deforestation by the oil palm and paper industry, to keep the rainforest intact and to curb “the illegal encroachment of poachers, loggers and plantations”.[1] Currently, Green Life consists of 107.3 hectares and there is the ambition to grow to 700 hectares.

The location of Green Life[2]

In Green Life’s perception ‘nature’ needs to be separated from “the greedy, spiteful, stupid, or characterless people who, around us, commit crimes against nature”.[3] Various Green Life employees and enthusiasts considered people living around MLNP as the biggest threat to nature, especially poachers from the neighbouring villages who “haven’t been confronted yet”.[4] To prevent illegal practices, they have set up an anti-poaching unit, they have started to use camera traps, put up posters and sign boards that list all forbidden activities.

Initially, Green Life barely engaged with the local community. This changed when the project tried to obtain a license to extend the range of the anti-poaching unit and gain authority to patrol against illegal activities inside MLNP. To receive this license, the Indonesian government requested Green Life to involve the surrounding communities. A crucial activity for this is ecotourism, which is presented by Green Life as an income-generating opportunity through guided tours, to ensure that “local people protect nature because it has become valuable to them” (fieldnotes, 13 January, 2018). Ecotourists generate a steady source of income for the project and they support the inhabitants of Batu Katak by creating employment.

Since its arrival, Green Life has been buying up small-scale rubber and oil palm plantations on the border of MLNP, increasingly reducing agricultural opportunities. Although Green Life states that the inhabitants from Batu Katak can buy land that is located closer to the village, inhabitants claim that there is no land available there, or that the price of land has risen since the arrival of Green Life. Furthermore, according to Green Life ‘poaching’ also includes fishing. Yet, many inhabitants from Batu Katak are at least partly dependent on fishing. Access to the rivers has become a sensitive matter between Green Life and the community.

The Green Life ecotourists can go on excursions with local guides from Batu Katak, where people work as tour guides, porters of food, as assistants to do shopping, or as drivers to the airport in Medan. New forms of (irregular) employment have thus emerged from Green Life’s volunteer programme, diversifying livelihood strategies. Working as a tour guide for one day can earn someone a wage that sometimes equals a week’s work on a rubber plantation and is therefore a popular job, but the downside is that these are not a very stable type of employment because they are irregular, and some inhabitants have been able to gain more benefits out of the project than others, thus changing socio-economic structures.

Green Life and its employees have always had an ambivalent relation with community members. Some employees received anonymous phone calls, there have been threats to burn down Green Life’s camps and camera traps and signposts have been damaged and stolen. Such responses by some members of the community obviously undermine Green Life’s conservation practices and goals and are interpreted by the Green Life management as evidence that local communities do not know (yet) how to live with, or protect, nature and are just interested in money. However, the valuation of land and nature by the local community seems to be more complex and is not necessarily valued in terms of money only, but also in terms of livelihoods and intrinsic value. Arguably, in its current form, ecotourism at Green Life is unlikely to establish sustainable relations with the community, necessary for long-term conservation success (Wieckardt, Koot and Karimasari 2020).

Entrance sign to Mount Leuser National Park (by Wieckardt)

Elephant-based ecotourism in Tangkahan

About 60 kilometres to the North, in Tangkahan, the commodification of nature plays a dominant role: here ecotourism revolves around encounters between elephant handlers (mahouts) and captive elephants and between tourists and elephants. Most of the men living there used to work as illegal loggers and allegedly caused forest destruction; today, they earn a living through ecotourism, working in guest houses and on food stalls, selling souvenirs, and acting as tour guides. Elephant-based activities—consisting of elephant bathing, elephant grazing, and trekking (where the people walk alongside the elephants)—have become the main tourist attractions.

The captive elephants in Tangkahan are managed by the Conservation Response Unit (CRU), who make a clear distinction between ‘captive’ and ‘conflict’ elephants. Conflict elephants refers to wild elephants that were involved in human-elephant conflicts, predominantly based on crop-raiding. Captive elephants are either former conflict elephants that have been captured, tamed, and trained or else the offspring of such elephants born in captivity. At the time of fieldwork in 2018/19, there were nine captive elephants in Tangkahan: six adults and three calves, of which the adult elephants were all former conflict elephants and the calves born in captivity.

Trained to sell encounters with tourists, the elephants of Tangkahan are ‘lively commodities’ in captivity: they must remain alive to gain value as a commodity. The commodity value of lively commodities “is derived from their status as living beings” (Collard and Dempsey 2013, 2648, emphasis in original). No value is produced when the commodity somehow ceases to live, whatever the cause of death (killing, disease, old age, etc.). Meat for consumption, for instance, is thus not a lively commodity, because it is the status as ‘alive’ that is crucial. However, it is not simply the status of being alive that produces value. In Tangkahan ecotourism, it is the human encounter with the living animal that is the commodity. This inter-species ‘encounter value’ occurs among “subjects of different biological species” forming relationships (Haraway 2008, 46). Commodification thus takes place in the encounter. This way, captive elephants take on capitalist value in ecotourism: value is exploited through interactions between captive elephants, mahouts, and tourists. In this case, what is sold as a commodity is not the animal as such, but an experience of/with it, the experience of having an encounter with the encounterable animals. The incorporation of captive elephants is thus a crucial moment in their transformation into commodities as valuable lively beings in ecotourism activities, which is where their monetary value culminates. This way they become financially productive animals (Ni’am, Koot and Jongerden 2021).

A typical scene in Tangkahan (by Ni’am)

An important job for the mahouts is to bathe the elephants by commanding them to enter the river and let them bathe there. They are brushed in the water, and have been trained to lie down at the riverbed so that the visitors can brush the elephants’ bodies comfortably. Elephants are also trained to deliver a performance that increases the encounter’s value by, among other things, spraying water with their trunk over their own back, washing in the river. For a good photographic moment, they face the tourists when they do this, and at the end of the bathing session, tourists take pictures of the elephants and mahouts on top of each elephant. The encounter is a scripted performance: the elephant riverbank washing performance, for instance, is staged next to the rainforest, where tourists wait for the elephants to come out of the trees in an awe-inspiring setting of high, towering trees and the sounds of monkeys, birds, and other animals. When the elephants come out from the forest on the far side of the river, they enter and cross over. It is this carefully orchestrated, ‘authentic’ spectacle (cf. Igoe 2017) that provides the encounter and thus the creation of value.

As part of the script, an introductory talk is given, explaining the history of captive elephants. This is important to clarify that elephant-based ecotourism as performed in Tangkahan is not about the erasure of the animals from their natural habitat but about looking after the elephants that were previously involved in conflicts. The aim is to provide tourists with a sense of contributing to elephant care and conservation. Directly and indirectly, the ecotourism performance aims to incorporate tourists into a narrative of non-exploitative conservation activities, with ecotourism articulated as saving and caring for former conflict elephants. Yet, selling encounters with captive elephants helps to keep them in captivity, under the direct control and care by humans. Ecotourism thus constitutes a transformative activity through which lively commodities generate value and in which this type of value production also produces and maintains captive nature.


‘10 New Bali’s’, including Lake Toba[5]

Small, remote tourism settlements such as Batu Katak and Tangkahan are often visited by tourists on the same itinerary, which in Sumatra also includes the mass tourism destinations Bukit Lawang (that revolves around orangutan encounters) and Lake Toba, the latter of which is located around 100 kilometres away. Lake Toba has been identified by the Indonesian government as one of three ‘priority locations’ out of “10 new Balis” that they have identified to stimulate further tourism growth. Due to its proximity, MLNP is likely to be affected by the growth plans for Lake Toba, and it remains to be seen how local groups living in the buffer zones of MLNP will respond to this growth of (eco)tourism, providing for the expansion of capitalist values and practices, including privatisation and commodification. As we have shown in this blog, privatization can have serious consequences for local communities, while the commodification of nature is a questionable conservation strategy. Currently at Lake Toba, tourism growth has already led to a legal battle with indigenous peoples who have been evicted for the establishment of luxurious tourism resorts, while farms and plots have been destroyed for this.[6] This does not necessarily mean that this will also happen at MLNP, but privatisation as green grabbing and the commodification of nature expand capitalist values to the remotest rural places and the consequences of this need scrutiny.


Buiskool, Roderick, and Stasja Koot. forthcoming. “COVID-19 and the limits of community-based ecotourism as a sustainable livelihood diversification strategy: The case of the indigenous Karo of Batu Katak, North Sumatra, Indonesia.” In Ecotourism impacts on indigenous peoples, edited by Wayne Babchuck and Robert Hitchcock. Lexington Books.

Collard, Rosemary-Claire, and Jessica Dempsey. 2013. “Life for sale? The politics of lively commodities.”  Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 45 (11):2682-99. doi:

Duffy, Rosaleen. 2013. “The international political economy of tourism and the neoliberalisation of nature: Challenges posed by selling close interactions with animals.”  Review of International Political Economy 20 (3):605-26.

Fairhead, J., M. Leach, and I. Scoones. 2012. “Green Grabbing: A new appropriation of nature?”  Journal of Peasant Studies 39 (2):237-61. doi:

Haraway, Donna. 2008. When species meet. London: University of Minnesota Press.

Igoe, Jim. 2017. The nature of spectacle: On images, money, and conserving capitalism. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Ni’am, Lubabun, Stasja Koot, and Joost Jongerden. 2021. “Selling captive nature: Lively commodification, elephant encounters, and the production of value in Sumatran ecotourism, Indonesia.”  Geoforum 127:162-70. doi:

Wieckardt, Chantal, Stasja Koot, and Nadya Karimasari. 2020. “Environmentality, green grabbing, and neoliberal conservation: The ambiguous role of ecotourism in the Green Life privatised nature reserve, Sumatra, Indonesia.”  Journal of Sustainable Tourism. doi:

[1], accessed 10 November 2021.

[2] Source:, accessed 14 November 2021

[3], accessed 10 November 2021.

[4], accessed 10 November 2021.

[5] Source:, accessed 12 November 2021.

[6], accessed 12 November 2021.

New Masters (MA) in Political Ecology – Lancaster University

•The only one of its kind in the UK: dedicated to understanding how the environment and politics intersect with issues of power and justice

•You will work with and learn from one of the largest political ecology research groups in the UK

•You will directly engage with both academic and non-academic practitioners of political ecology, including environmental activists and film-makers

•You will take your learning into the ‘real world’ through innovative teaching sessions that move outside the classroom •

Brief Descriptoin:

Interested in challenging the status quo of the environment and its politics?

Come and join us at Lancaster for our recently launched MA in Political Ecology!

We are the only programme of its type in the UK, offering the conceptual tools and practical skills to ask the difficult questions of human-environment relations and drive transformative action. You will be immersed in one of the UK’s largest and dynamic political ecology research groups, which draws upon diverse and interdisciplinary perspectives. These address and analyse critiques, debates and actions related to environmental concerns over local to global scales. Key themes include the politics of resource extraction, water, climate politics and the green economy. We offer novel approaches to our teaching, engaging our students in creative classes that provide tools to understand a complex planet and the challenges of our living with it.  

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The final showdown – ZAD Rhineland vs RWE, Germany

By Andrea Brock

A small earth wall separates the tiny village of Lützerath from the enormous diggers operating in Garzweiler II, one of three opencast lignite coal mines operated by energy company RWE in the German Rhineland. Lignite is a type of heavy coal that is extracted and burnt locally.

The mine is 235 metres away and coming closer every day. A number of houses in Lützerath have already been torn down, the area covered with gravel, grass, and some wildflowers. It is hard to imagine that people lived here just a couple of years ago. Other houses are fenced off, with RWE security in front, twenty-four hours a day. Most people have long left the area, have been resettled, or moved away.

But one farmer is holding out. Eckhard Heukamp is challenging the imminent eviction from his farm in the courts, arguing that the coal mining plans from the 90s should no longer allow for continued extraction, in the light of climate change and coal phaseout. He was already displaced once, 15 years ago – his farm in Borschemich demolished, the land long dug up. Now he is fighting for his parents’ house and farm, which dates back to the 18th century.

He is not alone – citizens initiatives and groups are organising regular demonstrations, events, and a permanent vigil at the edge of the village facing the mine. Activists set up a permanent occupation on Heukamp’s land – the ZAD Rhineland. The term ZAD comes from the French Zone à défendre – a militant occupation to stop big development projects. The most well-known ZAD is probably the ZAD de Notre-Dame-des-Landes that stopped a new airport being built near Landes, France and famously resisted militarised eviction by the French state.

The ZAD Rhineland was set up to defend Lützerath against RWE and police, and to stop coal extraction in the Rhineland. People are ready to put their bodies in the way in what might be the final showdown, the decisive battle. “If Lützerath stays, they won’t be able to get to the next five villages”, someone tells me. “But it will be hard”.

Some of the defence structures built by ZAD Rhineland

We spend all day building defence structures. Treehouses, barricades, lock-ons, and towers are popping up everywhere. People are giving climbing workshops and sharing blockading skills, discussing police repression and state violence, building up solidarity structures and a new kitchen, plotting and planning for day X – when RWE come to cut trees or police show up to evict the camp.

The last big eviction in the Rhineland – the eviction of Hambacher Forst in 2018, which was recently declared illegal –lasted 5 weeks before it was stopped by the courts. Thousands of police officers were brought in, but many more people came to defend the forest. Police were heavily criticised for the brutality with which they treated activists and the little regard for their safety. One journalist died during the police operation, many activists ended up in precarious and unsafe situations.

Brutal repression of protests is happening all over Germany– only last year, during the eviction of the Dannenröder forest in central Germany, a protester was seriously injured when he fell four meters from a tripod after police officers had cut the safety rope which held the tripod in place. The occupation was set up to stop another ecologically destructive infrastructure project – the new A49 motorway. Another protester, Ella, was sentenced to over 2 years in prison for allegedly injuring a police officer during the eviction – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The collaboration between police and private security services in the Rhinish coal mining area has been well documented; repression, criminalisation and violence go hand in hand. Few companies are as powerful as RWE, structurally entrenched in the local political economy, and protected by German police forces who frequently act as private security. Many villages and towns are themselves RWE shareholders, and numerous politicians on RWE’s payroll. Already in 1979, the German news magazine Spiegel warned: “Unrivalled and barely manageable, RWE is ruling over one of the largest monopolies of the Western world”.

Today, Europe’s largest emitter continues to lobby for continued lignite coal mining, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. Successfully – the German government’s coal phase-out is set for 2038, much too late. Meanwhile, RWE is suing the Netherlands for 1.4 billion euro compensation for phasing out coal by 2030.

As the COP negotiations in Glasgow have ended, with a final agreement that allows for the continued extraction of coal, people in the ZAD Rhineland know that it’s up to them – to all of us – to stop climate catastrophe.

It might well be that this time, too, the courts will rule that the eviction of Luetzerath is illegal – the court ruling might come any day. But by then, and even if Eckhard Heukamp’s land is saved, thanks to his action and the fight of so many people who have stood up against RWE for decades, many trees will have already been cut, land dug up, too many villages destroyed.

It is windy at the edge of the mine where I’m sitting – ever since RWE cut down the trees that once protected the village, I am told. And yet, the windmills next to the mine are not moving – the power grid is overloaded, they continue – too much wind, and coal power stations take too long to switch on and off.

The digger keeps moving towards us, ruthlessly. The power stations in the background keep burning coal, generating electricity for a system that requires abundant cheap energy to power endless growth, to generate profit for those in power, at enormous ecological and social costs.

The ZAD Rhineland shows that a different system is possible – a system that operates on the basis of solidarity, not competition; of degrowth, not growth; on climate justice, not green capitalism. It gives hope and motivation to keep fighting against coal and for abolishing the mechanisms that protect coal. True sustainability needs not just an end of coal, but the abolishing of the mechanisms that enforce coal interests – police, security, prisons – and of the economic and political system they are part of. Joining the ZAD Rhineland is a good place to start this fight. Whether you want to build barricades, defend a treehouse, or cut veggies – please join, if you can. Everybody counts. More infos here.

Note that the original post can be found here:

Courting justice: when legal challenges to corporate land grabs go wrong

Contributed by: Sango Mahanty, Jean-Christophe Diepart and Sarou Long

In July 2021, a French court ruled against a group of Indigenous Bunong farmers from Mondulkiri in Northeastern Cambodia. Represented by French Laywer Fiodor Rilov, and with civil society support, the group accused the French Bolloré Group and their subsidiary company, Compagnie du Cambodge (controlled by Socfinasia) of illegal land seizures and the wanton destruction of Bunong sacred forests and their way of life. The disputed land consists of agricultural concessions granted by the Royal Government of Cambodia in 2008 and 2010 to Socfin-KCD (a joint venture of Cambodian company Khao Chuly Development and Socfinasia). Court cases of this kind are familiar to Socfin, who has faced similar complaints in Africa.

The outcome was striking not only for the ease with which the court dismissed the case, but also for the unprecedented requirement that the Bunong plaintiffs pay Euro 20,000 in reparations to Bolloré and its Cambodian subsidiary. In light of recent discussions on the potential and constraints of legal activism, we aim here to highlight entrenched structural factors that can hinder communities in legal challenges to corporate land grabs.

The political and economic power of corporate actors like Bolloré and Socfin run deep. Established in the early 1900s, Socfin (Société Financière des Caoutchoucs) played a key role in mobilising European capital to French Indochinese frontiers to develop rubber plantations. As a holding company, Socfin then designated these lands to various subsidiaries for development – a pattern that served to complicate regulation of these corporate actors and their landholdings even in colonial times. The Compagnie du Cambodge cited in this court case was one such subsidiary and shares Socfin’s colonial origins. The high-level connections of companies like Socfin were central to their economic success. In one example cited by French economist Charles Robequain (1944), when Socfin’s Adrien Hallet arrived in French Indochina 1910 he quickly gained agreement from the Colonial administration to mark off ten square kilometres of forest on the Cochinchina-Cambodia border for future development into rubber. In a mark of Hallet’s influence, “the border was pushed back a little” to accommodate this land grant.

Socfin: a key rubber investor from French Indochina to contemporary Cambodia

Socfin-KCD’s lease of the three Mondulkiri concessions at the heart of the current legal case similarly gained easy government approvals, given KCD’s connections with Cambodian political leaders. These include the concessions known as Varanasi (2,705 ha, granted in 2008), Sethikula (4,273 ha, granted in 2010) and Covyphama (5,345 ha, granted in 2008). In Cambodia, government approvals for plantation investments by domestic companies routinely avoid the consultation, environmental and social assessment requirements of the Sub-Decree on Economic Land Concessions, as well as the national environmental impact assessment guidelines. The involvement of European finance might have invoked international safeguards if investors had sourced funds from the IFC or from banks that subscribe to the Equator Principles, but Socfin’s annual reports suggest that it used other sources of finance for this purpose.  

With Cambodian due-diligence procedures by-passed and in the absence of formal international safeguards, Socfin’s operations were only subject to ‘soft laws’ such as the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and to the company’s own voluntary corporate social responsibility principles. Socfin explains on its website that the company voluntarily follows a range of international performance standards (World Bank, RSPO Principles, and the Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative) and also “adheres scrupulously” to national land ownership and environmental legislation. Yet many countries where the company invests, Cambodia included, are settings where land rights, environmental laws and human rights are routinely flouted.

Socfin has become a visible target for community anger, but there are complex financial relationships between companies at play in this case, echoing the opaque colonial financial networks mentioned earlier. Socfinasia is the key company in the Socfin-KCD joint venture. Registered on the Luxembourg Stock Exchange, Socfinasia is a subsidiary company owned by Socfin (58%) and the Bolloré Group (22%). The Bollore group also owns the Compagnie du Cambodge mentioned in this case, and 39% of the share in Socfin. These intricate corporate relationships can serve to muddy the lines of accountability.

The French legal case addresses this corporate accountability issue. Rilov observed that the Bunong case would be the first in France against a parent company for actions overseas by a subsidiary, although such cases had been heard in the US and the UK. In reflecting on the challenges of mounting such a cross-jurisdictional legal case, he noted the important facilitating role of international and Cambodian actors such as Global Witness, British legal firm Leigh Day, the Cambodian Indigenous Youth Association (CIYA) and Cambodian lawyer Sek Sophorn. It was through these connections and relationships that Rilov ultimately developed the case with a group of 80 Bunong farmers against Socfin-KCD and the Bolloré Group for their loss of vital income and sacred forests.

The court ruled the Bunong case inadmissible on the grounds that none of the plaintiffs held title documents to prove their personal right to use the land, and for their alleged delays in submitting documentation. This emphasis on individual land titles is at odds with the customary and collective land tenure system that governs land access in Bunong communities. Yet, the Cambodian legal framework does recognise Indigenous Peoples’ rights to possess land and to use forest products (Civil Code; the 2001 Land Law and the 2002 Forestry Law). In particular, the 2009 sub-decree #83 under Cambodia’s Land Law enables formal recognition of lands where Indigenous people have cultural ties and that they have traditionally used for forest products and shifting cultivation.

The court might have been satisfied if the Bunong plaintiffs held a communal land title (CLT) for the contested areas under the 2009 sub-decree mentioned above. However, the process of formalising CLT is known to be complex, costly and time-consuming, with only 33 titles registered so far around the country. Furthermore, the 2009 sub-decree came after the ELCs had already been allocated to Socfin-KCD and clearance work commenced. Although the Cambodian Ministry of Interior has recognised Indigenous community bodies, meeting the second step in the land registration process, titling has been complicated by the existing land allocations. A community leader explained in 2016 that many of the areas they could potentially claim in a communal title application were already occupied by Socfin. Thus, the Bunong community has been unable to secure Indigenous communal title.

The option of gaining private land titles has also bypassed many Bunong families around the Socfin-KCD concessions. The Cambodian government’s fast-tracked private land titling campaign in 2012-2013 aimed to address land conflicts between economic land concessions and smallholder farmers across the country. The focus on individual private titles rather than communal lands caused friction within Bunong communities, but some families were keen to gain land security on these terms. Gaps and inequities in implementation are well documented with this intervention. Here too, a 2020 study found that some 26 percent of their studied land plots were titled during this process, of which around 71% went to Khmer migrants rather than Bunong people. A key constraint was that company did not permit the measurement and titling of land inside the concessions. The Bunong community thus lost out both on private titles and communal titling, further weakening their legal standing in the French case.

Importantly, none of the international protections for Indigenous peoples (e.g. the International Labour Organisation Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, Convention No. 169 of 1989; and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the World Bank’s Environmental and Safety Standards No. 7) are predicated on formal evidence of land ownership. The French decision thus reflects a particularly narrow reading of the law where land rights are equated with formal titles.

Notably, other non-judicial processes have been mobilized by the company and non-state parties to compensate the villagers and address their grievances. The company has offered to address the conflicts through monetary compensation, land swaps for other locations or leasing of some concession lands as smallholder rubber plantations. The implementation of these options was problematic in many respeccts, however some community members accepted the small cash compensation (150-200 USD/ha) offered to them (Chan et al. 2020 and FIDH). In 2016, the company and three groups of villagers (not those involved in the trial) agreed to use an independent mediation process. The process is a locally contested, however, and concerns a limited section of the disputed land.

As far as the trial is concerned, the Bunong representatives and their French supporters are appealing the decision on the grounds of their ancestral ties to land. Yet, it is difficult to see how the case can progress through a system that is so heavily swayed towards politically and economically powerful actors, who can position themselves favourably within legal systems that disenfranchise Indigenous groups for their lack of formal property rights.

The case points to larger challenges for Indigenous communities in using judicial processes to counter corporate land grabs. Here, legal activism has forged important alliances and community action, but also exposes a highly unequal playing field both within Cambodia and Europe and the associated challenges in seeking land justice across jurisdictions.

Convivial Conservation: book review and authors’ response

Read Rogelio Luque-Lora’s review of “Convivial Conservation” with a response from the authors, Rob Fletcher and Bram Buscher – comments are very welcome!

Living with Nonhumans
The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene
by Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher
Reviewed by Rogelio Luque-Lora

This is a shortened version of a review published in the Winter 2021 issue of The Philosopher. You can download a free copy of the full review here.

Despite conservationists’ best efforts, global biological diversity continues to disappear at alarming rates. According to political ecologists Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, this is, to a large extent, a consequence of mainstream conservation not addressing biodiversity declines in the right ways. The authors acknowledge that there is significant variation in mainstream approaches to conservation, but that two fundamental premises are dominant. Firstly, a stark dualism, both material and epistemological, between human and nonhuman nature. This dualism carries the normative implication that nature ought to be saved from humans – hence the historical focus on protected areas as the cornerstone of global conservation. The second premise of mainstream conservation is its embrace, ideological or pragmatic, of the capitalist development model. As the authors explain, the histories of capitalism and conservation are entwined, with conservation having emerged as a response to the increasing destruction wrought by capitalist development. In practical terms, conservationists often decide that it is more productive to partner with capitalist interests to generate the funds needed for their projects than to fight against the dominant political economy.

According to Büscher and Fletcher, the recognition that mainstream conservation is failing to save biodiversity has triggered the recent appearance of more radical approaches. As the authors explain in the opening paragraph of their book, the last decade has seen growing urgency and pressure on both the natural world and the conservation community, which has led many to conclude that gradual, stepwise improvements to mainstream conservation will not suffice to prevent worldwide ecological catastrophes. Taken together, the authors contend, these are good reasons to believe that a revolution in conservation is underway.

Büscher and Fletcher identify two major radical alternatives to mainstream conservation, the main features of which can be apprehended from how they position themselves with respect to its two fundamental premises. The first group, new conservationists, reject nature-culture dualism while showing enthusiasm for working within capitalist processes and logics. They endorse the view that in the Anthropocene pristine nature independent of human impacts no longer exists. Therefore, rather than try – and fail – to protect perceived wilderness areas from human activities, new conservationists argue that the natural world ought to be integrated into the capitalist economy. The hope is that once the (capitalist) value of nature is taken into consideration, humans and nature can develop in harmony.

The dehesas of the Iberian peninsula have developed through the action and coexistence of wildlife, livestock and humans. In them, any notion of stark dualism between humans and nature falls apart. Source: author’s own.

The second group, neoprotectionists, firmly oppose both these claims. According to the loudest voices within neoprotectionism, it is a gross exaggeration to think that because human activities are leaving a mark on planetary processes, all species and ecosystems are now dependent on human will. The only real way to save biodiversity is to have more numerous, larger and better-connected areas where nonhuman natures can continue to live in ways largely independent of human activities. The most radical neoprotectionists think that at least half of the Earth’s surface must be set aside for “inviolable” nature reserves. For the most part, neoprotectionists see the rising consumption trends and endless economic growth that characterise capitalism as key drivers of biodiversity loss.

A closer reading of the history of conservation ideas, however, calls into question the authors’ accounts of new conservation and neoprotectionism as recent, radical challenges to mainstream conservation. While new conservation presents itself as a novel approach fit for conservation in the Anthropocene, the ideas behind it are at least decades old. In a paper published in 1999, development scholar David Hulme and social anthropologist Marshall Murphree described the then-recent shift in African conservation toward approaches that were people-centred and promoted economic growth. Strikingly, they named this shift “new conservation”. Similarly, the fact that new conservation’s radical counterpart is effectively called new protectionism should also raise suspicions about its novelty. Conservation interventions that aim to protect pristine nature from human activities date back at least to the nineteenth century Romantic cult of wilderness.

To be sure, new conservation and neoprotectionism are not carbon copies of their respective predecessors. It is clear that the advent of the Anthropocene has given new conservation and neoprotectionism scalar dimensions not seen in the traditions from which they derive. In the case of new conservation, this is manifested in their call to embrace the global ubiquity of human influence on the rest of nature. In neoprotectionism, it is the scaling up of protected areas to set aside half of the planet’s surface for inviolable nature reserves that is novel. Yet these differences are operational rather than ideological. New conservation’s embrace of human influence stems from their pragmatic belief that protecting wild areas for their own sake has not worked. In the case of neoprotectionism, the values behind proposals to protect half of the planet are indistinct from twentieth century ecocentrism and deep ecology.

The similarities between new conservation and neoprotectionism and their respective predecessors are not exclusively theoretical. The ideologies promoted by new conservationists and neoprotectionists, far from rejecting mainstream conservation practices, actually align with many of them. For instance, decades-old community-based conservation and payments for ecosystem services both fit the new conservationist paradigm of promoting human wellbeing and integrating the natural world into the economy. Similarly, the fact that neoprotectionism has also been called “back-to-the-barriers” indicates that many of the practices they endorse have been deployed for a long time. If the ideological stances and the practices promoted by new conservation and neoprotectionism, which Büscher and Fletcher identify as new and radical, are in fact decades old, the authors’ claim that a revolution is brewing is compromised.

Perhaps most worryingly for their accounts of new conservation and neoprotectionism as radical challenges to mainstream conservation is the number of caveats the authors find in this very classification. Büscher and Fletcher successfully show why both new conservationists’ rejection of nature/culture dualism and neoprotectionists’ scepticism of the capitalist economy are shallow and unfounded. As the authors demonstrate, nature/culture dualism is inherent to capitalism, so by embracing the capitalist political economy, new conservationists fundamentally undermine their aim of overcoming dualism. With respect to neoprotectionism, Büscher and Fletcher convincingly argue that, although neoprotectionists are right to claim that integrating biodiversity into the global capitalist market will not save it, the protected areas they promote cannot be sustained indefinitely against capitalism’s inherent need to grow beyond its own frontiers. Moreover, in practice, the strict protected areas championed by neoprotectionism are often funded by processes that rely on capitalist exchanges, such as ecotourism and philanthropy. A more accurate conclusion of these critical analyses is that these supposedly radical approaches are merely episodic and rhetorical variations on a more broadly defined mainstream conservation.


The authors’ legitimate dissatisfaction with new conservation and neoprotectionism leads them to develop their own radical proposal, which they call “convivial conservation”. Convivial conservation seeks to be truly post-capitalist and offers a range of short- and long-term suggestions for moving beyond capitalist conservation. One example is the transition from traditional protected areas to so-called promoted areas. In and around these areas, people’s livelihoods would be based not on capitalist enterprises like ecotourism, but on activities including the sustainable use of natural resources and a “conservation basic income”, which would be funded through the state, promoted area entrance fees and crowd sourcing. On a broader scale, the recognition that the success of convivial conservation ultimately depends on the global dismantling of capitalism also requires conservationists to challenge hegemonic power through campaigning and other forms of political action.

The second pillar of convivial conservation is its rejection of human-nature dualism. According to the authors, nature and society must be viewed not as separate but rather as mutually related and co-constituted, a conclusion to which they arrive after reviewing a range of Anthropocene scholars, including Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing and Jason Moore. But while convivial conservation wholly rejects capitalism, its takedown of human-nature dualism is partial. Büscher and Fletcher argue that in seeking to bring other species and abiotic processes back into moral and political focus, more-than-human, animal, new materialist, and posthumanist theorists have “swung the pendulum much too far” and erased many meaningful and necessary distinctions between humans and other creatures. While urging us to accept and rejoice in the plurality of connections and similarities between humans and nonhumans, the authors wish to retain some form of human exceptionalism.

The reason for this is the realisation that without some form of human exceptionality, any attempt to establish healthier relations with nonhuman natures are bound to fail. There is little in the natural world that is inherently convivial (which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “the quality of being lively and friendly”). Covid-19, malaria-spreading mosquitoes, and crop-raiding elephants are examples of the indifference of nonhuman natures to human wellbeing. Even seemingly harmonious natural states, such as the (perceived) balance of ecosystems, are the product of forces utterly indifferent to the lives of individual organisms (one such force is the killing of prey species by predators at rates that compensate for the production of offspring in far greater numbers than their habitats can sustain). As Lao Tzu may have put it, “heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs”.

For human beings to transcend this ruthlessness and voluntarily establish stable and reciprocal relations with the rest of the natural world, they must have the capacity to function as intentional political and moral agents. As far as we know, this ability is absent in all nonhuman species, at least in the measure that would be required for the major societal changes that this book promotes. Kate Soper has made a similar point:

Unless human beings are differentiated from other organic and inorganic forms of being, they can be made no more liable for the effects of their occupancy of the ecosystem than can any other species, and it would make no more sense to call upon them to desist from destroying nature than to call upon cats to stop killing birds.

Yet the only reason for accepting human exceptionalism that is provided throughout the book is that it is required for convivial ecological politics to emerge. This does not prove human exceptionalism to be true; it only proves that without it, the kind of conservation that the authors envision is an impossibility.

During summer months, drought and high temperatures in the Mediterranean habitats kill all non-woody vegetation and put animals at risk of starvation and dehydration. “Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.” Source: author’s own.

Though it was published nearly two decades ago, John Gray’s Straw Dogs (which takes its title from the Lao Tzu quote above) can be read as a provocative antagonist to The Conservation Revolution. Like many of the posthumanist writers reviewed by Büscher and Fletcher, Gray seeks to present a less human-centred view of the world. The idea that humans are categorically distinct from other animals is, according to Gray, largely a Judeo-Christian invention, which humanist thinkers have unknowingly inherited despite their atheist credentials. Had Darwin published his work in Daoist China or the pre-Columbian Americas, the suggestion that animals are our evolutionary kin would not have caused the uproar it did in Christian Europe.

Straw Dogs is not oblivious to the troubling implications of erasing distinctions between humans and the rest of the natural world. On the contrary: it lays them bare. According to Gray, lacking the qualities that supposedly set us apart from other animals (most notably the capacity for free will and the volition to act morally) implies that we can expect the biosphere to treat us in much the same ways it treats other organisms: eventually, negative feedback processes, like diseases and shortages of natural resources, will push back against Homo sapiens. These are bleak prospects, so one serious challenge for convivial conservationists is to prove not just that human exceptionalism is necessary, but also that there are theoretical and empirical grounds for believing it to be true.

Work in other areas is also needed to show convivial conservation to be viable. There is no shortage of examples of human greed, folly, indifference and ecological devastation from both before the advent of global capitalism and in non-capitalist economies since. While the authors’ contention that capitalism is inherently unsustainable is in principle convincing, they and others now need to show that whatever might replace it will do better at reining in those ecologically undesirable human traits. Büscher and Fletcher have shown that conservationists’ aims of preserving nonhuman natures are unlikely to be met without a revolution in their approaches and partnerships. Now they and their sympathisers need to show that such a revolution is possible, and that its outcomes will be desirable.

Response by Rob Fletcher and Bram Buscher

We would like to thank Rogelio Luque-Lora for his thoughtful and sympathetic treatment of our book. He raises a number of important issues concerning our analysis of contemporary conservation debates and their implications for future practice that warrant discussion and engagement. We want to take this opportunity to respond to two of Luque-Lora’s assertions that we find most significant in the context of ongoing political ecology debates.

First, Luque-Lora argues that the two recent proposals for reforming conservation we single out– new conservation and neoprotectionism – are not really so novel and radical as depicted. In part this is a semantic question concerning how one chooses to define these particular qualities. This framing of positions were also meant as part of a broader heuristic model that through simplification helps to clarify the stakes and issues in current conservation debates. But our main aim in describing these provocative approaches in this way was not necessarily to claim that they were in fact novel and radical, but that they had both been characterized as such – that is, as calls to dramatically transform dominant conservation policy and practice – by their proponents. This common self-characterization – and the invitation it offered to question mainstream conservation approaches in even more transformative fashion – was what we sought to highlight. Given that they have led to major and very heated debates within the conservation community, it is clear that some of their proposals and arguments were also seen as radical challenges by many others. But through illustrating and analysing this in detail, we at the same time concluded that the two proposals were really not as novel and radical as proponents claimed. Besides demonstrating that both positions are indeed rooted in longstanding strains of thought emerging from mainstream conservation approaches, the more important point for us was that both continue to harbour deep-seated contradictions that cannot provide a productive way forward for conservation policy. This is why our analysis led to our suggested and preferred alternative of convivial conservation.

The second, and to our minds more intriguing issue that Luque-Lora raises with our analysis concerns the question of human exceptionalism and its implications for the convivial approach we advocate. As Luque-Lora describes, we pull back from the sort of radical critique of the nature-culture dualism levelled by many other critical social scientists aiming to dismantle (nearly) all divides between humans and other entities. Instead, we reassert that some degree of differentiation between humans and others, as well as between nature and culture more broadly, is not just simple realism, but necessary to be able to wage an effective environmental politics. If this is not done, we argued, there is no way to single out humans’ impacts on the rest of the world as unique and hence uniquely problematic.

But we are not the only ones who assert the necessity of human exceptionalism in this way. While ecocentric critics often decry anthropocentrism in conservation policy, they nonetheless (and paradoxically) demand just this in asking that humans reflect on and change the way we interact with other species to become ecocentric in the manner demanded. No other species (short of outlier proposals such as to alter predators’ behavior through gene-editing; see e.g. Johannsen 2017) are asked to do (or likely considered capable of doing) the same. Hence this stance assumes a unique human capacity on which the politics advocated necessarily relies. In short: a conviction that humans possess the capacity to move beyond human exceptionalism is arguably the most exceptionally human capacity that distinguishes us from other animals.

Yet, as Luque-Lora argues, just because human exceptionalism may be necessary for effective conservation politics does not automatically make it reality. But we believe there is strong evidence to support its reality too. It is true and important that many qualities considered uniquely human by Western thinkers in the Cartesian tradition in the past – language use, sociality, self-consciousness, proactive planning, and so forth – have now been called into question by research that convincingly demonstrates their presence among other species (see e.g. De Waal 2016). Yet even if these qualities are not wholly unique to humans, we still believe that they are consequentially different in humans as compared to other animals (see Büscher, in press). Hence, whether human-nonhuman differences are of degree rather than of kind is in many ways a moot point with respect to ecological politics, since they remain significant in their consequences. One piece of rather straightforward if superficial evidence to substantiate this point is the fact that Luque-Lora is debating these issues with us and other people rather than with non-humans.

Less trite and more important for our convivial conservation proposal is the human capacity to exercise conviviality with respect to the rest of the world, on which Luque-Lora rightly asserts that our proposal depends. Interestingly, he questions whether this same capacity exists not only in humans but also more-than-humans. Drawing on Lao Tzu and John Gray, he contends that “nature” is widely characterized by a certain exercise of and indifference to cruelty and suffering. But this overlooks the fact that various nonhumans also exhibit a capacity for compassion and altruism (see e.g. Sussman & Cloninger 2011).

In her own meditations on the topic, Jane Goodall (2010) has asserted that what distinguishes humans from other animals, even close relatives like chimpanzees, is our uniquely intense capacity both to inflict violence and cruelty and to exercise compassion and kindness. This, Goodall argues, is evidenced by our waging of lethal warfare on a scale beyond any other known species and by the unprecedented ways in which we also care for our sick and injured. The takeaway point for us from this is that a hard-nosed, realistic conservation politics needs to acknowledge both of these uniquely intense human capacities, but especially to emphasise the possibility and need to cultivate the positive capacities in ourselves and others. Moreover, how our different capacities are expressed, we believe, is fundamentally shaped by the sociocultural, historical and political-economic structures in which we exist; hence our emphasis on the importance of attending to these structures in addition to a focus on immediate human-nonhuman interactions in order to foster the (democratic, equitable) conditions in which (commodified) competition (both intra- and interspecies) can be minimized and space for conviviality expanded.

We take the call to push this further very seriously, and deliberately ended our book by saying that we join all of those already working for transformative structural change with hope. Hope, clearly, is not enough to demonstrate that our proposal is better than what currently exists. But in the face of widespread ecosystemic breakdown, species extinctions and obscene inequalities, we do need this yet-again exceptional human quality to give it our best shot. We invite Luque-Lora and others to join us in this movement.


Büscher, B. (in press). The nonhuman turn: critical reflections on alienation, entanglement and nature under capitalism. Dialogues in Human Geography.

De Waal, F. (2016). Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? London: WW Norton & Company.

Goodall, J. (2010). Through a window: My thirty years with the chimpanzees of Gombe. London: HMH.

Johannsen, K. (2017). Animal rights and the problem of r-strategists. Ethical theory and moral practice20(2), 333-345.

Sussman, R. W., & Cloninger, C. R. (Eds.). (2011). Origins of altruism and cooperation. New York: Springer.

Political ecology in the courtroom

Contributor: Jacob Phelps, Lancaster University (feature image: Jaclyn Schwanke)

Political ecologists have a particular interest in recognizing diverse values, questioning prevailing policy narratives, and challenging entrenched power dynamics.  It is therefore surprising that the field is not more concerned with discussions of courtroom proceedings, specifically lawsuits enabling governments, citizens and NGOs to challenge environmental injustice via the courts.  This relatively under-explored legal political ecology provides interesting directions for a field where many grow frustrated with the relative lack of applied theory and activist engagement. 

In this post, I discuss, a collaboration among lawyers, ecologists, conservationists, critical social scientists, and economists that asks, “How can we sue large commercial wildlife traders?”.  It  explores how environmental liability lawsuits can hold large-scale, commercial traders liable for the egregious harm they cause. Such liability extends to providing remedies to that harm, such as paying for habitat restoration, animal rehabilitation, issuing apologies, funding species conservation and investing into cultural funds. 

Beyond the obvious opportunities for lawsuits to correct injustices by remedying harms, I highlight two reasons why such litigation offers are exciting spaces for political ecology: 

(1) They allow challenges to mainstream narratives about the values of nature, by pressing courtrooms to formally recognise diverse types of values; and 

(2) They enhance environmental democracy, challenging the state monopoly over the enforcement of environmental rights by creating space for other stakeholders.

These are empowering opportunities that remain underutilised globally, including across most of the Global South. 

Ours is a scholar-practitioner-activist exploration of alternative legal responses to illegal wildlife trade.  Rather than the traditional focus on punishment, which often ends up targeting low-level wildlife traders with fines and imprisonment, we are exploring how strategic liability litigation can hold high-level actors responsible for remedying the harm they cause.  Amidst concerns on the over-criminalisation in conservation, this project shifts enforcement focus away from punishment and onto remedy; away from small-scale harvesters and onto large-scale commercial traders, and from government-led to citizen-directed enforcement actions. 

Environmental liability litigation will be familiar to many readers. The Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills are key examples of how government and citizen litigation can hold polluters responsible for actions such as clean-up, funding restoration and compensating victims.  We are exploring how this approach can be used to address a wider range of harms, including from illegal trade, and across broader geographies.  Enabling laws already exist in many countries, including China, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, and DR Congo, but are comparatively new in many countries; unfamiliar to legal practitioners, and rarely mobilised. Their potential to address key drivers of biodiversity loss from IUU fishing, illegal logging, illegal wildlife trade are untapped. 

We developed a practitioner-oriented framework for how these cases might be developed. It integrates ecology, law and geography to present diverse types of harm (to individuals, species, human wellbeing), and help to identify corresponding remedies that might be secured via a lawsuit.   It seeks to lower the barriers to justice by making lawsuits development more achievable.  

Venue for formal recognition 

Such litigation is motivating because it creates opportunities for plaintiffs to seek formal, public recognition of their values and rights. In order for a lawsuit to be successful, a court must recognise that the plaintiff has a right to make a claim (standing), that a specific harm occurred, and that it merits a legal response.  As such, lawsuits are a potential pathway for plaintiffs–including NGOs, citizens, community groups and government agencies–to convince a judge or jury of their values.  Such formal recognition of rights and plural values has legitimising potential, and geographers are uniquely placed to help others articulate these values in ways that are legible to lawyers, jurors and judges.

For example, although we (the public, decision-makers, judges) may often recognise that nature has many intangible values, these are rarely institutionalised into our formal governance processes, where a narrow utilitarian economic perspective prevails.  Indeed, much of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has been guided by “the view that acknowledging and fostering the use of diverse conceptualizations of multiple values of nature and its contributions to people is required for adequately addressing the challenge of achieving global sustainability.”  Conservation litigation provides a vehicle through which to help translate these complex values into tangible, public, formal court orders. 

In our work, we discuss a hypothetical lawsuit against a repeat, commercial wildlife trader that illegally sells one Critically Endangered Bornean Orangutan. The example demonstrates that what may appear like harm to a single individual animal, has diverse, cascading impacts on different communities and types of values.   Notably, these include intangible and sacred values that are potentially non-commensurable with monetary compensation (e.g., moral harm, harm to cultural values).  These types of values merit broad, public recognition, and courtrooms are a way through which to achieve this.


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Harm to an individual orangutan has diverse, cascading impacts. Illustration by Alamsya Elang 

Enhancing environmental democracy 

Conservation litigation also challenges the state monopoly on the enforcement of environmental rights.  Enforcing legal violations, which typically includes enforcement of criminal and administrative regulations, is squarely the role of government agencies that have the right to fine and imprison. 

It is no secret that this presents challenges and frustrations for many conservationists, especially in the context of under-resourced government agencies, low capacity, different priorities, corruption and collusion.  Many civil society groups have responded very assertively, not only lobbying and pushing governments to fulfill their responsibilities to the environment, but also privatisation conservation enforcement.  This includes NGO and private sector management and enforcement of protected areas, as well as civil society investigations and prosecutions of wildlife violations.  These represent a distrust of government’s ability and willingness to execute their core functions, and a (sometimes questionable) attempt to deconcentrate and even democratise enforcement. 

Conservation litigation offers a very distinct, parallel space for non-state actors to engage with the enforcement of environmental rights and rules.  In many countries, legislation allows citizens and NGOs the standing to bring forward liability lawsuits for harm to the environment.  This can include making demands that responsible parties undertake remedial actions for harm caused to public goods (e.g., biodiversity, public waterways).  As such, rather than wait for government agencies to undertake enforcement actions or remedy harm, this type of litigation allows citizens to make requests via the legal system.

This is especially important in the context of uncertain government enforcement, and growing demands for environmental democracy. It aligns with the 1998 Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, which has 41 parties across Europe and Central Asia.  Litigation provides a formal forum and pathway through which to increase this access.

Overcoming barriers to justice 

Strategic conservation litigation has the potential to facilitate access to meaningful, just remedies, highlight values that have struggled to achieve formal recognition in other venues, and increase democratic engagement in environmental enforcement.  There are also other  important types of important courtroom actions that speak directly to the interests of political ecologists, including to order injunctions to order the stop to harmful projects; lawsuits to order, revisions of unjust e legislation, and lawsuits to order government agencies to meet their legal mandages. The courtroom thus seems a uniquely appropriate setting for a field concerned with rights, (in)justice, contested narratives and creating meaningful change.

There are huge barriers to courtroom engagement and access to justice–technical, conceptual, procedural, political and financial.  This includes huge challenges for academics that engage with law, particularly those without legal training, for whom the jargon and detailed mechanics of national-level legislation can be daunting.  Importantly, they are even greater barriers for the marginalised communities who are often most affected by environmental harm.  This is precisely the reason for a strategic legal political ecology to operate in the public interest.  

Geographers and conservationists can help to bridge the gaps between how harm and remedies are experienced on-the-ground, how these are presented in lawsuits, and how formal legal processes can be navigated. Progress will necessarily require novel collaborations, including work with plaintiffs, public interest lawyers, public prosecutors and legal aid groups, to help overcome barriers to justice.