Kristen Lyons researches climate change

Interviewer: Courtney Boag
Images: University of Queensland and Swedwatch

22 December, 2018

“We cannot address the environmental challenges of climate change without also addressing human rights, because we are going to create so many new problems in that process. We really have an opportunity – and responsibility – to centre human rights in our discussions and policies surrounding climate change action, otherwise, we will keep coming back to similar issues and obstacles”

Kristen Lyons

Kristen Lyons is a professor at the University of Queensland. She has over 20 years of experience in research surrounding matters of international development, sustainable community development, indigenous rights, food justice and land sovereignty. Kristen is a transdisciplinary sociologist who has produced significant research around the cultural and social impacts of some climate change, or ‘green development’ initiatives.

She works regularly in Uganda, the Solomon Islands and within remote communities of Australia. Kristen is also a Senior Research Fellow with the Oakland Institute, where she critically explores the role of big businesses in food systems and the future of land and food sovereignty. I caught up with Kristen to chat about her recent work in northern Uganda and the social complexities of emerging neo-liberal ‘green developments’.

So Kristen, you have been researching some very interesting research topics, including climate change, community development, and more recently, you have been looking into the social and cultural impacts that carbon trading initiatives have on local communities. Can you tell me about how you came to be so passionate about these issues?

Yes sure, I have been working in the international development and advocacy field for around 15 years, or something like that.  When I started working in Uganda, I became increasingly aware of the particular challenges, including social-economic challenges, that are characteristic of the context I was living and working in. I came to understand that there is a strong push for the ‘roll-out’ of neoliberal frameworks of development, which is of course, not only unique to Uganda but has gained traction in other so-called ‘developing’ countries’. So, I think living on and off, and working in Uganda, it really became apparent to me that there are big contestations about the future of these so-called development projects, and especially my focus on, ‘green climate initiatives’, might look like. While I was just scratching the surface to understand what these projects look like, I found that carbon off-setting plantation developments were a primary focus of these new so-called green developments.

During this time, I was working with a think tank called the Oakland Institute, which is an organisation that is interested in questions of land justice and land sovereignty. So, I guess, coming from this background, it became quite obvious to me very quickly that the claims that some of these plantation forestry companies were making about off-setting carbon were only one part of the picture. What I have found over the years of being engaged in social research in this space, is that actually this particular carbon off-setting development often places enormous pressure on vulnerable communities, and also, paradoxically, on those who have the smallest ecological footprint. So yes, this was really the entrée for me to begin to understand how these kinds of development projects were happening, what was driving them, what were their consequences, and where were the points of resistance? Where was the hope for these communities in the face of, to me, a failing response to the fundamental challenges of climate change that we now face globally?  

It’s an interesting research subject for sure. Do you think there was a defining moment in your upbringing when you realised that this was really the sort of work you wanted to be involved in?

Hmm...that’s a very thoughtful question. I would definitely say that for a long time I have cared deeply about questions of justice, but where did that come from… that really is a good question. My own background is one of, you know, living in a country of plenty, as we do in Australia. But I suppose seeing a lot of the injustices that were going on all around me made me think more critically. When I was studying in Central Queensland – in Rockhampton, that was a pretty profound time in my life in terms of becoming more aware of injustice, discrimination, and the kinds of racism that are built into communities. So yeah, this has in many ways influenced where I am now, in terms of my own journey and coming to understand the kinds of violence that were characteristic of the landscape that I was living in.

The conflict related to land is everywhere, so coming to understand the violent dispossession of Indigenous people from the Country where I live, did help me to understand how dispossession and land conflicts arise in other places. For the past 20 years, my work has focused a lot on food sovereignty, and I think inter-related to this are questions related to land sovereignty. Many of the communities I have worked with - in Uganda  particularly – people talk about the precursor to food sovereignty as land sovereignty, because without land there’s no future for food sovereignty. Food sovereignty therefore requires us to grapple with the violence of settler colonialism and dispossession by accumulation that has ruptured peoples’ connections to land. 

Yeah absolutely, the two really exist symbiotically. You recently spoke at the Ted Talks conference at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. You spoke about the notion of ‘Gaia capitalism’, can you explain what this concept is, and how it relates to your research?

Yes sure, and it’s good timing to talk about Gaia capitalism given that the climate talks have just wrapped up in Katowice, Poland. So, gaia capitalism is championed by entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, who of course, owns Virgin Airlines amongst many other interests. So, the notion goes, that if somehow we can put an economic value on the environment and ‘natural resources’, as long as we get the price right – that is – if the market works effectively so that the price we put on these commodities encourages people to invest in them then this is the way – through markets – that we can address the climate crisis.

I think a really clear example of how Gaia capitalism plays out is through initiatives like carbon markets. Over the past few years, I have particularly focused on plantation forestry, and have been interested to understand how carbon markets actually calculate the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions that can be sequestered and stored in trees, and then, in using that storage, off-set carbon emissions being released in other parts of the world. So, in using these kinds of market arrangements, the global north is able to offset their emissions by investing in carbon offsetting projects which are often located in communities in the global south.

So, you have been working in Uganda for quite a while now, documenting the social and cultural underpinnings of these carbon off-setting projects in the northern parts of the state. What are some of your observations from your research here?

Yes so, I’ve been looking at Green Resources in detail for many years, as well as a number of other companies. In terms of Green Resources, it is a Norwegian owned and operated plantation forestry company and they have a number of plantations across the African continent. They are a very big player in the industry, and so what they do in this sense really matters. So, Green Resources secured licenses for two areas of land in Uganda; one in Busoga Central Forest Reserve (southern Uganda), and a second in Kachung Central Forest Reserve (in northern Uganda). On each of these sites, they have established largely monoculture plantations and relying mostly on a single species of pine. What we know is that this land, which is now under mostly monoculture pine plantation, was previously used for all sorts of activities vital to the livelihoods of local people. People previously used land at both these sites to grow food, graze animals, as well as to access water and sites of cultural significance.

So, there has been conflict in communities now living adjacent, or that still reside within the plantations.  This conflict relates to who should have access and use rights, amongst other issues. However, given that the Ugandan Government has issued a license for this company to engage in plantation forestry for the next few decades, this project has ultimately excluded many thousands of people, pushing them to the margins, both literally and figuratively. This place has become fortified with trees so that those who buy carbon off-sets can off-set their emissions and therefore participate in the phenomenon called ‘Gaia capitalism’. While we may be able to calculate the amount of carbon and other pollutants that can be sequestered by these pine trees (although the science of carbon calculations is highly contested), what these projects ignore are the kinds of social and cultural injustices they cause to the people who previously lived on, and have rights, to this land.

One of the things that you talk about is the different forms of violence that occur in these plantations. Can you talk about these forms a little bit more?

Yes sure, I think when we talk about violence, we might assume that it is always physical, that it’s material, that it involves humans affecting other humans in physical ways. However, this is only one form of violence – that’s not to say that physical violence has not occurred in this context – but what I understand from ongoing research here, is that there are more insidious – and sometimes less visible – forms of slow or structural violence that do serious harm to people and their ecologies over the long-term. What we see really clearly in this context of people being removed from land that is vital to their lives and livelihoods is that there are all sorts of cultural disruptions that go on, such as, loss of cultural identity due to the loss of access to their culturally significant sites (some of which have been destroyed), an increase in homelessness, an increase in the number of people migrating to city slums, and an overall reduction of self-sustainability. I see this very clearly as a sort of structural violence that is built into a system which actually removes people from their land, and from the environments which are vital to their sense of cultural identity and sense of belonging.

In relation to the land now licensed to Green Resources we see people struggling to cultivate enough food for their families. I’ve talked to many women, in particular, who are responsible for providing food for their families and communities, and some describe reducing meal preparation to just one meal a day as a way of coping with the reduction of farming land and limited to access to both food and firewood required for cooking meals. This is a significant feature of the slow structural violence, the slow wearing away of people’s ability to survive in these landscapes. It may not be immediate, but it is very dangerous because it so often flies under the radar and goes unnoticed, but over the long term it is fundamentally disrupting how people live and express their culture and who they are in these cultural places. 

Oh totally. The symbiotic relationships we share with our landscapes make us who we are and as they change, we inevitability do as well. In a few of your publications, you’ve mentioned that the local farmers were previously allowed to farm amongst these plantations but that over the years this has become illegal to do, so what changed?

It’s a really messy area, as in, there are multiple understandings and issues on this topic. Many local people I’ve talked with describe that when trees are still juvenile, they do not provide a whole lot of shade, so it’s possible to grow food crops side by side, you know, quick-growing food crops. But as that canopy grows out, it begins to provide too much shade, so it becomes harder to grow crops. That’s the biophysical answer I suppose, but the social and political reasons for this, are that companies like Green Resources have expressed concerns that farmers and other community members who are going into their licensed area may potentially damage the tree roots or take branches from the trees for firewood, and in so doing, reduce the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas storage capacities, which will consequently disrupt the company’s ability to participate in the carbon market. So, I think at times what we hear is the concern from companies like Green Resources, that food growing is actually incompatible with tree growing to store carbon, as it reduces their ability to participate in the carbon market and to encourage stakeholders to invest in their projects. 

Across the globe, people and in particular, small farming communities, are still to this day being subjected to land grabbing from big businesses and government agencies. So, what makes these plantations any different?

I think that’s an interesting question. What we see in this particular context is that the National Government of Uganda has issued a license to this foreign company, and I suppose this is often how land grabs and forced land acquisitions take place. But I guess the overarching question is how does this happen? What are the national and international policy settings which enable this to happen? So, we have seen since the 1980s in Uganda, but also, in many other regions around the world, the roll out of a neo-liberal development agenda which says “private investment is the way to develop stronger economies, it’s the way to improve people’s quality of life and therefore we have to open up borders, we have to free the market to allow a greater flow of people and resources across the market”. 

In the state of Uganda in particular, there’s a real sense that international investment is vital for development, so much so, that President Yoweri Museveni, has said that those who speak negatively about international development would be committing a crime against the State. So, there’s this really powerful discourse being used to speak about the ‘appropriate’ way to achieve development. So, I find it interesting, the discourse around land grabbing, because it’s such a contested space, but at the same time it’s becoming such a normalised pathway to development across many parts of the world, including here in Australia, where a neo-liberal agenda has taken hold. 

Yeah right! It certainly is an ambiguous area where the lines do become blurred to some degree when land that was originally used for small scale farming, which would support the surrounding community, is now being used for foreign investment. You do have to ask the question; who is benefiting most from these ‘developments’?

This is a big question to ask. Right now, the bigger global debate we are having in Australia is, how are we collectively, seeking to grabble with the profound challenges of global climate change, and how can we substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so we can stabilise our current climate for future generations. From my research, I would say that it is incredibly inappropriate to put all our eggs in the one basket of carbon off-setting plantations. Unless we can prioritise the human rights’ dimensions of these Gaia capitalist projects, then we are absolutely failing in our efforts.

We cannot address the environmental challenges of climate change without also addressing human rights, because we are going to create so many new problems in that process. We really have an opportunity – and responsibility – to centre human rights in our discussions and policies surrounding climate change action, otherwise, we will keep coming back to similar issues and obstacles, until we get it right, or don’t get it right and have to bear the brunt of our errors into the future. 

Recently, I heard from the CEO of Focus on the Global South, Shamali Guttal, she brought forward the idea that the re-territorialisation of land not only physically transforms landscapes, but also socially and culturally changes them. I thought this was a really interesting point. I wanted to ask you if you have observed similar effects of land acquisitions in Uganda.

Yes absolutely, and I think we are seeing a convergence of a range of different actors involved in re-territorialisation processes and including in the context of the kind of neoliberal policy agenda’s which are becoming so prevalent in Uganda. It is certainly becoming more apparent that state and private sector actors work hand in hand to re-territorialise landscapes in ways that make them available for the kind of land grabbing that goes on. Yet such maneuvering by a mix of actors is obviously not conceived as land grabbing from the perspective of the state. As we see in histories of violent settler colonialism around the world (including in Australia), states are effectively able to change the rules, by introducing new land tenure systems and laws that disavow traditional lore and custom. 

In so doing, reterritorialising processes to reconfigure the land also reconfigures citizens, in ways that enable the silencing of dissent.  Demonstrating this, a recent new law in Uganda has targeted – to ultimately silence – social movements. There are also many other structural ways the government is reducing the strength of movements, such as reducing government and international public and private funding to certain organisations that are seen as being involved in these movements. 

There is a lot of research now looking into how these sorts of land grabs or ‘privatised developments’ are occurring in post – disaster environments when land boundaries become more ambiguous and how, consequently, this leaves local communities in more vulnerable positions. This is an incredibly interesting new area for research with predictions that climate change will inevitably increase the frequency and nature of natural disasters.

It’s a very interesting point, when you put so much resourcing into constructing boundaries it really makes you question how meaningful these boundaries are in a climate-changing world?  We know that edges of nation-states and island continents are shifting in different ways and people are having to shift to new territories, but how this will play out in the future. Yes, it’s a really important question. I think we can expect, I mean, we are already seeing significant contestations around land occurring today so there’s no reason this wouldn’t continue. 

It’s so important that within all this shifting human movement that people still have an ability to feel like they belong to a landscape and to not feel like they are being forcefully displaced from their homes by encroaching land investments.

I think that is such an important point you’re raising Courtney, that sense of belonging and connectedness to country and to homelands which are so profoundly important to so many people on this planet. But yet these landscapes are changing as the result of a human-induced climate-changing world. So yes, where do our responsibilities lie in this context? I have great hope in the future when I see the younger generation get up and speak at protests about the future being in their hands, and not waiting for our current leaders to take action because we have all waited long enough.

It’s an interesting paradox which is often spoken about within the context of international development, that we have what we have in the west as a direct and indirect result of the conditions which people in the global south live under. You mentioned also in your recent Ted Talk that ‘it’s not up to the poor to cool the world’, but rather it comes down to us all.

Well absolutely, and if I can come back to my case study of the carbon off-setting projects in Uganda, there’s huge challenges and human injustices that are being played out where the companies’ plantation are located, which is completely incongruent with a company who champions itself as upholding strong environmental and social responsibility. It is neither environmentally nor socially responsible when it expects some of the lowest greenhouse gas emitters on the planet to carry a disproportionate burden in terms of living with acute food security challenges, limited access to water, no longer being able to readily access places of cultural significance. Clearly, this isn’t a climate solution.

You mentioned in respects to your work in Uganda that the developers of that carbon off-setting project made no mention of the exploitation which was happening as a result of the plantation. You mentioned that the relationships between the developers and local community members was rendered totally ‘invisible’. So, how can we make more visible these power relations, to the general public, who are potentially consumers and/or investors in these markets, or as you’ve called them ‘indirect players in the carbon market’.

This is the challenge, isn’t it? It’s difficult to be a conscious consumer when we are engaged in any kind of global commodity chain where we are physically removed from the thing we are consuming, and therefore supporting. How do we actually know what the conditions were like for those workers who made the clothes we wear, or the conditions of the animals that we are now consuming. This metabolic rift distances us from production and renders the process of making goods invisible. So yes, to your question, how do we make these exchanges more transparent? I think we have to at least ask more questions, like when we tick the box when we fly saying we will purchase carbon offsets, we have a right – and responsibility – to ask what the story is behind that tick; what is the project we are supporting? 

I wouldn’t say all carbon off-setting projects are producing negative social and cultural effects, but I would say from my research, that largescale monoculture plantations for carbon off-sets are problematic both environmentally and socially. It’s not up to individual consumers alone to change these complex issues, there is a vital need for the global carbon market to improve the transparency around the work they are doing, and more urgently, greater climate action – including decarbonisation of our economy – is needed from governments. 

Interested in issues of food sovereignty land justice and sustainable food systems? Learn more about the work that Kristen does by heading to The Oakland Institute.

Peruse some of Kristen’s written work here.


Anthrōprospective is Australia’s first independent anthropology journal of it’s kind. Based in Naarm (Melbourne).

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people.