A Dialogue Reflecting on 15 years of REDD as a Forest Climate Policy

In November 2022, WRM, along with other allies, spoke with several authors from the publication, “15 Years of REDD: A Mechanism Rotten at the Core”. The aim was to reflect on the different layers of harmful impacts that REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) has caused over the last 15 years. We must recall that REDD was introduced in UN climate negotiations as the leading policy on forests. It was also at the UN where the logic of offsets was introduced—that is, the erroneous idea that one person’s contamination in one specific place can be offset in another place by another actor. REDD is based on this logic, which has allowed corporate and state criminals to continue with their business as usual and garner a “green” image.  

A lot can be said about REDD’s failures and the impacts it has caused in territories. It is important to emphasize, though, how its proponents have continuously repeated that forest-dependent communities are to blame for deforestation, and that REDD is the salvation to reduce deforestation. This colonialist and racist discourse facilitates the imposition of restrictions and prohibitions on communities and Indigenous Peoples regarding whether they can access and use their forests and lands. Yet REDD does not impose restrictions or prohibitions on the oil industry, logging companies, mining companies, mega-infrastructure projects; nor does it restrict the tree plantation industry, which is in constant expansion.

This article shares a summary of each of the contributions from the discussion. The complete event can be heard here:

WRM with Jutta Kill, member of the WRM International Secretariat:

Why do you claim in your article that REDD has not been a total failure? And why is REDD still discussed in UN negotiations?

Jutta Kill: Reducing deforestation was never the main reason or motivation behind introducing this mechanism. So what are the other motivations behind REDD? Identifying them will help us understand why REDD, and what are now called “Nature-Based Solutions” continue to be a big part of climate discussions—despite consistently high levels of deforestation.

If we only focus on how REDD has failed to reduce deforestation, we can’t see who has benefitted, and in what ways REDD hasn’t been a failure. Indeed, REDD has not been a failure for the oil industry or for other industries responsible for the climate crisis. Mining and oil companies are some of the greatest beneficiaries of this mechanism. For them, REDD has served as a distraction to block discussion—both at the UN and in society in general—on what we should really be talking about: how to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Not paying attention to the carbon trapped under the earth’s surface makes these companies happy, because it allows them to make billionaire profits from the extraction of oil, gas and coal. REDD’s attention is instead placed on the carbon above the earth’s surface—that is, in forests and soils. That is a trap.

REDD also didn’t let the big conservation industry down. These NGOs have generated huge earnings by carrying out training workshops and introducing methods to measure carbon (with massive margins for error), among other things.

Another way in which REDD has not been a failure is in the huge amount of “carbon-neutral” programs that are available today. REDD has been crucial in making us believe that it is ok to keep buying products and services that in fact worsen the climate crisis.

In conclusion, there are many people generating astronomical profits through the fossil fuel industry, and they use REDD—and now also “Nature-Based Solutions” and the carbon market—to distract us from the need to stop extracting oil, coal and gas from the earth. Meanwhile, REDD has also helped increase land-grabbing and control over Indigenous Peoples’ and peasant communities’ use of their lands.

WRM with Ivonne Yanez, member of Acción Ecológica in Ecuador and the Oilwatch Network in Latin America:

How can it be that the oil industry—the main driver of the climate crisis—is leading the demand for this so-called “solution” proposed by the UN?

Ivonne Yanez: For almost 60 years, we have known that the emissions from extracting and consuming fossil fuels are the main cause of global warming. And the oil companies were the first to know this. There are videos from 50 years ago of scientists working for oil companies who talk about the problem of global warming. But we also know that capitalism—as we now know it—requires energy from fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas. And the very mechanisms we are talking about that use carbon offsets, such as REDD, have been falsely promoted as a solution to climate change—and promoted through the whole institutionality of the United Nations, the international financial system, and others. But in fact, these mechanisms were created precisely to continue the process of extraction and consumption of fossil fuels.

Now, when we talk about the oil industry we should not only be thinking about Shell, Texaco, Chevron or Eni, but also about fossil-fuel capitalism. We should be thinking about industrial agriculture that consumes high amounts of fossil fuels and emits other greenhouse gases; about the military industrial complex that consumes high amounts of fossil fuels; and also about the financial system which, of course, largely depends on the money that this whole military industrial complex (tied to fossil fuels) moves. So capitalists created these offset mechanisms, because they wanted to say “we know what the problem is, but we don’t want to solve it.”

Likewise, we should avoid saying, “despite climate change negotiations,” or “despite these mechanisms,” the climate crisis has not been solved. We should always say, “due to this,” “due to these mechanisms,” or “due to the United Nations system and its whole infrastructure,” emissions have not stopped and have continued to increase.

WRM with Tamra Gilbertson, who wrote her doctoral thesis on carbon offsets in Colombia:

What can we learn from the “carbon tax payment mechanism” from Colombia?

Tamra Gilbertson: When people look for supposed “solutions” outside of the carbon market, they almost always argue that we have to establish a carbon tax. But when we take a deep look at carbon taxes and other similar schemes around the world, we find that countries that impose taxes on fossil fuels, emissions or other similar things have not managed to reduce extraction. Taxes do not keep fossil fuels in the ground. So a carbon tax is not going to stop climate change, nor will it keep polluters from polluting. On the other hand, we have seen that companies know perfectly well how to avoid paying taxes, which also affects consumers and workers’ wages.

These taxes, therefore, have not been created to stop capitalist accumulation, but on the contrary, to allow it to continue.

Another point is that these taxes end up being the first step for countries in establishing domestic carbon markets. In the case of Colombia, the tax program has ended up being an inventory of the country’s emissions. And it was created in such a way that only certain kinds of pollution produced within Colombia had to pay a certain percentage of taxes. Let us recall that the largest open-pit coal mines in the Western Hemisphere are in Colombia, which causes tremendous impacts for the Afro-Colombian population and Indigenous Peoples.

When the carbon tax is established, it is not established based on the coal that is actually being extracted—because 98 percent of that coal is exported, mainly to Europe. The tax is based on the emissions generated by the machinery used to extract the coal. And instead of paying that tax, the companies managed to use other mechanisms, including REDD. Large donor agencies, such as USAID and conservation NGOs, sat down at the table to write those laws. And what has happened is the coal industry has still not paid carbon taxes; meanwhile, it is causing a very major impact—including violence—in two places: in the territories of extraction and in the territories used for the alleged offsets.

WRM with Diego Cardona, member of Censat/Friends of the Earth, Colombia:

What are the challenges now that the (leftist) president of Colombia has presented the Green Economy as his political agenda on the environment and climate change?

Diego Cardona: To answer this question I’d like to share a 2019 press release from the environmental authority of the Colombian Amazon, Corpoamazonía, in which it warns Indigenous Peoples and local communities about NGOs, cooperatives or companies that are running carbon-trading or carbon-credit projects in the territories. In other words, REDD-like projects—and we know they’ve changed the name changed a lot after all the scandals. What the last line of the release states, in summary, is that: “we recommend rural communities avoid giving these organizations documents, money or other requested information...” And several years have gone by since then, and the warning remains the same. Communities are still being fooled.

The number of carbon projects in the country has grown enormously; hundreds of contracts for millions of hectares with projects of this kind are constantly being signed. And the strategies are the same: they co-opt some community leaders—always a man or a few men from the community, never a woman; they sign a contract with that person or people; division is created, and, crucially, deterritorialization. That is, people are forced to leave their territory, they are not allowed to use it, they are not allowed to practice agriculture, they cannot cut down a tree to build a house. In short, they cannot live there.

What are the specific risks in this political moment in the country? Fundamentally, that social movements’ agendas and priorities could change. In other words, the government has a lot of social and political endorsement from these movements and from Afro-descendent and Indigenous Peoples and peasants that supported its candidature. But the government’s proposal relies heavily on the sale of carbon credits—even more so than with the former government, which we strongly resisted. But it is more problematic now, because it is a seemingly progressive government that is proposing what we have been resisting for decades. This is compounded by the fact that there is little critical analysis, and that large NGOs are presenting this plan as a good thing.

WRM with Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network from North America (IEN):

How does the use of certain language—such as benefits-sharing programs, certification systems, safeguards, etc.—affect the unity of Indigenous Peoples, and how can we strengthen solidarity?

Tom Goldtooth: This is a very important issue, especially because many allies and even conservation NGOs say they are confused. They are confused because when our Indigenous Environmental Network and other networks from the Global South make statements—for example at the UN—we reject carbon markets, geoengineering and other technical “solutions,” as well as climate finance mechanisms.

When they ask us why we are opposed to them, we answer that it is all part of a bogus system. The only strategies discussed in the halls of UN climate negotiations are based on adaptation, mitigation or the funding of false solutions. They have invested a lot in this. For example, we have had to deal with the World Bank, which allocates millions of dollars to intermediary indigenous organizations in the Global South. This has made it very hard for us to inform grassroots forest-based communities, because they have already been convinced that participating in REDD+ (as well as the so-called “Nature-Based Solutions”) will bring them money; they believe it will strengthen their struggles because they are being promised title to their lands.

As a small indigenous organization facing these actors, what is our strategy to warn Indigenous Peoples and local communities about the truth behind these false solutions? We are at the UN in the middle of a big convention center, with many people who have been tasked with training our communities. And so it’s a big challenge. The owner of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, created a gigantic fund in the United States and funneled millions of dollars to some of the biggest NGOs that are promoting REDD and “Nature-Based Solutions.” Communities are being pressured to sign 90-year contracts, which they are being told will bring benefits—all with this language of “benefit-sharing.” Meanwhile, we are fighting to tell the counter-narrative.

Those who promote REDD and the carbon market need Indigenous Peoples and forest-dependent communities. They are now investing in order to attract people they call “knowledge holders.” These are tactics to co-opt our Indigenous Peoples and communities in order to create division. Some indigenous brothers are being promised thousands of dollars; and the same thing is happening in North America. When they talk about “safeguards,” we must understand that there is no guarantee and no legal consequence if a nation-state violates these safeguards.

And so how can we build solidarity? This is the central point. We have to be very careful with the language we use, because they are using it to create confusion among us. There are people I have known for many years in the struggle for Indigenous Peoples rights, who are the very ones dividing us. The strategies of the huge conservation NGOs, financial institutions, companies and governments are dividing us. They are not worried about us. The only thing they want is to implement their market schemes. They have even coopted our narrative. They talk about the reconnection of people with nature, of harmony with nature, of ecological and “holistic” development, of “buen vivir.” They are manipulating the language! And our non-indigenous allies are also being divided. We must be very alert. We must develop strategies of solidarity and maintain them.

WRM with Izzudin Prawiranegara, from Agrarian Resources Center in Indonesia:

According to the experience of the community next to the REDD project area in Katingan, Indonesia, how does certification of a REDD project affect communities?

Izzudin Prawiranegara: The REDD project area in Katingan is 300,000 hectares, which includes 20 communities in the central region of Katingan. The project’s main goal is to control people, and even stop people who try to leave the area with forest products. This is evidently a major burden for the population.  

Over the last decade in Indonesia, there has been a lot of investment in strengthening law enforcement agencies that are committing so-called environmental crimes—most of which occur in forest people’s territories. Peoples who grew rice, for example, and who for hundreds of years used different plots for their shifting cultivation, can no longer do so. Now if they open up an area for cultivation, they face the threat of a US $100,000 fine and the possibility of going to jail for 20 years. That is why farmers increasingly depend on agrochemicals, for which they need more money. Consequently, many farmers are forced to leave their lands, and when the land is abandoned, fires appear much more readily. The increased costs of growing rice are forcing people to fish, or to move onto forest lands to try to get something out of them; but they expose themselves to fines.    

And so we have seen how capitalists—through the REDD project—are controlling vast swaths of land and creating the conditions that are degrading the land. Now it is harder for people to grow rice in those areas. In other words, the REDD project has increasingly marginalized the people, since they have had to change their traditional ways of cultivation and increasingly use agrochemicals. The people are increasingly being identified as a threat, and even as a commodity.

The project introduced CCB certification, which calculates the aggregate benefits in terms of carbon—based on the REDD Project’s intervention in the livelihoods of the peoples who live in and around the project. That is, it calculates the carbon emissions avoided by changing local practices. According to the project, local people are a threat. It commodifies people by including their livelihoods in its carbon accounting, as part of the requirement to obtain the certification. And once they have the certification, the carbon credits can be sold for a lot more money.

WRM with Ladislas Désiré Ndembet, member of the organization, Muyissi Environnement, in Gabon:

How are communities impacted by the Grande Mayumba project—a million-hectare protected area that also includes a logging concession?

Ladislas Désiré Ndembet: In Gabon, the Gran Mayumba REDD project does not ever use the word REDD. Its promoters talk about tourism, forest exploitation, agroindusry, and “Nature-Based Solutions,” but the word REDD is never uttered. The Mayumba National Park, which, along with 13 other national parks in Gabon, was created in 1992, occupies 11 percent of the regional territory. Mayumba has 5,000 inhabitants, including Indigenous Peoples from neighboring countries in West Africa who trade in the area.

20 years after the Mayumba maritime park was created, communities are feeling absolutely disillusioned, because they are no longer able to enjoy the wealth of their lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. Peasants and fishermen are suffering from various restrictions, including a prohibition on fishing. This is a real attack on food sovereignty. I am from that community and grew up eating oysters all the time; today this is no longer possible due to the strong conservationist policy.

The land has been handed over to carbon promoters. And the national park, which claimed it would bring people out of underdevelopment through ecotourism, ended up plunging them into total precariousness. In Gabon, the land belongs to the State, and the State is mired in corruption; thus, this mechanism is used to illegally appropriate land, by increasing protected areas. As a result, communities are cordoned off through conservation policies. The government prioritizes public-private partnerships, which end up causing more dispossession for the people.

The Gabonese government vigorously defends these bogus solutions, in an attempt to get more funding for them. It is important to remember that Norway has promised the Gabonese government US $150 million, and started giving it money since 2021 in the form of carbon credits. It is a very difficult situation. We must denounce these situations and multiple these dialogues. We have to expose these false solutions and make them go away.

WRM with Larry Lohmann, member of the CornerHouse research group in the United Kingdom:

Why do you state in your article that “REDD works better when it is more colonialist,” and how has REDD managed to survive for so many years?

Larry Lohmann: REDD has always been stalked by its own colonialism. I remember when, more than 20 years ago in UN negotiations, an African delegate was outraged at the idea that the land and forests of the Global South would have to absorb the industrialized North’s pollution. Despite the many reforms made to it, REDD will never be able to overcome this colonial stigma. That is because the economic logic of REDD makes it so that doing business as usual is cheaper for large companies than changing anything.

The Global South will never make a lot of money with REDD, because that would go against its own purpose. But the colonialism of REDD goes a lot deeper than the appropriation of lands. Indeed, every time they try to reform REDD, it gets more colonialist. Why? Because to be able to continue burning fossil fuels, those who buy REDD credits have to claim that they are the ones saving forests with their money. They are the ones who should be able to get credit, literally, for creating the distinction between “forests” and “non-forests.” But this means that they must completely ensure that nobody else gets credit for saving that forested area. If the companies that do carbon accounting for REDD projects want to keep their jobs, they need to prove that without REDD projects, nobody else can save the forests—not forest-dependent communities, social movements, local governments or anyone else.

Those who do carbon accounting for REDD projects are obligated to ignore many good things that could be happening without REDD. This means that they must maintain a colonialist attitude: “Those people in the Global South can’t do this, only I can do it.” This is a requirement in carbon accounting.

It gets worse. Those who do carbon accounting also have to show buyers exactly how many credits they are going to receive, because only in this way can they quantify how much fossil fuel they will be able to burn after having bought those credits. Therefore, forest-dependent communities and other actors in the Global South not only must be shown to be incapable of taking constructive action without REDD money; they also have to be shown to be statistically predictable in terms of what they would do without REDD money. There can only be one “baseline” for a REDD project, and that “baseline” must be quantifiable.

Many who critique REDD think that its problem is that predictions about what would happen without a REDD project are not precise enough. But the only way to make them more precise is to try to make people in the Global South more predictable and passive; and the only way to achieve that is by repeatedly reinforcing the colonial myth that native populations are lower than animals: with no imitative, with no free will, with no future they can call their own, with no future that they can build themselves.

Therefore, REDD’s colonialism is not just the appropriation of land. Its colonialism is also the technical and mathematical carbon accounting. And the more precise they try to make this accounting, the more colonialist it will become. REDD has survived, in part, because its critics who demand more precise “baselines” do not realize that in so doing, they are also demanding more colonialism.


Podcast: The Voices of Women Living around Socfin’s Oil Palm Plantations in Sierra Leone

The name Socfin has been synonymous for violence and oppression in several West and Central African countries where the company operates industrial oil palm plantations. Sierra Leone is no exception. In collaboration with Aminata Finda Massaquoi, a journalist and the national coordinator of the women’s advocacy network WORNAPI, WRM is releasing a podcast to highlight the different layers of oppression women face once industrial plantations invade their territories.

Listen to the podcast:

“They work the land and therefore they are land users”

Oil palms are a traditional crop for many communities in Sierra Leone and across West Africa. Aminata Finda Massaquoi explains how “Palm oil is a vital part of the foods we eat every day. It has deep cultural benefits and it is the mainstay of our traditional economy, which is driven mostly by rural women. While the men usually grow and harvest the fruit, the women provide most of the labour required to extract the oil. This gives them a great deal of social prestige and economic benefits.”

Aminata has been working with and advocating for the rights of rural women for many years: “I have listened to their complaints and seen the realities on the ground for most of them.” “They work the land and therefore they are land users,” she explains.

The Malen Chiefdom, in Pujehun district in southern Sierra Leone is one of the largest palm oil producing districts in the country. It is an area that was badly affected by the 1991 to 2002 civil war. Yet, the importance of this crop to women and the local economy is under threat. Why? It has to do with the multinational company Socfin, a subsidiary of the Luxembourg-based multinational, the Socfin Group. The arrival of the company meant that industrial monocultures have pushed traditional palm oil production to the margins, leaving behind a trail of destruction and devastation for communities living in and around these plantations, in particular for women and girls.

Aminata reminds us how, when companies arrive to the communities, their representatives engage with the men and exclude women from the negotiations. Even though, as she says, “In the end, it is the women and their children who suffer the most. Besides losing farmlands, women also lose their own small plantations-which guarantees them a regular source of income.”

With the aim to learn from women who are most affected by the company’s arrival in this area, Aminata travels to the Malen Chiefdom. She tells how the biodiverse landscape radically changes in this area, with hectares and hectares of oil palms on either side of the road. In 10 years, the forests and fertile land of the Malen Chiefdom were transformed into thousands of hectares of oil palm monocultures.

Aminata explains that in 2011, Socfin signed a 50-year land lease agreement with the government of Sierra Leone and the local Chiefdom authority, which handed more than 18,000 hectares of land over to the company –and that’s nearly 70 percent of the Chiefdom’s total area.

The deal has sparked over a decade of violence and division in Malen Chiefdom, with local residents saying that they were not properly consulted or compensated for their lands. And that Socfin has not lived up to its promises of building of schools, roads, hospitals and providing scholarships.

Mamie Sannoh is the first one Aminata speaks with. Sannoh is from the village of Jumbu Malen, a small community on the main road leading to Sahn Malen town. Sannoh has five children and five grandchildren to look after. She leased her land to Socfin in 2011, and says she received only a small amount of money in return. Mamie Sannoh says: “We used to grow peanuts and peppers, and process our own palm oil. But we have to buy all of these things now. When I had my land, I would just get palm fruits from my garden, process them, extract the palm oil and sell it. Now we don’t have land, and we don’t have money.” Worrying about not having enough food for her children, she says, “I regret it now. If I still had my land, I’d be able to grow a lot of things and survive, but now I cannot do that. How will I survive?”

Not everyone in this Chiefdom agreed to lease their lands to Socfin. But even the families that held on to their lands are suffering. Aminata spoke with Mariatu Kambo from Jumbu Malen in Kemoh section. Mariatu explains “I have a small plantation of palm oil here but I can’t process it because the company doesn’t allow us. I don’t have anything to do. Even when I harvest my oil palm fruit, I cannot process it. As soon as they see us here, security men come and accuse us of stealing the company’s palm fruit. Now, even getting hold of palm oil to cook with is difficult for us. There’s nothing we can do.”

Since the company's arrival, communities, and women in particular, have faced violent incidents, criminalization and harassment. Strong resistance also emerged, mostly led by women. A resistance speaking with one united voice: lands must be returned to the traditional care-takers.

Aminata also spoke with Aminata Fabba, the Deputy Chairlady of the Malen Land Owners and Users Association (MALOA), who said “We are like tools in the hand of the company and the paramount chief. The paramount chief does to us what the company wants and they ignore our concerns.” Fabba says that the women in Malen want the land deal with Socfin to be renegotiated …or the people must have their lands back.

New Capital Cities, Deforestation and Social Apartheid: Parallels Between Brazil and Indonesia

In spite of the 17 thousand kilometres separating Brazil and Indonesia, both countries have much in common, such as having some of the world’s largest remaining tropical forests. They also share one particular similarity: at some point, during the post-colonial era, its rulers came up with the idea of building a new capital city. While rulers in Brazil put the idea in practice some 60 years ago by building the current capital, Brasilia, construction of the new Indonesian capital is currently underway. In 2019, the Indonesian national parliament started putting the idea into practice by approving its construction in Kalimantan. What parallels can be drawn between both projects and, most importantly, what lessons can be learnt for social struggles in Indonesia as well as in Brazil?

A New Capital: The Misleading Argument to Make a Break with Colonialism

In Brazil, the idea to build a new capital city is as old as the country's independence from Portugal, in 1822. The post-colonial elites argued, among others, that Rio de Janeiro, which was the capital since 1763, was a symbol of the colonizers’ influence and that a new capital city would mark a break from the colonial past. They also argued that establishing the capital in the centre of the country would strengthen national unity and bring progress and development to the whole of a nation where the majority of the population lived along the coast. As a result of disputes among the elites over where to build the new capital, Brasilia was only built in the 1950s under the presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek. (1)

Indonesia, in turn, became independent from the Netherlands in 1945. Since then, several Presidents expressed their wish to build a new capital city away from Jakarta. In 2019, under the presidency of Jokowi-Ma´ruf Amin, the national parliament approved the State Capital Law project to build a new capital city (Ibu Kota Nusantara – IKN) in East Kalimantan. The infrastructure work has already started. The arguments used by Jokowi’s government show parallels with the discourse of the Brazilian rulers: Indonesia should have a new capital as part of its own new and independent history. And as it was argued with Brasilia, the idea of moving the capital to East Kalimantan, at the centre of the archipelago, would further develop the whole of the country, (2) since most of its population and economic activities are currently concentrated on the island of Java, where Jakarta is located.

Deforestation and Energy

In the case of Brasilia, 73 per cent of the existing savannah – cerrado in Portuguese - was destroyed building the course of establishing the new capital: the government buildings; business, residential and shopping areas; the necessary transport infrastructure. The new capital city, however, triggered a far-reaching process of deforestation that continues to this day. The building of roads to connect Brasilia with the different states of the federation played a crucial role in this process. One of the first roads to be built was the Transbrasiliana highway which connects Brasilia with the Amazon city Belém, the capital of Pará state (3). In addition to destruction of a significant area of forest to build this 2,000 km road, its construction also opened up the Eastern part of the Amazon region, exposing communities, in particular Indigenous Peoples, and their territories to different forms of violence and destructive activities, including timber extraction, cattle breeding, soy and other monoculture plantations, mining activities and the construction of hydroeletric dams.

Those dams, responsible for flooding and thus destroying extensive forest areas, are the backbone of Brasilia’s energy supply. The Itaipu dam, the world’s second biggest dam in terms of electricity production, ensures 20 per cent of its supply, while the remaining 80 per cent is supplied by the FURNAS system, which is also based on large hydroelectric dams.

Indonesia is starting the project of its new capital city in a very different context than when Brasilia was built. Since then, extensive deforestation on all continents has significantly reduced (tropical) forests. Indonesian rulers, including its elites and international investors and financial institutions such as the World Bank, have actively encouraged forest destruction in the name of ‘development’, in particular in Kalimantan and Sumatera over the past decades. The climate crisis also creates more serious impacts on the territories every year. In the face of the climate crisis, global elites, corporations and financial institutions have essentially reinvented the fossil-fuel dependant capitalist economy, by presenting it as a so-called ‘green’ or ‘low carbon’ economy. But behind the shiny new image of the ‘green’ economy hides a logic of capitalist expansion and further exploitation of forests, its peoples and its territories with the aim of increasing corporate profits and elites’ benefits. Despite that fossil fuels are the main driver of the climate crises, it is under this capitalist framework that corporations and governments formulate most climate and forest-related policies and commitments.

This helps to explain why the Indonesian government is promoting its new capital city as a ‘smart, green and forest’ city. The government argues that the new capital city (IKN) is part of the solution to the global crisis and will help Indonesia achieve its target of ‘net zero emissions’, using renewable energy for its electricity demand and an electric, battery-based, transport system.  (4)

However, the 256 thousand hectares allegedly needed to construct the new capital city, which is six times the size of the current capital Jakarta, include forest areas that will be destroyed. Besides, the ‘renewable’ electricity supply will come from the yet to be built largest hydroelectric power plant (PLTA, in Bahasa Indonesian) in Southeast Asia that is fed by five dams on the Kayan River, in Peso District, Bulungan Regency, in North Kalimantan. According to Indonesian activist NGO JATAM in East Kalimantan: “There are six villages that will be­come victims of this Kayan River hydropower project: Long Lejuh, Long Peso, Long Bia, and Long Pelban villages on the banks of the Kayan River as well as archaeolog­ical sites in Long Pelban Village, Muara Pangiang and Long Lian. There will be two villages that will be relocated or evicted: Long Pelban and Long Lejuh villages. There are important sites for the Bulungan indigenous community and sacred tombs (Salung) in Muara Pangean, Long Lejuh, Long Pelban, and Long Lian Villages which get the same threats. There is also a historical heritage of Bulungan ‘Lahai Bara’, a tomb or a sacred site in Long Pelban Village being threatened”. (5)

Moreover, building the new capital city will further trigger the expansion of destructive extractive industries. Besides sand and karst, elephant stone is needed for the infrastructure of the new capital, increasing the destruction created by this type of mining in West and Central Sulawesi. Several islands and its peoples on the eastern side of the archipelago will also suffer from the devastation of nickel extraction, one of the main raw materials in the production of electric vehicle batteries. It is worth noting that these nickel smelters in Indonesia are run on coal-fired power plants (PLTU, in Bahasa Indonesian). (6)

Social apartheid

When Kubitschek’s government started to build Brasilia, it strongly pushed the argument that the new capital city represented a land of dreams and opportunities. It propagated the idea that all people, independent of the class they were born into, would share the same space. Thus, accomplishing the dream of a new capital would also mean accomplishing the dream of a new, equal society.

Nothing could be further from the truth. To begin with, the construction of Brasilia destroyed and reduced territories and cerrado vegetation on which quilombola communities and Indigenous Peoples, who have occupied the overall region since immemorial times, depended upon for their survival. Nine years after the capital was inaugurated, about 79.000 people were living in 14.600 tents around Brasilia. In an attempt to halt the migration of more workers attracted by the supposed opportunities that Brasilia would offer them, the government started to remove people from these tent camps to a separate area that later became a new administrative unit called Ceilândia. This was a process comparable to the practices during the apartheid regime of racial segregation from South Africa.

Nowadays, compared with the other 26 Brazilian state capitals, Brasilia is the most unequal one. In 2018, habitants of ‘Lago Sul’, a posh neighbourhood full of mansions, tourist attractions and expensive restaurants, enjoyed an average income of R$ 7,654.91 Brazilian reals. Meanwhile, in the neighbourhood of ‘Estrutural’, at only 15 km distance from ‘Lago Sul’, the average income was R$ 485.97, which means 16 times less than in ‘Lago Sul’. In contrast to ‘Lago Sul’, people in ‘Estrutural’ face a daily struggle to survive. With poor and expensive transport facilities to reach their work places, they face all sorts of problems to attend their basic needs, including affordable food, access to water, energy, sanitation, health services, etc. (7)

Although still in its initial phase, the building of Indonesia’s new capital city in Kalimantan seems to be on a similar course. It is destroying and reducing the life spaces of the indigenous Balik people and other communities in the area, in particular those living in the so-called Ring 1, the most important area of the new capital, reserved for high-level governmental officials and other elites. Ring 2 and Ring 3 will be destined to commerce and industry respectively and to residential neighbourhoods. So far, in what will be Ring 1, indigenous Balik women whose lives and livelihoods are interwoven  with the Sepaku River, have been particularly affected by the initial construction works. Fields, gardens and ancestral graves have been destroyed. Their ancestral knowledge of woven nipa roofs is doomed to disappear if the project of damming rivers to attend the future water supply of the capital city continues, due to the destruction of the areas where the nipa palm occurs. (8)

Who is paying the bill?

The only official figure stating how much the construction of Brasilia cost, estimated in 1960 by the then Minister of Finance of Brazil, Eugênio Gudin, is US$ 1.5 billion, equivalent to an amount of about US$ 13 billion today, about R$ 70 billion Brazilian reals.

This looks like a relatively small amount. However, in comparison to the gross national product (GNP) of 1960, building Brasilia consumed 10 per cent of the national budget. 10 per cent of the GNP today would represent about US$ 140 billion or R$ 750 billion, a far more significant amount. This amount, nonetheless, still does not give the full picture since a lot of the construction works took place after 1960.

With such a bill, another problem arose: the Brazilian government simply did not have enough money to pay for it. The ´solution´ adopted was to create more money. This, in turn, contributed to one of the highest inflation rates in the country´s history, leading to considerable price increases of food and other basic products. It also contributed to a period of political instability that was the precursor of the military coup in 1964, which installed a dictatorship that lasted until 1985. (9)

Indonesia is already a highly indebted country. Who will pay the bill for this mega-project, estimated to cost some US$ 32.7 billion? (10) The government has promised that it will ‘only’ cover 20 per cent of the cost, while investors will pay for the rest. The government claims that many investors are interested. However, these will most likely invest under public-private partnerships, for which the government needs to play the role of a ‘sales marketing manager’, providing tax incentives and tax holidays to ensure investors’ returns and profits. Ultimately, the cost will be borne by the people of Indonesia. (11)

Stop IKN, the new capital city to recolonize the country

Until today, and for over 60 years, the quilombola community that was evicted for the construction of Brasilia continues to struggle to demarcate at least a tiny part of what used to be their territories. (12) Similarly, the Balik Indigenous People who are facing the construction of the new capital city in Indonesia continue to raise their voices.

Dahlia is a dancer from a Balik community in the area where the new capital is planned. She says: “I can’t imagine what will happen when the project is ready to be implemented,” (...), “No one wants to hear our voices. I want to cry and scream. I feel like being colonized even though we are in a free and independent country.” (13)

A striking parallel between both stories of the new capital cities is how both projects only reinforce a colonial State, in spite of their promoters claiming the opposite. Both projects dominate and destroy the life spaces and territories of forest communities for economic and political interests. And both new capital cities also promote policies of social apartheid.

Both stories however, also show the role of social struggles as a way to put a halt to and revert a history of colonialism and other structural oppressions that include racism, capitalism and patriarchy. Behind the discourses of the presidents and the false propaganda about the new capital cities, communities in both countries are the protagonists of the struggles to defend and reclaim their lands, rivers and forests on which their culture and identity depend.

When the military dictatorship in Brazil ‘opened up’ the country from 1964 onwards, to ensure profits for Brazilian and in particular international elites, their project was to ‘kill’ the culture and identity of Indigenous Peoples and other traditional communities by forcibly integrating them into the larger, so-called ‘modern’ society. But Indigenous Peoples continued resisting. In 1980, the first indigenous organisation was founded in the Amazon state of Acre, called UNI, and about 500 others followed in the years after. Together with other social movements, their resistance became so strong that it overthrew the military in power. A new Constitution laid the basis for repairing a small part of the historical debt towards indigenous and traditional communities. The fact that nowadays 26 per cent of the Amazon territory is controlled by Indigenous Peoples, however, is not just because of that new Constitution. It is a result, above all, of social struggles that keep putting pressure on a State structure that continues to rule for wealthy private interests and which maintains many colonial traces.

The government of Indonesia is still in the very initial stage of building its new capital city, and thus, there is still the chance to cancel the project. As the example of Brasília shows, building a new capital city has nothing to do with building an independent country and breaking with the colonial era.  Indigenous Peoples hold the key to understanding what break with the colonial pasts entails. This includes a fundamental change in the State’s relation with the people living in the territories and with the territories themselves, one that needs to stop listening to the wealthy national and foreign investors. That could be a first real step towards decolonizing the country.

International Secretariat of WRM


(1) Vermelho, Brasília e a  mudança da capital para o Planalto Central, 2010.
(2) The Guardian, Why is Indonesia moving its capital city? Everything you need to know, 2019.
(3) Andrade, 2019. Vencidas a distância e a floresta: a Transbrasiliana e a Amazônia Desenvolvimentista.
(4) Jatam East Kalimantan. Factsheet: How Indonesia´s New Capital Megaproject invoked climate disaster and destroyed indigenous people and women of Suka Balik in East Kalimantan, 2022
(5) Ibid 4
(6) Ibid 4
(7) Poder360, Brasília tem bairro com “renda europeia” e regiões tão pobres como a África, 2020, and Poder360, Implantação de Ceilândia foi o apartheid de Brasília, 2020.
(8) Ibid 4; and Oxfam, For richer or poorer: from Brazil to Indonesia, 2016.
(9) Poder360, Construção de Brasília custou US$ 1,5 bilhão em valor de 1960, 2020, and Caos Planejado, Brasília: uma cidade que não faríamos de novo, 2019.
(10) Ibid 2
(11)  Ibid 4
(12) BBC News Brasil, 2018. A história do quilombo que ajudou a erguer Brasilia – e teme perder as terras para condomínios de luxo.
(13) WRM, The Coercion of the Indonesia’s New Capital City Mega-Project and the Neglect of the Balik People’s Voices, 2022.


Demand that the Suzano company stops destroying quilombola territories in the south of Bahia, Brazil

Support and sign the request made by quilombola communities in the Far South of Bahia, Brazil, for the immediate halt to destructive and illegal road works by Suzano Papel e Celulose in their territories.

Suzano, Brazil’s largest eucalyptus plantation owner and one of the world’s largest paper and pulp corporations, continues with its violent and destructive actions in the territories of quilombola, peasant and indigenous communities.

At this time, eight quilombola communities in Bahia state, Brazil, which for years have had their territories invaded by Suzano’s eucalyptus plantations, are crying out for help. We ask that you support the urgent demand by these communities that the Brazilian authorities take steps to immediately halt the illegal destruction of the Atlantic Forest and of these communities’ traditional paths by Suzano and its new road works, thus worsening the destruction and invasion of the territories of these communities.

This violence in the communities is taking place right after Suzano received a US$725 million loan from the World Bankl/IFC (December 2022) to build a new pulp mill in Brazil. This occurred despite the protests against this decision by countless Brazilian and international organizations. They denounced the devastating impacts of the monoculture model of eucalyptus production for paper and pulp practiced by Suzano in Brazil.

Support the request of the quilombola communities for an immediate halt to the road works by signing here.

Summary of the request:

To the Federal Prosecution Service and Public Defender’s Office in Teixeira de Freitas (Bahia)

Through this request, we the quilombola communities of Volta Miúda, Rio do Sul, Helvécia, Naiá, Mutum, Cândido Mariano, Vila Juazeiro and Mota come before you to denounce and ask for measures against the destruction caused by infrastructure work carried out by Suzano Papel e Celulose inside our territories in the Far South of the state of Bahia.

More specifically, one is dealing here with a new road, which is being built for Suzano’s exclusive use and is destroying our territories, especially the native vegetation and soils of the Atlantic Forest, as well as putting our springs at risk.
Furthermore, the new road is being built on top of traditional paths we have always used. The road works have already completely destroyed an old bridge, part of the communities’ historical heritage. This has made it impossible for dwellers to access their areas of cultivation, which are essential to their survival.

We are sure that our rights are being violated owing to the fact that there was no prior consultation, as established by ILO Convention 169. We therefore request, as well as the urgent holding of such consultation, the immediate halt of the Suzano corporation’s illegal road works.


ponte bahia
The road works have already completely destroyed an old bridge, part of the communities’ historical heritage.