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  • Business & Human Rights
  • 08/2023
  • Prof. Walter Timo de Vries
Focus Area

Precious Land: Expansion of Green Energies in the Global South is often Conflict-Prone

Whether in the construction of power plants or the extraction of raw materials: social and economic effects of land utilization often collide with traditional land rights and ways of life – and give rise to tensions, migration and resettlement.

Nature conservation concerns want to be taken into account in the expansion of wind energy in a way that is appropriate to the location. © KfW

Responsible and intelligent land administration and development is crucial in providing renewable energy for developing countries. It is about finding the right compromise between the most cost-effective, the most efficient for food and agricultural production and the most environmentally sound.

According to the FAO, the total area in agricultural use is about five billion hectares or 38 per cent of the global land surface, of which only a third is used for land cultivation. If this area were divided among the world's eight billion people, it would mean that every single person would have access to about 45 by 45 meters. This figure alone shows that agricultural land is scarce.

Apart from this abstract data, there are statistics on the large-scale conversion of arable land to cultivation of biofuels. In Europe alone, by 2020 a total of 9.6 million hectares of land had been converted to biofuel production since the European Renewable Energy Directive (RED) was introduced in 2010 – an area larger than the island of Ireland (Fehrenbach et al. 2023). In developing countries, the conversion could lead to even greater land scarcity and force people to migrate to other areas (Bommert 2012). There is a clear link between the increase in land used for biofuel production and the increase in large-scale land grabbing and displacement.

Hunger for Electricity leads to Hunger for Land

One of the urgent measures for development in countries of the Global South is investment in electrification. According to World Bank statistics, 50.6 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa had access to electricity in 2021. The share of renewable energy in electricity generation in sub-Saharan Africa was 29 percent in 2019, while in Africa as a whole, renewable energy accounted for 22.7 per cent of electricity generation in 2021. At the same time, there are large rural areas that have no access to electricity at all, as well as urban areas that are growing rapidly and need additional electricity. However, land is needed to build electricity plants. Therefore, urban expansion and increasing electricity consumption tend to reduce available agricultural land and can result in land grabbing and land conflicts.

A truck refueling with biodiesel made from soybeans. In the EU, soybean oil - like palm oil - is to have only limited use for fuels. © United Soybean Board via Flickr

Furthermore, renewable energy plants require more land than conventional energy production. Renewable energy sources are characterized by a lower "power density" compared to fossil fuels. Nuclear power plants require on average only 0.3 m2 per megawatt hour, while small to medium hydropower plants require 33 m2 per megawatt hour. Solar power plants usually cover extensive agricultural expanses, while wind turbines require little land.

In addition, a major reason why many developing countries tend to favor fossil fuels over renewable energy investment is the historical "lock-in effect" of existing contracts that entail long term commitments. Indonesia, for example, has signed multi-year agreements with oil and gas companies that prevent it from also switching to solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower.

Renewable Energy and Conflicts over Land

Renewable energy has additional negative impact on land use, which is particularly visible in the Global South. The greater demand for land associated with renewable energy leads to more conflicts about land use between renewable energy providers and local communities. For instance, the livelihoods of indigenous peoples or smallholder farmers and pastoralists are directly impacted by land acquisition or changes in land use patterns. Examples of such conflicts over land use can be found in the production of palm oil and biodiesel, and in the development of wind energy farms in Brazil and Mexico.

On the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico, more than 1000 wind turbines have been erected between urban settlements and villages where the approximately 560’000 inhabitants of predominantly indigenous communities hold collective land rights to operate their subsistence agriculture and fisheries in parallel with crop production (Martínez-Mendoza et al. 2020). There was no participatory process or democratic involvement of affected communities in the decision-making and implementation processes for siting the wind turbines. Much of the information was not even passed on to the affected population. This happened in areas where land rights have long been disputed and where the state had so far remained inactive in resolving land conflicts.

Critics are Hardly Heard

The diverging interests and power relations between providers of renewable energy and local groups often make it difficult to find a compromise (Backhouse and Lehmann (2020)). Those who advance the implementation of renewable energy projects have better access to technology, financial capital and networks and are often supported by government agencies and international organizations. Critical voices on the impact of land distribution, on the other hand, are hardly heard. Often, powerful alliances of energy providers can enforce the introduction of new technologies, regardless of whether they are renewable or not.

The social and economic impact of renewable energy on land use in the Global South are linked to customary land rights and traditional ways of life. This is demonstrated by numerous land disputes, social tensions, involuntary migration and resettlement, and loss of livelihood. It is crucial to understand these dynamics in detail if one wants to promote an inclusive and equitable transition to renewable energy.

Renewable energy projects can also affect the soil which is important for biodiversity and ecosystems. For example, large wind or solar farms can disrupt wildlife migration corridors, alter natural habitats or lead to the fragmentation of ecosystems.

It should also be taken into account that the production of equipment for renewable energy generally requires metals that are predominantly found in developing countries. Solar plants, for example, require large quantities of copper and aluminium. Wind energy requires zinc, geothermal plants need nickel, and batteries rely on cobalt, nickel and lithium, to name just a few strategic raw materials (International Energy Agency 2022). And where are these materials most commonly found? In the global south (Rekacewicz 2000). This presents many countries with significant dilemmas: should they invest in renewable energy for local use, or are the financial proceeds from the export of minereals more important?

Participation and Local Involvement Crucial

In order to take into account the interests of both global and local groups, there is a need for better participatory approaches to renewable energy investment. This includes public consultation, regular meetings and transparent dialogue to ensure that the voices of local groups are heard, that their land tenure, culture and traditions are respected, and that their own needs and concerns are balanced with the needs of external investors (Iswantoro 2021; Fisher et al. 2020).

Renewable energy projects have the potential to advance economic development in rural areas of the global South. They can provide employment opportunities, boost local industries and revitalise the local economy when combined with support for entrepreneurs – for example, when they can contribute to the repair and the manufacture of products and spare parts for power plants (Magnani et al. 2017). However, it is important to ensure that the benefits of technology are shared equitably. This means actively involving local communities in decision-making processes to avoid marginalisation or displacement.

Green Energy can Regenerate Degraded Land

Renewable energy projects can also contribute to land rehabilitation and reclamation. For example, plants can be installed in abandoned areas such as old mining sites, or on marginal or degraded land that is not used by communities, such as deserts or even rooftops. This can help transform unused or degraded land into productive and sustainable energy sources and promote economic development.

Where mining is no longer profitable, for example, renewable energies can become a lucrative alternative. Such opportunities exist in Indonesia, for example, in connection with the development of its new capital, which is being promoted as a new 'smart' and green city (de Vries and Schrey 2022). Older abandoned mines there could be converted into wind or solar farms so that the new capital can operate without energy from oil or coal.

Recognizing the Rights of Local and Indigenous Communities

The complicated relationship between renewable energy development and land rights, restrictions and obligations in the Global South urgently requires further research. This concerns a wide range of countries with divergent legal frameworks, cultural norms and complex land tenure systems. Systems of communal land tenure, informal occupation of land, weak administration of land, vulnerable communities, cultural heritage, non-transparent land acquisition procedures and unfair remuneration scenarios are all factors affecting renewable energy development in the Global South.

Concrete guidelines need to be developed that recognise the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples and that adequately consult and involve stakeholders throughout the implementation phase of a project.

In summary, renewable energy will be positive for developing countries only if:

Prof. Walter Timo de Vries Technical University of Munich


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