Green Grabbing: The Modern-Day Colonization

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Imagine waking up one day to the news that your land, which you and your tribe have subsisted on for generations, has been sold by the government to someone else. In return, you will be moved to a small plot of land without the same kinds of resources as before. This loss of land creates a domino effect of loss in other areas such as income, traditional environmental knowledge, and general stability. Through green grabbing, government entities or private investors use their power over Indigenous and Afro-descendant groups to confiscate land under the guise of environmental conservation.

Relationships between people and land are shattered by green grabbing because people can no longer access or control portions of land the way they used to. Restructured authority over Indigenous land fits the interests of certain groups while harming others. A 2016 article called, “The Power to Plunder: Rethinking Land Grabbing in Latin America” stresses that land grabbing is not a novel practice; it has historical roots in gender, racial, cultural, and social disparity, and it occurs not only on the large scale but also in land deals so small that they go unnoticed. The majority of information provided in this blog post summarizes content from various scientific articles written by Sharlene Mollett at University of Toronto.

Confiscation of Indigenous and Afro-descendant property is enabled by the myth that nomadic land use is inferior to sedentary agriculture. Land-grabbers have historically viewed Indigenous land as “empty” or overrun by “unsuitable” land practices. A 2013 study by Sharlene Mollett stated that much of state-owned protected land in the Honduras is Indigenous and Afro-Honduran ancestral land. Although these cultural zones are dedicated to “traditional” peoples, they are susceptible to colonos, people who acquire land via purchase, theft, coercion, scam, intimidation, or force. Colonos do not employ traditional methods of land management but instead practice large-scale farming, clear-cutting, fencing, privatization, and more. Colonos get away with land theft because the state does not enforce regulations in the reserves. Further, the Property Law allows third parties already holding land inside of indigenous spaces in 2013 to keep that land (or at least that was the case when this article was written).

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There has also been controversy over Indigenous land rights in Panama. Previously, indigenous people called the Ngobe were granted significant controls of certain zones, and the laws and regulations inside those zones were formed in partnership with the Panamanian State. These zones, called comarcas, have their own problems. Groups of people often live outside the boundaries of the comarcas in order to find work. In 2009 the newly instituted Law of Collective Lands acknowledged Indigenous lands and gave them the power of autonomy and consultation, but failed to offer the same constitutional rights to comarcas. Territories would no longer be demarcated, meaning they were susceptible to land-grabbing for tourism, mining, or other industries.

Carbon Offset Programs and Tourism

In the case of the Chol-Maya people in Mexico, Indigenous people were encouraged to join carbon offset forestry programs in exchange for an allotment of protected communal land. The downside is that tree-growers sacrifice other things in the short term, including the property they rely on for subsistence farming. Negative emissions tactics may therefore risk food security for vulnerable communities.

“Market and payment-based initiatives intended to address environmental problems from wetlands destruction to climate change have been described as part of a broader trend toward the neoliberalization of nature (McCarthy and Prudham 2004)…Empirical research, however, demonstrates the limited success of these schemes, with many falling short on delivering sustainable development and livelihood benefits (Pattanayak, Wunder, and Ferraro 2010).” – Osborne & Shapiro-Garza, 2017

Opening up Indigenous ancestral lands to tourism can have negative consequences as well. For instance, travelers can buy homes in the Bocas islands in Panama with the help of the Bocas Municipality and local or foreign-owned real estate companies. Landholders can also attain technical rights on state land for up to 20 years. Once people attain those rights, they often change the land into a titled property. The native Ngobe people cannot keep land if they cannot afford the taxes incurred from owning more than the initial 5 tax-free hectares of titled land. Ancestral rights to coastal and arable land are particularly at risk as these areas are highly desirable to others. Tourism development also has negative consequences for indigenous people in Tela, Honduras. Formally titled communal lands were stolen from the Garifuna people amidst violence and threats in order to build a tourist beach and golf resort, as mentioned in Mollett 2016.

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For the state or third parties that commit land grabbing, there are regulations in place that back them up legally. For victims whom the land is stolen from, the rules are unknown and the process is largely external. Although tourism is an avenue frequently offered indirectly or directly as a means of income when natural resources become inaccessible, this requires an enormous lifestyle shift and burden on native people. Land grabbing is not only a theft of possession, but also of culture and history. When native people are manipulated into using their land to meet the needs of others (i.e. build carbon forests), their cultures and lands are subject to fundamental change or permanent erasure.

Changing the Perspective

Part of changing the perspective on subsistence agriculture in wetlands and the lifestyles of Indigenous tribes that live off the land is to stop thinking of their lifestyles as a problem that must be decoded or changed. These people are frequently studied by those who seek to “improve” their way of life but before others can try to improve, they should attempt to understand the following:

  1. Ancestral land recognition requires an alteration to the rules that governments in the modern era have created regarding land ownership.
  2. Researchers must not always approach poverty as an issue that originates within or has always been confined to native communities.
  3. State government and third parties must support environmental conservation by adequately financing environmentally-friendly activities for land owners, and administer penalties for those who degrade the land.


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