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Climate Change in the Caribbean: The Role of Capital in the Climate Crisis and the Movement for Climate Justice

Climate Change in the Caribbean: The Role of Capital in the Climate Crisis and the Movement for Climate Justice

Written by Elaine Coburn, Director of the Centre for Feminist Research

Organized by the CERLAC student caucus and hosted by York University doctoral students Natasha Sofia Martinez and Alex Moldovan. 

Malene Alleyne is a Jamaican human rights lawyer and founder of Freedom Imaginaries, an organization that uses human rights law to tackle legacies of slavery and colonialism. She holds a Master of Laws degree from Harvard Law School and a Master of Advanced Studies degree from the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva. She is qualified to practice law in Guyana and Jamaica. 

Esther Figueroa, PhD is a Jamaican independent film maker, writer, educator and linguist with over thirty-five years of media productions including television programming, documentaries, educational videos, multimedia and feature film. Her activist film making gives voice to those outside of mainstream media and focuses on the perpetuation of local and indigenous knowledge and cultures, the environment, social injustice, and community empowerment. Figueroa’s films include Jamaica for Sale(2009), Fly Me To The Moon (2019). In 2013, Figueroa was Distinguished Writer in Residence at University of Hawai’i English Department. Her environmental novel Limbo (2014) was a finalist in the 2015 National Indie Excellence Awards for Multi-cultural Fiction.

“When you think of the Caribbean, it is likely that you think of the region as a victim of climate injustice” Dr. Figueroa observes. “Certainly, in their calls for reparations, Caribbean governments stress the innocence of the region. But Caribbean governments promote extractivist models of development, whereby tourism, plantation agriculture and forestry, industrial fisheries, the extraction of hydrocarbons, metals and minerals, car-centric development and urbanized built environments are the engines of their growth economies.” This is in keeping with the role of Caribbean peoples as the early industrial modernizers in and through sugar plantations, leaders within a world system of colonialism and capitalism. In their scale and complexity, the sugar plantations anticipated later industrial developments in Britain and Europe, Dr. Figueroa argues, creating enormous profits for British colonial owners and funding the expansion of British empire, which at one time included a quarter of humanity. In short, through the plantation system, the Caribbean was central to world processes of industrial modernity, empire and global capitalism. 

This matters for the contemporary climate crisis here and now, Dr. Figueroa insists, because the age of European imperialist expansion accelerated what some call the Anthropocene, an era in which human presence has irrevocably transformed the natural world. European imperialisms were marked by the genocide of tens millions of Indigenous peoples, the theft of their lands and waters, and the repurposing of them as natural resources. “A more accurate conceptualization of the Anthropocene is therefore the Plantationocene”, Dr. Figueroa observes, “a patriarchal, colonial, racist capitalist world political economy that began in the late 15th in the Americas and in the Caribbean, rooted in the genocide of Indigenous peoples, the enslavement of Africans and the profitable destruction of the natural world.” The Caribbean’s history of extractivism continues today in Guyana, as Dr. Figueroa describes:

“Guyana is now positioned to become the largest oil producer in the world transforming from a carbon sink, whereby its immense intact forests hold carbon and supply oxygen, to a carbon bomb, with 10 billion barrels of oil slated to be extracted. It is estimated that burning that oil could release over 4 billion tons of greenhouse gases…And in keeping with the Caribbean’s extractivist tradition, the agreement between the government of Guyana, Exxon and other multinational oil corporations, saddles Guyana with debt and liability while enriching the oil companies. Yet the Guyana government portrays their new role as the largest oil producer as one that will catapult Guyanese society into great wealth and prosperity…”.

Caribbean leaders beholden to billion-dollar corporations and wealthy oligarchs adjust to a violent, racist capitalist world by selling off the last of the Caribbean’s so-called natural resources. “The Caribbean is not innocent,” Dr. Figueroa concludes, “despite its calls for reparations given climate injustice.” What is required is a fundamental transformation beyond the global plantation economy that carries so much violence against human beings, especially Indigenous peoples and the natural world.

“The climate crisis is the logical consequence of a racial capitalist system, which normalizes resource plundering, Indigenous dispossession, and the relegation of former colonies to sacrificial zones of extraction,” Malene Alleyne observes. Communities are becoming uninhabitable due to extreme weather events linked with climate change. In Bahamas, people are still recovering from Hurricane Dorian, which in 2019 caused loss of life and massive displacement, with many living today in what were originally conceived as temporary, emergency housing. In Trinidad and Tobago, wildlife and fishing are threatened by oil spills, while in Jamaica, bauxite mining is contaminating water sources and destroying agricultural lands in Cockpit Country. “What I am describing is a system of global racial inequality,” Alleyne continues, “in which Caribbean nations remain trapped in a cycle of dependency on extraction and climate vulnerability.” Migrants, Indigenous people, and Afro-descendent rural people are marginalized within the Caribbean and, when faced with natural disasters created and exacerbated by climate change, they are most likely to suffer from death and displacement. 

A rights-based decolonial approach to justice demands a transformative approach that shifts power to these communities, Alleyne emphasizes, so that they can defend their way of life and environment against unsustainable development. This human rights-based approach to climate justice includes the following three pillars:

  • environmental rights, including the right to clean air and water, as well as procedural environmental rights, such as the right to access climate information, participate in climate decision-making processes, and access remedies in cases of harm; 
  • a racial equality framework based on international treaties that prohibit racial discrimination, including with respect to climate change;
  • climate reparations, including just economic and social systems enabling a postcolonial future; 

This is much more than a matter of financial reparations. Since a racist world capitalist system engenders climate change, Alleyne argues, challenging climate change requires that we dismantle that system and join together to build a more socially, economically and racially just world.