Fellow Spotlight: Interview with Nisrin Elamin
March 22, 2022
Katya Forsyth

Nisrin is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Bryn Mawr College researching land rights, extractive industries, foreign land grabs, the climate crisis and the militarization of borders in East Africa and the Sahel.



Can you briefly tell me about your current research and academic interests? How did you get involved with those topics and areas of focus? 

My research focuses on the impact of foreign land grabs on communities in Central Sudan, which is where I'm originally from. I'm mostly talking about Saudi and Emirati investors who have acquired large tracts of land and transformed them into these agribusiness projects mostly for dairy production. I'm an anthropologist, so I spent over a year in the field with rural communities who were farming in places where the state dispossessed smallholder farmers and pastoralists and then gave that land to these Gulf investors. 

How does your research relate to climate justice?

The way it relates to climate justice is that I actually spent quite a bit of time harvesting, mostly with women, on farms that were adjacent to some of these large agribusiness farms. One of the things that we've seen as a result of the growth of agri businesses is the consolidation of land into the hands of fewer people. There's been the mushrooming of medium-sized farms that are trying to compete with these large agribusiness farms because smallholder farmers, for the most part, have either gone into debt and sold their land, or been dispossessed. So you have these domestic investors and elites who are acquiring medium-sized farms and on those farms, they're using more and more harsh chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides. And when I harvested on those farms, I noticed immediately the way that these chemicals impacted people who worked on those farms. Anecdotally I found out that the asthma rates had skyrocketed, reproductive health problems were starting to arise, cancer rates were going up, and that was confirmed by some of my interviews with local doctors as well. 

So that got me interested in the impact of these large scale land investments on the environment and on people's health, the intersection of those two things, and in particular how people were fighting back, how people were organizing to reclaim that land. And some of their strategies actually centered around environmental justice. There's a Saudi farm, north of where I worked, that within a few years had drained the underground aquifer because they were using such aggressive pumping practices. And so neighboring villages lost access to some vital water resources as a result, and those companies will just pack up and leave after they deplete the water and land resources. And that pattern repeats itself. So I just started getting interested in the short and long term effects of these investments on the environment and on people, their livelihoods, their health, etc.

I look at land grabs over a long period of time so I don’t think of them as something that happened abruptly. A lot of people link the most recent rush for African land to the 2008 food and financial crisis, but of course land grabs are not new to the continent. I look at them within the longer history of colonial and postcolonial extractive practices. And so part of what I think about is the way that extractive practices are connected to the dispossession and exploitation of already marginalized communities. I think about the way that land dispossession is racialized, gendered, classed, and as such I think the climate crisis really has to be looked at as a crisis of global capitalism, of racial capitalism. The same way that marginalized communities get exploited and dispossessed, so is the land and the water getting exploited and depleted. I think it's very important that when we talk about the climate crisis that we link all of these processes, that we think about the role that white supremacy, patriarchy, and racism play in key stages of capitalist development historically, and the way that those forms of oppression continue to play a role in exacerbating the climate crisis. And I think the only way that we can really tackle it is by supporting social movements that are addressing the root causes of these forms of oppression.


Is there a particular case study or example that has come up in your research that relates to these issues of climate justice and racial capitalism that you've been talking about?

A lot of the people that I harvested with that have experienced generational landlessness are women, and are often either of enslaved descent or from places in Sudan that have been devastated by war. And so they are marginalized already coming into this work, and then are exposed to these toxins that make them even more vulnerable to illnesses and in some cases even death, if you think about the rising cancer rates. And so for me that connection became very clear when I was doing my research.

How did you come to the climate justice movement?

In college I wasn't very active in the environmental movement because I always found it to be not people-centered enough. I always found it to be a little bit marginalizing and as a person of color, I just didn't find my place within it. It took me really living in neighborhoods where you would see food apartheid or toxic waste dumps next to  places where people were living, mostly in poor communities of color, that I started to  understand this concept of environmental justice and what that meant. We have to have a power analysis of people's proximity to toxicity, and people's ability to distance themselves from these practices that put them, their environment, and their health at risk. 

What does climate justice mean to you and how do you see it as different from the climate movement without the Justice aspect?

To me any analysis that doesn't consider the ways that the climate crisis is a crisis of capitalism sort of misses the point. In college, environmental organizations were focused on saving wildlife, and not really thinking about the crises in our own backyards where people's lives were at risk, and so that disconnect is what alienated me a little bit. But of course, even then, I just was not aware that there were of course groups all over the world, including in the US, that were leading the climate justice movement, even though we didn't name it that at the time. It wasn't until those movements started to make those connections and the term climate justice was coined, that I started to feel more like I could engage with it, to think about racial justice, economic justice, and climate justice as interconnected. If we don't see it as urgent to work towards racial and economic justice, then it's also likely that our climate will not heal and that we will be looking at a bigger climate crisis in the future as well.

You're a fellow with the Global Center for Climate Justice. How do you see your work as intersecting with or complementing the mission and work of the Center?

I should say that I'm moving my research a little bit more towards migration at the moment. One of the things I'm thinking about is the way that the southern border of Libya and Egypt — Sudan's northern border —, and Mexico's southern border are being reconceptualized by Europe and the US, respectively, as their southernmost borders. The US and the EU are outsourcing their militarization of the border to those borders in order to not have to deal with them closer to Europe or the United States. And so what we see at both of those borders is the way that the militarization of those areas are impacting people that have been moving across them for generations, and of course migrants that are trying to get to Europe or the United States. I'm focused particularly on black migrants and I'm actually about to go to Mexico to do some of this preliminary research. One of the things I'm interested in is the intersection of migrants and climate justice. I remember when the news headlines focused on the migrant caravan in Central America a couple years ago. There was no conversation at all about NAFTA or the climate crisis, and how that was the real crisis that we should have been talking about rather than what was called a migrant crisis. What are the policies that originated really in the US or in organizations dominated by the US that lead people to have to leave their homes and their livelihoods? 

I'm also interested in the organizing that is happening at that intersection. I actually come from an organizing background; Academia is sort of like a second career for me. And so for me, I'm very committed to producing research that can support some of the organizing agendas of groups that have been doing this work forever. I’m also committed to finding ways to link groups that are doing similar work around the globe. So there's something called the Via Campesina, which already links landless movements and peasant movements around the world. But there isn't as strong of an African presence in the Via Campesina for a variety of reasons. So I'm interested in both producing research that can support some of those connections, but also just in finding ways to use the resources available to us in these elite institutions towards some of this work.

What role do you hope that your research has in bringing about a climate just world? And based on your research, generally what solutions would you prescribe?

I have to say that as a researcher, I am very wary of providing solutions because I think the solutions are already being provided to us by organizers, by people who are involved in social movements, and unions, etc. Like in Sudan, there's some really inspiring workers’ and farmers’ unions that have a very sophisticated analysis of the climate crisis, and of the ways that these extractive agribusiness practices are exacerbating the climate crisis. So for me, my research is really about amplifying that analysis and centering that analysis as scholarly analysis. My work is also personal in some ways and so the people that I'm connected to, I'm committed to for the rest of my life. I try to figure out what skills I can bring to the fight that is a collective fight, without imagining that that role be particularly large, but valuing whatever small way that I can contribute. How do we, as researchers, contribute towards the advocacy and organizing agendas of the movements that are at the forefront of the climate justice movement? How do we create a dialogue where the people at the forefront of this movement are dictating on some level to us what our research role is, what our role is within the movement? 

What do you see as the Center's role in the movement for climate justice?

Well, I think for one it can play a role as a connector and provide the resources to bring different people together, like non academics with academics. It can also center the scholarship and knowledge of people outside of the Northern Academy, which I think is very important. I think we still have a lot of work to do to highlight and really amplify the research of critical geographers and other people working on climate justice, and allow that research to then also form a bridge between academia and activism or organizing.

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