Bridging Colonialism and Climate Change

How a legacy of exploitation and damaged landscapes bred the forces behind climate change.

| June 2019

sugarcane-plantation
Photo by Getty Images/santosha.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, formal colonialism came to an end. Countries were liberated, new flags unfurled, and rewritten constitutions adopted. But although imperial states had been forced to relinquish their hold, their legacies prevailed. Centuries of enslavement, despotism, crushed sovereignty and ecological demolition had guaranteed a long afterlife to imperial haunting, and its logics of conquest and predation. Many of the new nation states carried on down tracks laid for them by the colonial powers and continued the process of environmental destruction. Under the banners of development, thousands of communities were evicted and displaced in development programs.

In India, between 1947 and 2000, around 24 million Adivasis (indigenous peoples) were displaced by large development projects. The construction of the Narmada Dam displaced over 100,000 people alone. In Brazil, military and nonmilitary governments triggered the wholesale destruction of huge areas of the Amazon rainforest, subsidizing road building, clearing the way for large cattle ranches and opening up the land for migrants. In Egypt, the regime of Hosni Mubarak transferred control of land to large landowners, evicting hundreds of thousands of farmers under the banner of “development.”

In 1972, following colonial precedents, the Nigerian government outlawed traditional agriculture by fire clearance, a move that would subsequently contribute to devastating famines.

In addition, the government’s encouragement of new oil projects was described by prominent Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa as “recolonization.”

Deforestation took hold across former colonies. Between 1960 and 1980, Indonesia’s timber exports rose 200-fold. Côte d’Ivoire’s timber exports rose from 42,000 tons in 1913 to 1.6 million tons in the early 1980s; less than three percent of the country’s forests remain. Between 1900 and the present day, over half the “developing world’s” forests were removed.

Those resisting these models were met with severe repression and extrajudicial violence. This metabolism of misery continues to this day, with hundreds of social leaders and community activists killed worldwide every year, for resisting the encroachment of extractive endeavors. Between 2010 and 2016, at least 124 environmental and land activists were murdered in Honduras.

The frontiers of ecological destruction are constantly expanding, as the global economy’s appetite for new materials staggers on. Between 2003 and 2015, the number of mining projects in Argentina rose from 40 in 2003 to 800 in 2015.  A fifth of Peru has been conceded to mining companies.

Today’s world is a landscape scarred by environmental violence: the monocultural soybean fields of Brazil’s Mato Grosso; the modern gold rushes of Madre de Dios and Zamfara; the vast tar-sands ponds of Canada; the forest-consuming coal mines of Kalimantan; the megadams of the Mekong Delta; the rivers dredged to yield sand; the phosphate mines of Western Sahara; the palm plantations of Tela; the bauxite mines of Guinea; the mesh of pipelines across the Niger Delta; the sugarcane fields of Uttar Pradesh.

It is also a world of furnaces: the brick kilns of Peshawar; the smelters of Norilsk; the glass industries of Firozabad; the chemical factories of Dzerzhinsk; the steel mills of Xingtai and Mandi Gobindgarh; the fertilizer plants of Baocun; the tanneries of Hazaribagh and Rawalpindi; the aluminum smelters of Al Jubail; the polluted deltas of Ogoniland; the ship graveyards of Bangladesh; the cancer villages of industrial China.

The full impact of colonialism is revealed in its long term impacts. It radically transformed landscapes, state relations, philosophies and cultures, leaving as one of its principal inheritances an intensive and plunderous economic model. In pursuit of resources, countries ran roughshod over limits, and destroyed many of the ecosystems and human interactions necessary for preventing climate change.

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Excerpted with permission from The Memory We Could Be by Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik, New Society Publishers, 2018.




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