In this blog, BIOSEC Fellow Adeniyi Asiyanbi reflects on colonialism and the environment. This article originally appeared on the Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID) website.
Colonialism was a thoroughly environmental project. And the environment remains dangerously colonial today at a time of significant environmental crises.
From the plundering of resources for imperial expansion to the constitution of the colonies as the playground of Western environmentalism; from imposition of the ideas of ‘wilderness’ on landscapes to the consequent removal of peoples across vast areas, the environment in the colonial era was the site of struggle over racialised representations, exploitation, exclusion and control. The legacies of this colonial history persist in the ways the environment is represented, lived in, researched, managed, and protected today.
As Wainaina reminds us in his witty satire How to write about Africa, the colonial gaze lives on not only in the pervasive and persistent racist representations of Africa’s peoples but also of its landscapes, animals and efforts to conserve them. Such representations continue to be etched into public subconscious through popular culture – whether in the pervasive microaggression in Disney animations or in the normalisation of white saviour mentality by celebrity conservationists projecting images of unpeopled idyllic landscapes and the heroic white conservationists ‘saving’ these landscapes.
What is even more concerning is the way that colonial and racialised systems of relation, modes of representation, laws and practices that would otherwise generate public outrage in other domains are made to appear completely normal, sometimes even virtuous in environmental contexts.
Attempted displacement of millions of indigenous people from forestlands now claimed as ‘state forests’ in India. The global race to grab the land of the world’s poorest for so-called ‘natural’ and ‘cheap’ climate change solutions while fossil fuel continues to burn and investors seek profit. Foreign troops and ex-service men jostling as if in war to supposedly ‘save’ African elephants and rhinos from Africans. Decades of shoot-to-kill policy in protected areas reserved for paying eco-tourists. Consideration of capital punishment for wildlife crime in Kenya. How have these activities and practices become normal and acceptable?
Or take Cross River in Nigeria, an area contiguous with Korup in Cameroon and one which has long been a subject of racialised idyllic representations through such British figures as colonial administrator Amaury Talbot, the naturalist Gerald Durrell and evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley. Conservation in Cross River is still guided by a set of forestry laws with a slew of colonial clauses, which were first introduced in southern Nigeria by colonial foresters in 1916. An important example of such clauses is one which puts the burden on the accused forest offender to prove innocence, flipping the fundamental legal principle of the presumption of innocence – a principle so fundamental it is enshrined in article 11 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Despite three separate revisions to the forestry law between 1990 and 2010 under internationally-supported conservation programmes, colonial clauses remain intact in the forestry law of Cross River State.
While these clauses have facilitated the rapid criminalisation and militarisation of the local forest economy under the on-going carbon sequestration REDD+ programme, the pervasiveness of these trends in environmental contexts more generally warrants that we ponder why the persistence of colonial legacies in the environment remains seemingly impervious to even principles of human rights?
Clearly, these legacies have often been enthusiastically adopted even amplified both unwittingly and strategically by independent governments and elites of former colonies, whether to bolster their own powers or in exchange for international economic favours or for reputational capital. Yet, the systemic persistence of these environmental legacies in ways that would otherwise be impossible in other domains entails much more than just the will and purpose of postcolonial governments. This is hardly possible without either the tacit approval or active cooperation of powerful international actors including foreign governments, international NGOs, multilateral institutions, corporations and global elites including celebrities, royalty and investors.
Moreover, many of the big conservation NGOs some of which are colonial in origin have barely changed their key operating principles today. It is why the recent international opprobrium at the WWF for funding “guards who have tortured and killed people” was surprising. Such practices are not exceptional; they and their disturbing ideological underpinnings are far more widespread.
While contemporary environmental projects and interventions are constituted by partly novel and more diverse purposes and interests than was the case during colonial times, the wholesale transplantation of tropes, laws, principles, strategies and practices must be recognised for what it is. This is not least to help locate more accurately the origins of many of the uniquely racist practices in environmental management but to also help render them familiar while at the same time signalling the tough struggle needed to break such long-standing and deeply-ingrained practices.
Even more important in perpetuating colonial legacies in such a way as to make otherwise outrageous practices seem normal is the strategy of rationalisation. A decolonising project must, thus, ask: how are colonial legacies and racialised environmental relations continually rationalised, beyond the fundamental dynamics of racial othering – that is, the systematically manufactured premises of race upon which hierarchy, exclusion, marginality and inequality are persistently predicated?
Decolonising the environment entails that we pay attention to powerful environmental rationalities which are often projected as value-free, unproblematic and universal, and have remained strikingly persistent: the duality of nature and society, intrinsic value of nature, disinterested objectivity of environmental science and conservation practice, simplistic globalism with respect to environmental crises, interventions and custodianship, to name a few. Often reflecting Eurocentric biases and the privileges of global conservation elites, these rationalities continue to veil self-interest, inequalities and suppressed rationalities.
The painful irony is that these same rationalities mask how current environmental crises – from climate change to biodiversity extinction – must be understood in part as a result of the persistence of colonial environmental logics. These crises are also a reflection of the racialised inequalities between the winners of the rapacious global capitalist system and those who are impoverished by it, those who produce the greatest environmental burdens and those who bear its worst consequences; those who make claim to ‘global’ resources and those whose claims to territory, livelihood and wellbeing are extinguished at the local level; those whose luxury is being protected and those whose survival is being sacrificed.
If rationalities are central to the persistence of colonial legacy, it naturally follows that one critical focus of decolonising efforts must be at the level of thought, where relentless questioning can prise open a wide range of possibilities in terms of uncovering pernicious rationalisations and fostering decolonised environmental imaginations and relations.
Consider what a simple question “Why is my curriculum white?” is doing to the education sector. About the environment, one could ask many questions: Why is mainstream conservation white, as Mbaria and Ogada poignantly questioned in their book, The Big Conservation Lie? Who speaks for the intrinsic value of nature? Whose environment can be ‘globalised’, whose cannot? Who can legitimately research whose environment? Who speaks for the global environment? Who protects whose nature and from whom? Who profits from racialised environmental destruction? Which human lives are expendable in the race to save the environment? How do racialised inequalities intersect with other structures of inequalities? How and why are colonial environmental legacies exalted and retooled by post-independence governments, former imperial powers, corporations and civil society actors including NGOs?
Such questions open up multiple possibilities of debate, reflection, and action, that might help to decentre colonial legacies and outright racist environmental representations, policies and practices which sometimes masquerade as disinterested, virtuous environmental management. If, as Ward notes, decolonization would require that the environmental movement abandons its colonial roots and gets refashioned ‘from the ground up by those with the most at stake’, then the range of responses will necessarily be diverse, adaptive and creative in order to be effective.
Above all, insofar as colonial legacies have co-produced our current environmental crises, decolonising the environment is both a humanising project and one important step towards resolving these environmental crises.