…you think the earth itself is dead … It’s so much simpler that way! Dead, you can walk on it, pollute it, you can tread upon it with the steps of a conqueror. I respect the earth, because I know that it is alive … what do you think you’d have done without me in this strange land? … I taught you the trees, fruits, birds, the seasons, and now you don’t give a damn … Once you’ve squeezed the juice from the orange, you toss the rind away! (1.2.124-147)

— Caliban, from Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest (1969)


Colonialism is a practice of domination, a 400-year-period of European exploration, conquest, settlement, and exploitation of vast tracts of land. Environmental colonialism refers to the various ways in which colonial practices have impacted the natural environments of Indigenous peoples. Historian Alfred Crosby has argued that colonists were successful, in part, because they were able to alter native ecosystems. Colonists exposed native societies to foreign markets as well as exotic invasive species, restricting Indigenous peoples’ abilities to defend themselves against both economic and biological invaders. Recovery from the damage done to native ecosystems proved difficult for native populations. Colonial powers exacerbated the problem by creating a global infrastructure that encouraged wealthier countries to extract natural resources from poorer peripheral countries, while simultaneously destabilizing what were often sustainable native cultures (Stoll).

Environmental studies scholars sometimes use the terms “environmental colonialism,” “ecocolonialism,” and “ecological imperialism” interchangeably. However, “imperialism,” as Edward Said reminds us, is the practice, theory, and attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory (9), whereas colonization refers to its effects. Eco-imperialism is a term coined by Paul Driessen to refer specifically to the forceful imposition of Western environmentalist views on developing countries. Environmental colonialism is one lens that may be applied to world systems theory analysis of colonization (Stoll). Scholars of environmental colonialism make environmental impact a principal concern.

Impacts of Environmental Colonialism

Environmental colonialism has both obvious and unexpected impacts on Indigenous peoples and native lands in both the short and long term. The arrival of Europeans in the Americas in 1492, for example, marks the onset of disease epidemics resulting in the loss of the majority Indigenous people living in the Americas over the subsequent century 1500-1600. A recent study out of University College London (UCL) estimates that around 1 per cent of total land mass in the Americas was abandoned during the spread of waves of pandemic disease, or approximately 56 million hectares of land from 55 million post-epidemic human deaths among indigenous communities in the century following Columbus’s arrival (Koch, et al.). Large-scale depopulation resulted in massive tracts of agricultural land being left untended, UCL researchers find, allowing the land to become overgrown with trees and other new vegetation (Milman). The regrowth caused by secondary succession soaked up enough atmospheric carbon dioxide to cool the planet, with the average temperature dropping by 0.15C in the late 1500s and early 1600s, the study found.

Successful European colonies are often located in temperate zones akin to European microclimates, which Crosby terms “Neo-Europes.” These environmental similarities allowed European colonists to raise crops and livestock to the detriment of native habitat diversity (Stoll). Today, many of these “Neo-Europes” – the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Uruguay – are the largest exporters of grains and animal products which were completely foreign to their landscape prior to colonization. However, in Late Victorian Holocausts (2000), Mike Davis explores how colonialism and the introduction of capitalism during the El Niño-Southern Oscillation caused devastating famines of the late 19th century in India, China, Brazil, Ethiopia, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, and New Caledonia. Davis documents how colonialism and capitalism in British India and elsewhere increased rural poverty and hunger while economic policies exacerbated famine.

Although environmental damage caused by colonialism is not always intentional, its effects cannot be undercut. In Slow Violence (2011), Rob Nixon explains how Western environmentalists have at times inadvertently harmed native ecosystems through preservation efforts intended to repair original harm done by colonialism. Robert H. Nelson offers several examples wherein the establishment of national park systems in African nations has displaced native populations. Writer Teju Cole refers to this kind of Western interference as the White-Savior Industrial Complex, and explains that “caring about Africa” must first begin with the reevaluation of American foreign policy, which often plays a direct role in local elections. The case of Nigeria, one of the top five oil suppliers to the U.S., shows the extent to which both international governmental economic institutions and transnational corporations continue to engage in environmental colonialism.

Towards Environmental Justice: Lessons from Standing Rock

History connects the dots of our identity, and our identity was all but obliterated. Our land was taken, our language was forbidden. Our stories, our history, were almost forgotten. What land, language, and identity remains is derived from our cultural and historic sites … Sites of cultural and historic significance are important to us because they are a spiritual connection to our ancestors. Even if we do not have access to all such sites, their existence perpetuates the connection. When such a site is destroyed, the connection is lost.

— Chairman Dave Archambault, II, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

In her reflection on the Standing Rock Sioux’s powerful resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), Jaskiran Dhillon reminds us of the stark reality of the current ecological crisis. Yet, in the midst of rising temperatures, ocean acidification, the psychological effects of “eco-anxiety,” and cross-disciplinary debates about the Anthropocene, Dhillon finds hope. Indigenous peoples and “their longstanding resistance to environmental devastation are clear signposts of who should guide us into the future” (Dhillon). Standing Rock, she argues, illustrates that a fight for environmental justice must be framed, first and foremost, as a struggle for Indigenous sovereignty. Embedded within this struggle is a conversation about the link between colonial violence and gender. Dhillon asserts that while “violence against women is often sidelined within environmental discussions, Indigenous resistance to extractive projects … reveals that these forms work in tandem with one another.” Zaysha Grinnell, a young Indigenous woman from the Fort Berthold reservation and youth leader in the political resistance at Standing Rock, illustrates the link in sharing her own experience:

I was about eight when the oil companies first came here and I noticed a difference right away. It felt unsafe because oil rigs were popping up everywhere… When these oil companies come in, they bring in the men. These men bring with them the man camps, and with that comes violence and sex trafficking. Indigenous women and girls near the camps are really affected by this and we are not going to put up with it.

As Grinnell’s story makes clear, a struggle for environmental justice requires an end to structural colonial violence more broadly, and colonial gender violence against Indigenous women and girls must remain at the center of advocacy and political strategy in this movement. The Sioux’s resistance garnered international attention because it resonated with indigenous people fighting for environmental justice across the globe. As Dhillon points out, Standing Rock is only one of “multiple frontlines of resistance that aim to conceive of decolonization” as foundational to environmental justice. For example, Lepcha Indigenous youth in North Sikkim, India, went on a hunger strike to protest the Indian Power Ministry’s plan to develop seven hydroelectric dams as a means to increase energy production in the Himalayan states. These Indigenous youth critically questioned a state-directed development agenda that did not serve the interests of the community, citing the failure of the Indian government to foster employment opportunities in a country overwhelmed by endemic poverty and deprivation. Lepcha youth gained enough international attention that four out of the seven hydroelectric projects were canceled.

Resistance efforts like the one at Standing Rock and North Sikkim offer a glimpse into worldwide struggles to protect local ecologies and demonstrate how environmental justice is founded in Indigenous political strategies advancing decolonization (Dhillon).

Works Cited

Author: Kelly Duquette, January 2020
Last edited: January 2020

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