Colonialism and Environment Essay

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Colonialism is a system of global relationships where one nation extends its sovereignty beyond its own territorial borders, either directly controlling the population of a foreign state/location or displacing it altogether. This system of international power relations is further commonly supported by a paternalist ideology, which holds that colonized places need and benefit from colonial dominance. Though historically associated with the age of European expansion (1500-1900), colonialism persisted in a formal sense until the early 1980s, when the last states of Africa were decolonized. The legacy of colonialism is, therefore, still quite recent and arguably quite potent, and scholars continue to point to colonialism and contemporary neocolonial relationships to explain global inequalities and environmental change. Several theories of uneven development and ecological problems, therefore, involve the role of colonialism in some way.

Theoretical Explanations

Modernization theory asserts that the reason some countries suffer from greater rates of poverty is that they have resisted modernizing or that their institutional and infrastructural framework is too poorly developed to lead to take off-a state of self-directed and sustained development. Many modernization theorists often point to colonial heritage as an important historical component for setting these conditions for poor institutional and infrastructural conditions, and favor international support and investment in modernization, mimicking the systems of the developed world. Less developed nations must then work to develop infrastructure and technologies more like the West if they wish to decrease inequalities and, by extension, reduce environmental problems. Because of their underdeveloped technology, developing countries utilize less sustainable methods of agriculture and are less likely conduct activities that prevent environmental damage. Further, modernization theorists might say that developing countries need to modernize their governmental structures in order to create and enforce more effective environmental laws.

Critics of this theory suggest that this model of modernization is in itself colonial, in that modernization essentially requires the imposition of extraterritorial controls and institutions on foreign states, typically following the same geographic patterns as historical colonialism (e.g., flowing from the United States to the Philippines or the United Kingdom to Ghana). This is accompanied by similar paternalistic attitudes, they further assert, in an ideology that holds such impositions are essential and desirable for underdeveloped nations.

By contrast, dependency theory asserts the opposite-that colonial powers exploited lesser powers, creating dependent relationships that persist to the present. World systems theory is a more elaborated analysis of the same condition, which posits that the dawn of colonialism in 1500 set into motion a change in the global network of economic relationships, establishing a persistent system of flows, extractions, and exchanges that continues into the era of globalization. According to both theories, there exist core or high-income nations, middle-income or semi-peripheral nations, and low-income or peripheral nations. European powers and the United States are core nations whose position has been maintained by a division of exchange and labor established in the colonial era, in which peripheral states became providers of raw materials and primary goods (e.g., cotton) that was exported to core states to be processed into higher-value finished goods (e.g., textiles). During the colonial era, such relationships were regulated by force. Indian textile production was disbanded under British colonial authority, for example, and cotton production emphasized. This provided both a cheap supply of cotton for British textile mills and a ready-made market for finished textiles in India. Dependency and world systems theorists maintain that these flows of labor, raw material, and finished goods remain in motion today, under their own momentum and an ideological assumption that they are either natural or inevitable.

Ecological Implications

Environments were dramatically transformed by colonialism through heavy overexploitation of native resources, displacement of indigenous land covers, and by the imposition of new systems of economic and political systems that led to dramatic changes in land use. In some obvious examples, African elephants were overhunted to meet British demands for ivory, and in New Zealand, Europeans overhunted whales, then seals. In Australia, European interference with rivers stripped beaches and formed sand banks in the water. Rivers were dammed for water supply, spreading salt to land. Swamps were drained in coastal and inland river valleys, polluting streams.

European colonialists in North America cleared forests on a large scale, as they saw it as a form of improvement, clearing the land and utilizing the timber for construction and fuel. Estimates are that over 46 million hectares (450 billion square meters) of land were cleared by 1850. Similar forest clearing by European colonialists is documented in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

More indirectly, colonial powers typically focused on extracting a handful of export commodities for the convenience of the colonial powers’ industrial production systems and global supply chains. This not only impaired the indigenous peoples’ ability to grow their own food, it also had implications for the ecosystem. Perhaps the best example is in the colonization of Africa, where development of single crops for export led to over development of some areas of land and under utilization of others.

The most fertile lands in Africa in parts of Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, Swaziland, and South Africa were divided up for plantation agriculture, and cash crops replaced native flora and fauna. Roads and railroads were built to transport the new cash crops for export, destroying land and displacing people. Excessive mining operations, notably for diamonds and gold in South Africa, also depleted the African environment. As the promise of riches in gold spread, more people migrated to the area, straining the environment terribly. Efforts to mine minerals for export displaced people into less-hospitable agricultural lands. For instance, approximately 55 percent of the population of Zaire is living in an area about 60 kilometers wide on each side of a railroad built for commercial and industrial purposes.

The introduction of European systems of economics and taxation led indigenous peoples to practice forms of environmental degradation once foreign to them. Historically, the peoples of South Africa generally practiced slash and burn forms of agriculture, where land was used for a particular crop for two or three years, then left fallow for 20-30 years. The time left fallow allowed the soil to become healthy with minerals once more, rather than become severely depleted and unusable. Other South Africans practiced floodplain agriculture, where crops were only planted after floodwaters subsided. Colonialism brought changing property rights and demands for cash in household economies that resulted in use of highly marginal lands and intensification of land uses without replenishment of soils, which led to severe degradation.

In western Africa, French colonial taxation policies forced peasants to devote increasingly large areas to cultivation of groundnuts, which in turn forced food production into areas that were once used for animal grazing, accelerating desertification. Further, the Senegalese took out loans to create refineries for groundnuts. Most of the profit from the exports goes toward paying off the loan instead of developing more environmentally friendly policies and practices. Cultivating and refining groundnuts has so depleted the soil that not only can farmers not make nearly enough to pay off the debts, the land is not usable for other purposes either.

Colonialism also spreads flora, fauna, animals, and insects from colonizing powers to colonized locales. In many cases, the new species of plants displaced native ones. The homogenization of the world’s biology and ecology caused by colonialism has proven problematic. New insects and animals spread diseases that devastated the land as well as the populace, as evidenced in the example of colonization of the United States. In the Canary Islands, Europeans spread diseases, including dysentery and a form of pneumonia, as well as venereal diseases, that virtually eliminated the local Guanch population. Colonizers intentionally brought some animals, like horses and cattle, but others, like rats, were accidentally brought to colonized lands. Reports of European colonization in Peru describe the rapid breeding of rats, who then destroyed the crops and plants. Similar reports are documented in Buenos Aires and in Australia.

Once Europeans arrived in the Canary Islands, they introduced new plants and animals popular in Europe. Sugar crops prompted much social and ecological change. Slave labor was imported to work in fields and mills, and forests became cane fields. Trees were destroyed to create buildings for the new industry and were used for fuel to boil the fluid squeezed from the sugar cane. Deforestation created erosion.

Imported weeds took over large areas of the West Indies and Mexico, forests were destroyed for timber, and herd animals overgrazed. Bartolome de las Casas, who documented the exploits of Christopher Columbus, described large herds of cattle eating native plants to the roots, which was followed by the spread of ferns, thistles, nettles, and nightshade.

Colonizing authorities also had environmental knowledges conditioned in their home countries and inappropriate for the new contexts in which they found themselves. Unable to fully grasp the ecological dynamics in the areas they colonized, they tended to assume native practices were in need of improvement. For example, forest islands around villages in West Africa, cultivated by local practice over long periods, were incorrectly imagined by French colonial authorities to be the remnants of vast forests “destroyed” by natives. The use of fire by local people to foster pasture development and other resources was seen as environmentally irrational and destructive by colonial officials, and illegalized.

Conversely, colonial ideologies sometimes cast native people in a grossly romantic light, imagining them to be “noble savages” with no human impact on the landscape. While colonial authorities coming to the New World imagined a vast, unused “wasteland,” in fact the land uses of native cultures (among many others) were historically highly intense, and had transformed much of the continent prior to the arrival of Europeans. While the view that the lands were “waste” enabled colonizers to justify their acquisition, the changes in management they brought to these lands often inadvertently disturbed already-existing systems of cultivation and management.

Neocolonialism and Ecology

Critical theorists maintain that colonial relationships persist into the present. Wealthy nations today, it is argued, often export the environmental consequences of the goods and services they consume, in the form of wastes and pollution. Dominant or core countries may have little incentive to assist colonized or peripheral countries in addressing environmental concerns, as they are benefiting from the existing arrangements and the generally lax environmental regulations in peripheral countries.

Contemporary conservation efforts in Africa, for example, have been based on preconceptions about traditional forms of African wildlife management and have prompted paternalistic efforts to create national parks with little consultation with local people. For instance, the creation of national parks in Tanzania has displaced tribes from their homelands and impoverished them. At the same time, these parks draw tremendous numbers of tourists, which often has a negative impact on the environment.

Another modern form of colonialism with environmental implications is corporate colonialism, in which corporations, rather than nations, reinstate historical exploitative relationships. While refining oil in Nigeria has made Royal Dutch Shell more than $30 billion, the native Ogoni people have received little financially. The impact on the environment has been extremely high, however. Shell operates in more than 100 countries, yet 40 percent of all its recorded oil spills are in Nigeria. Between 1982 and 1992, 1,626,000 gallons of oil were spilled in 27 different instances. Oil refining has destroyed trees and dried up yam and cassava crops. Spills have destroyed the land and killed fish, as well as introduced acid rain to the region.

Another “new” form of environmental colonialism is patenting of genetic materials of domesticated and wild species in the underdeveloped worlds. Today, people in South America buy seeds manufactured in the north from genetic material collected on their land in the 1970s, just as South Americans imported wool and leather made from their own animals in the 1770s. One-third of the known plant species in Brazil have been patented by transnational corporations. Labs in Europe and the United States have patented the medicinal properties of 5,000 of the 13,000 plants used in traditional indigenous medicines of Latin America and the Caribbean.

On the other hand, modernization and market enthusiasts maintain that without the flow of capital, support, and technology from the developed world to the developing world, rates of poverty and environmental degradation would be even higher than they are now. Global corporations, it is argued, can spread more advanced technology and techniques to minimize environmental disruptions. Increased incomes created by globalization can potentially be used for environmental programs. The mid-twentieth century “Green revolution,” it has been maintained, provided technology that put an end to famines in places like India, which had been persistent for centuries. Debates about colonialism and the environment are as timely as ever, decades after the last colonial officials packed their bags and went home.


  1. Ken Conca and Geoffrey Dabelko, , Environmental Peacemaking (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2002);
  2. Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, rev. (Cambridge University Press, 2004);
  3. T. Griffiths and Robin, eds., Ecology and Empire (University of Washington Press, 1997);
  4. James Speth, Red Sky at Morning (Yale University Press, 2004);
  5. James Speth, , Worlds Apart (Island Press, 2003).

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