The Lasting, Racist Legacy of Colonialism on the Environment
Puerto Rico is without resources. Meanwhile its colonial government plays golf.
Peoples with enduring colonial histories are time and again marginalized and disadvantaged. Meanwhile colonizers continue to profit off of our lives and our land. And in the age of widespread pollution, ecological devastation, and climate change, it is we the colonized who always pay the price. At the intersection of colonialism, corporatocratic economy, and climate, these systems manifest with real and significant consequences on the lived experiences of colonized peoples.
In the last few months alone, natural disasters hit, particularly in places with colonial histories. Efforts have rallied behind some of those affected, such as for Hurricane Harvey for example which had not one, but two benefit performances were held. On the other hand, other aid efforts are noticeably slower or more silent. Because of this, many attempt to amplify awareness of less-spotlighted natural disasters. However in the race to focus disasters in non-Western nations, a perilous trend emerges.
There is a striking pattern in the media of calling help for disasters by framing affected Indigenous and colonized peoples as Western nationalities. Seemingly every online post for donations asks aid for the people of Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands because they are “American”. And while intentions behind this may be benign, the impact is anything but.
This narrative is dangerous in predicating the value of human life on the fact that life is Western — as though we could not care to help Virgin Islanders as Afro-Caribbean people or Puerto Ricans as Boricuas. This framing also erases the colonial history of these lands and peoples, stripping context and culpability of the very imperialist expansion that plays a direct and serious role in climate and environment.
Puerto Rico’s colonial history, for example, is relevant to its current plight in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. This colonial legacy continues to deny Puerto Rico its autonomy and self-determination. To this day Puerto Ricans do not have representation in government. And even as a payroll tax-paying colonial territory, it has lower Medicare caps and receives significantly less federal dollars per person, increasing economic burden on the island and its people.
These real sociopolitical and economic implications mean that when natural disaster strikes, Puerto Rico and other nations with colonial histories have fewer resources to prepare and recover. Colonial policies in Puerto Rico also reduce access to necessary aid because of shipping restrictions due to legislation like the 1920 Merchant Marine or Jones Act, which limits shipping from non-US flagged ships between US territories. Thus Puerto Rico would have been forced to rely on fewer potential ships and more expensive shipping coming only from US ships instead of ships worldwide.
The Act has since been waived after petitions from members of Congress, the governor of Puerto Rico, and many across social media. In contrast, this requirement was waived for the Southern US during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma without much petition from outside the executive branch. The administration was allegedly considering the waiver for Puerto Rico earlier, until receiving opposition from domestic shipping corporations and trade groups.
Beyond economic and political interactions on environment, colonialism also impacts a colony’s environment directly. Since colonization began on the island, Puerto Rico has lost an estimated 96% of its forest to make way for colonial industrial agriculture. Deforestation is known to have a number of adverse consequences leading to desertification, increases in greenhouse gases, and landslides. And attempts at reforestation in more recent decades show little to no change on climate effects in Puerto Rico since many re-plantings were in urban regions for scenery.
These interacting systems are by no means limited to Puerto Rico or the Caribbean either. Recent flooding and landslides in West Africa, for example, claimed an estimated 1000 lives in Sierra Leone alone. And there’s evidence to support that the mudslides were worsened by deforestation, a deforestation acknowledged since colonial times. The British colonial government of Sierra Leone attempted to evaluate deforestation, but the cause was determined to be “inefficient” indigenous inhabitants while European logging was ignored. In fact, the deforestation of its capital, Freetown, can be traced to construction and development in a segregated colonial district in the early 1900s.
In South Asia, floods ravaged lands with colonial histories like Bangladesh and India. The widespread flooding claimed over a thousand lives. Again, the cause can be linked at least partially to deforestation leading to heavy rainfall earlier in the climate cycle and uncommonly extreme flooding. Again, forest loss can be linked to colonial occupation, for example, of the British in India.
Some will claim that climate impact on colonized lands is merely coincidence as they simply tend to have greater disaster exposure, yet the World Risk Index shows that even nations with the same relative disaster exposure have less risk if they are less vulnerable. And the least vulnerable nations tend to be developed, Western nations.
Climate is inextricably linked to colonialism. Behind it is corporatocratic economy and industry drive neo-colonial profiteering of Indigenous lands and lives. This colonial legacy is a fundamental truth of these lands and their people. And to frame colonized people as being of their colonizer is to deny this history and its real impact on climate and natural disaster.
And in truth, it denies our present as well. Colonialism is not only our history. Colonizers still occupy us, singing the praises of colonialism and the “progress” they bring to justify their ongoing destruction of our lands and the loss of our lives. The government of Puerto Rico’s colonizer, for example, recently stated Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them”, invoking this caretaker narrative of colonizers bringing blessings to the colonized.
Yet these “blessings” are always conspicuously absent. Puerto Rico, for example, is without resources. Meanwhile its colonial government plays golf. Truly, colonized and Indigenous people’s value is non-existent to the colonizer. So we cannot continue to erase Indigenous and colonized peoples. We must center ourselves and our narratives, for the colonizer will center profit from our bodies but never our lives and our stories.
IMAGE: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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