Ubuntu | Thoughts | Decolonising climate change: A quest for environmental justice and equity

Decolonising climate change: A quest for environmental justice and equity

Decolonising climate change: A quest for environmental justice and equity

Ubuntu Thoughts  /  Article  /  5 min read
October 30, 2023
Ubuntu | Thoughts | Decolonising climate change: A quest for environmental justice and equity
Ubuntu | Simon Lodge, Founder & Chief of Sustainability
Simon Lodge
Founder & Strategic Creative Director
Without trying to be crass, climate is a hot topic right now. Yet in our haste to alert our slumbering world to the realities the crisis is creating on a daily basis, we seem to still be overlooking the intricate tapestry that ties environmental degradation to the footprints of our history.
The echoes of world domination not only linger in the annals of history but are imprinted on the very landscapes that now bear the brunt of a warming planet. Yet, for all the sound and fury surrounding climate debates, there’s a conspicuous absence—the underlying colonial legacies and their lasting influence on environmental justice.

For colonialism wasn’t just a political or cultural force; it was an environmental cataclysm. Lands were seized, ecosystems upended, and indigenous practices—many of which had cultivated sustainable environments for millennia—were dismissed, or worse, erased.

When we enter into discussions on climate change that are devoid of this historical lens however, we are not merely having incomplete conversations, but may indeed be at risk of being misdirected altogether.

Climate change, as we know, is a great leveller, but its impact is felt unevenly. It’s a paradox where communities typically contributing the least are equally the most vulnerable.

It’s here that lies the crux of climate justice, a concept that underscores the moral obligation of developed nations, who have historically (and continue to) emit the most. It’s a reminder that the scales of justice, when it comes to climate impact, are historically tipped.

Yet, this isn’t merely about rectifying past wrongs; it’s about rethinking our spaces and narratives.

Consider the national parks and nature reserves, touted as last refuges for biodiversity. Scratch the surface, and you uncover tales of indigenous displacement, of a usurped connection to the land. Decolonising these spaces means not just reclamation of that land itself, but also of narratives, ensuring that stories untold are finally given voice.

We must reimagine a more inclusive approach to our systems, from political to education to business, adopting an approach that doesn’t just relay facts, but fosters critical thinking, understanding, and empathy.

A historical context and the legacy of colonisation

Colonisation, often seen as a historic pastime for those in the richer West, remains prevalent for so much of the world today. It tells of a chapter in our not too distant past that created profound upheaval—not just for those nations’ cultures that were forced into change and turmoil by unwarranted oppression, but for the environment too.

The vast tracts of untouched wilderness, pristine rivers, and rich ecosystems became coveted treasures for colonisers, who saw not the beauty and balance of these lands but the potential for extraction and wealth.

The sheer breadth of European colonialism, from the 15th century onward, left an indelible mark on the world’s landscapes. The conquest and control dynamics were driven by a relentless thirst for resources—be it gold in the Americas, spices in Asia, or rubber in Africa.

David Olusoga, in his seminal work “Black and British: A Forgotten History,” vividly paints the picture of this environmental exploitation.

He outlines the mass deforestation in regions like West Africa to make way for lucrative cash crops, which not only disrupted local ecosystems but caused soil erosion and altered hydrological patterns. The rubber boom in the Congo, driven by colonial demands, resulted in vast areas of forestland being stripped bare. Similarly, the colonisation of India brought about the systematic depletion of its teak forests, the repercussions of which are evident in today’s vulnerable ecosystems.

But it wasn’t just the blatant extraction of resources; colonialism fundamentally altered the relationship between communities and their environment.

Traditional farming techniques, which had evolved over millennia to suit local conditions, were replaced by European methods that prioritised yield over sustainability.

The introduction of non-native species, whether intentionally for economic purposes or accidentally, often wreaked havoc on local biodiversity, such as the rabbit population explosion in Australia post-European introduction and the decimation of native species in Madagascar by the invasive water hyacinth.

The erasing of Indigenous wisdom

Unfortunately, colonisation wasn’t just limited to resource extraction, but extended to cultural and intellectual imperialism—effectively sidelining indigenous wisdom.

Communities across the world, from the Maoris of New Zealand to the indigenous tribes of the Americas, have long held a deep understanding of their land. Their agricultural, forest management, and water conservation practices are rooted in generations of observation, adaptation, and respect for nature.

However, with the onslaught of colonisation, these time-tested techniques were deemed ‘primitive’ or ‘inefficient.’

An example is echoed in the indigenous fire management practices of Australia’s Aboriginal communities, who for tens of thousands of years had used controlled burns to rejuvenate the land, prevent large-scale bushfires, and ensure biodiversity. Yet, when colonists arrived, they misinterpreted these practices, branding them as wasteful or even destructive.

The sidelining of such indigenous wisdom, and the imposition of unfamiliar land management systems, has had long-term repercussions. Today, modern Australia grapples with devastating bushfires—a scenario that perhaps could have been mitigated had indigenous fire practices been integrated and respected.

A similar tale lies in the desacralisation of groves in India. Traditionally, many indigenous communities revered certain forest patches, preserving them due to religious and cultural beliefs. These groves acted as reservoirs of biodiversity. Yet, under the colonial gaze, they were frequently seen as ‘wastelands’ ripe for exploitation or conversion.

The tragic irony of this erasure is that, in today’s age of environmental uncertainty, the world is turning back to indigenous wisdom for solutions.

Practices once dismissed are now being studied for sustainable agriculture, forest regeneration, and biodiversity conservation.

Yet despite this shift, the communities that have held this knowledge, often at great personal cost, remain marginalised and sidelined from the conversation.

To reckon with the climate crises of today, it’s essential to understand the weight of history. The legacy of colonisation sadly isn’t a bygone chapter; it’s a living reality that influences our environmental interactions and challenges.

Unravelling this past is not just an exercise in historical understanding but a prerequisite for informed, inclusive, and sustainable future action.

A tale of disproportionate impact

The climate change conversation, as vast and encompassing as it is, carries within its chapters a subplot—one that speaks of an uneven distribution of burdens and benefits. The drumbeats of environmental alarms, while universal in their warning, echo differently in the ears of marginalised communities.

While the world grapples with the overarching threats of rising seas, wildfires, and fluctuating weather patterns, it is the vulnerable populations, often sidelined in global discourse, who find themselves on the frontline.

From the Pacific Island nations, like Tuvalu or Kiribati, grappling with existential threats of submersion, even though their carbon footprints are but a fraction of global emissions, to the farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, facing the unpredictable wrath of shifting rain patterns, even as their ancestors had harmoniously farmed those lands for centuries.

There’s a skewed balance, where those who least contributed to the problem are most affected by it. There are clear parallels between historical injustices—like colonial exploitation—and the present disparities in climate change impacts, reflecting legacies of oppression that manifest in current environmental challenges.

By tracing the pathways of industrialization, resource extraction, and wealth accumulation in the developed world, we can map the roots of the climate crisis, reiterating the story that while the consequences of climate change are global, the historical responsibilities are not equally shared.

The moral obligation then for developed nations becomes not just an issue of emission reductions but one of reparative justice. This demands not only financial and technological support for mitigation and adaptation measures in vulnerable countries but also a reckoning with historical narratives and their implications in the present climate dynamics.

Addressing the equity gap

Bridging the chasm of climate disparities requires robust policies, international cooperation, and grassroots efforts.

Rebalancing the voices involved is a good first step, but it must also be backed by the right mechanisms to turn rhetoric into action.

Finance is a crucial pillar for change. The Green Climate Fund, established under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, aims to assist developing countries in adaptation and mitigation practices. While a step in the right direction, there’s a need for greater transparency and equitable resource distribution within such initiatives.

Policies that prioritise resilience-building are equally critical, such as investing in sustainable agriculture, water conservation, and coastal protection, especially in vulnerable regions. It also involves recognising and integrating traditional ecological knowledge, which often holds the key to local, sustainable solutions.

The global North must also acknowledge its outsized role in the climate crisis, not only in terms of historical emissions but also current consumption patterns. This recognition should translate into substantial support—be it in technology transfer, capacity-building, or financing.

Rethinking protected areas

Protected areas are essential bastions in the global effort to conserve biodiversity.

As the world grapples with rapid urbanisation, industrialisation, and land-use changes, these designated zones offer sanctuary to a vast array of species, preserving the rich tapestry of life that populates our planet.

Beyond mere conservation, they function as living laboratories, helping scientists understand ecological relationships, evolutionary processes, and the impacts of climate change. By safeguarding diverse ecosystems, from tropical rainforests and coral reefs to arctic tundras and desert landscapes, protected areas not only ensure the survival of countless species but also uphold the delicate ecological balance that sustains life on Earth.

Their preservation is a testament to our commitment to the planet’s health, the intricate web of life they support, and our shared responsibility for future generations.

And yet the very inception of the idea of ‘national parks’ and protected areas was ostensibly to preserve nature. Yet, behind the serene landscapes and the mandate of conservation, there’s a story of conflict and erasure.

The creation of many of these parks, particularly in the early days, led to the eviction of indigenous communities who had lived in harmony with these ecosystems for generations.

Yellowstone, for instance, America’s first national park, witnessed the displacement of the native Sheepeater tribe. Closer to the equator, the Maasai communities were pushed out of their ancestral lands with the creation of the Serengeti National Park.

These displacements weren’t just acts of physical relocation; they symbolised a profound ideological shift. The indigenous view of nature—as a space of coexistence, spirituality, and sustenance—was supplanted by the Western model of ‘wilderness,’ where nature was to be untouched and uninhabited.

This redefined understanding alienated native inhabitants, branding them as ‘threats’ to the very ecosystems they had nurtured.

Such histories aren’t mere footnotes, but carry significant implications for today’s conservation paradigms.

Rethinking protected areas isn’t just about acknowledging past wrongs but actively reforming the narratives and structures. A true act of decolonising the outdoors would ensure representation, rights, and agency for all communities within these spaces.

This could mean co-management models where local tribes play a pivotal role in conservation decisions. It could also entail rectifying historical land injustices through restorative land rights policies.

Ensuring equitable access to nature

Beyond the bounds of protected areas, the broader outdoors—from urban parks to recreational forests—also demand a re-evaluation through the lens of equity.

Green spaces, often hailed as the lungs of urban landscapes, play a crucial role in mental well-being, community bonding, and ecological resilience. Yet, access to these spaces isn’t uniformly distributed.

Studies, like the ones from the Trust for Public Land, highlight disparities in access to green spaces, with marginalised communities often sidelined.

These disparities stem from historical zoning policies, economic constraints, and sometimes even deliberate design choices. The ramifications aren’t just about leisure or recreation; they concern health, community cohesion, and environmental education.

Promoting inclusive access requires a multi-pronged approach. Urban planning should prioritise green corridors and parks in historically underserved neighbourhoods. Accessibility also extends beyond mere spatial dimensions. It’s about ensuring these spaces are welcoming for all, irrespective of ethnicity, socio-economic status, or physical ability.

Initiatives like “Outdoor Afro” or “Latino Outdoors” in the U.S. are commendable steps in this direction. They aim to bridge the racial and cultural divide in outdoor experiences, creating inclusive communities that resonate with diverse narratives of nature. Such grassroots movements, combined with policy shifts, can genuinely democratise access to the outdoors.

The power of storytelling

At the very core of any social transformation lies narratives. They shape our worldviews, define our identities, and lay the groundwork for collective action. In the sphere of environmental justice, decolonisation, and climate change, the narratives we embrace—or neglect—have the power to either drive progress or anchor us in a status quo.

Education, with its vast reach and profound influence, can be the crucible where new narratives are forged. Yet, all too often, our educational systems reflect a singular, often Eurocentric, view of history, ecology, and society.

Foluke Adebisi, in her seminal works, has emphasised the power of education in either perpetuating or challenging existing hierarchies. She points to the absence, or at best, peripheral mention of African perspectives in many curricula, rendering a whole continent’s experience and wisdom invisible.

This isn’t just a matter of representation; a curriculum that lacks diverse voices handicaps its students, depriving them of the nuanced understanding required to navigate a globalised world.

Beyond the classroom, the narratives that dominate public discourse in media, literature, and broader cultural conversations, play a significant role in shaping societal attitudes. Historically, environmental narratives, like many other domains, have been dominated by a select few, often sidelining voices from the Global South or marginalised communities.

While imagery of climate change: melting ice caps, polar bears, or intense hurricanes are indisputably vital aspects, they sometimes overshadow the equally pressing stories of those whose very existence is affected, from climate refugees to subsistence farmers.

Such skewed representation not only misrepresents the crisis’s scope but also the range of solutions and innovations emerging from various corners of the globe.

In response, a growing chorus is advocating for a more inclusive public discourse.

Platforms like “Climate Voices“, a global initiative, prioritise narratives from the frontline of climate change, giving voice to those directly affected.

Similarly, publications like “Hussh Magazine” and “Emergence Magazine” intertwine indigenous wisdom, ecological insights, and storytelling, presenting a more holistic view of our relationship with the environment.

Such platforms challenge the hegemony of mainstream narratives, creating space for marginalised voices to redefine the discourse. They represent a collective acknowledgment: that in addressing the monumental challenges of our time, we need the insights, experiences, and wisdom of all, not just a select few.

An intertwined legacy and the path forward

It’s tempting to think of climate change as an issue separate from our past, as if the environmental crisis could be ring-fenced from broader narratives of justice and equity.

But as we peel back layers of time, the intertwined legacies of colonisation, exploitation, and environmental degradation emerge.

The climate challenges we face are not just a testament to our modern industrial excesses but bear the imprints of centuries of unequal power dynamics and resource exploitation. It’s impossible to separate the vanishing islands of the Pacific from the colonial undertones that stripped them of their resources, or the parched farms in sub-Saharan Africa from the historical exploitation that drained them of their vitality.

This recognition—that the roots of our present environmental crisis are enmeshed in historical injustices—demands an approach to climate solutions that doesn’t just prioritise carbon metrics but human dignity and justice.

It’s not enough to champion renewable energy without addressing who gets left behind in the transition, or to celebrate conservation without considering the indigenous communities often sidelined in these processes.

In charting a path forward, the compass should be set towards holistic solutions that view environmental action not as an isolated endeavour but as intertwined with social justice, equity, and historical acknowledgment.

This means that as we design green cities, we ensure they are inclusive; as we roll out renewable energy, we also ensure it’s accessible to all; and as we frame conservation policies, we recognise and respect indigenous wisdom.

It’s an approach that requires both top-down and bottom-up initiatives—from equity-driven policies at the global stage to grassroots activism that amplifies marginalised voices.

Global cooperation, historically a tough task, is no longer a lofty goal but an imperative, as the climate crisis, much like the forces of colonisation, recognises no borders.

We must both seek reforms that bring diverse voices to the forefront, both in curricula and public discourse, and lend our voice and support to policies and initiatives that intertwine the dual goals of environmental justice and equity.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

As we confront the monumental challenges ahead, this interconnectedness of our histories, struggles, and hopes, might just be the very guiding light that moves us towards a more just and sustainable future.
About Mitzy Cortés
Mitzy Cortés is a Mixtec from San Sebastián Tecomaxtlahuaca, Oaxaca. An active member of the Futuros Indígenas network, Mitzy attended the COP26 as a member of the “Defenders of the Earth” delegation and the “Cura Da Terra” Assembly of Indigenous Women. Mitzy was awarded the 2022 Global Citizen Prize: Citizen Award Mexico. With her key mission being to defend the planet, Mitzy uses her platform to encourage others to become involved in the battle against climate change and to understand international perspectives, especially those of Indigenous peoples.

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