Tackling Environmental Dilemmas Requires Integrating the Legacy of Colonialism

by Rachel Kirk |January 24, 2020

This post is part of an initiative by the communications team at the Earth Institute’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity to highlight the work of practitioners, community members, and academics working on sustainability.

France is a country that has regularly touted a leadership role in the fight against climate change, from being the host of the 2016 UNFCCC Paris agreement to Emmanuel Macron’s viral lines stating that “there’s no planet B” and urging world leaders to “make our planet great again.”

Malcom Ferdinand portrait

Malcom Ferdinand, a researcher at France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, focuses on the persistent inequalities between France and the Outre-mer. Photo: Benedicte Roscot

However, despite the fact that France has exhibited moments of perceived global leadership, it is critical for us to look beyond the blue-, white-, and red-colored glasses and see France’s own territorial inequalities regarding climate change and environmental degradation. These inequalities are particularly evident when you look at the relationship between mainland France and its overseas departments and regions, or the Outre-mer. The Outre-mer are the French lands outside of Europe that comprise 12 territories, including Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, French Guiana in South America, and Reunion and Mayotte, two islands off the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. For the most part, they are the remains of France’s colonial empire.

Born and raised in Martinique, Malcom Ferdinand is a researcher at France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. He has a background in both environmental engineering, and political philosophy, and his work calls attention to the persistent inequalities between France and the Outre-mer.

The Outre-mer faces challenges that are uniquely shaped by its relationship with mainland France, including increased dependence on imported food from Europe, the heavy use of carcinogenic pesticides on bananas and other exported products, high levels of youth unemployment, and more. Through his research on political ecology in the Caribbean, Ferdinand firmly maintains that these impacts on the environment and human health cannot be separated from the histories and legacies of slavery and colonization. He cites as examples “the plundering of nature in French Guiana, the enormous amount of pesticide contamination in Martinique and Guadeloupe or La Réunion, the former nuclear trials that took place in Algeria and French Polynesia.”

Conversations about the French ecological movement often overlook what happens in the Outre-mer, unless it’s convenient. “Indeed, France has often touted its biodiversity, yet 80 percent of this biodiversity is in the Outre-mer,” says Ferdinand, “which also is part of the poorest regions of France and remains quite marginalized politically. Although the Outre-mer account for a very little proportion of France’s greenhouse gas emissions, they are territories where the consequences of climate change are greatly felt with higher sea level rises, coral bleaching, more intense hurricanes, putting more stress on economically vulnerable islands.”

Ferdinand argues that for an understanding of these ecological issues, we must also understand how colonialism shaped the way these islands are inhabited and exploited for the benefits of a few. In return, if we really want to preserve environments and fight climate change, there is a need, more than ever, to strive for a more equal and just society. Ferdinand attests that the grandiose messaging around the current collapse of our planet is ignoring the links between the plundering that much of the world experienced through colonialism. He adds, “When we frame this problem like this, it creates a climate tempest, that seemingly appears to come out of nowhere, and that can be fixed with some sort of technological solution that will be end up being fueled with capitalist markets.”

In his recent book, “Decolonial Ecology: Thinking of Ecology from the Caribbean World,” (in French) Ferdinand argues for a reframing of these problems. He argues that modernity has birthed the idea of two seemingly separate movements “that rarely speak to one another. On the one hand, there are environmentalist and climate change movements, and then as separate engagements from this, we also see anti-racist and anti-colonial movements. Quite often, we fail to recognize the intersections of these two movements, and the way their respective struggles are inextricably linked.”

book cover

Ferdinand’s recent book highlights how environmental and anti-colonial movements are interconnected. Image: Seuil Publishing

Ferdinand’s research urges us to question who is controlling the discourse on questions of climate and sustainability, and why climate change and anti-colonial movements are presented as being disconnected. He explains that, “When you go to major gatherings on climate change, you can count on one hand how many Black people you see, how many Latinx people you see. This is certainly the case in France: in schools, in organizations, NGOs, international meetings, and lectures in sociology of the environment.” Throughout the course of Ferdinand’s research, he has received frequent comments about how ecology is a “white thing.” He points out that, “there’s still very much the idea that Black people and other minorities don’t really care about the environment. Both of these assertions are not true.”

To challenge these conceptions and break out of colonial and racist constructs of ecological issues, Ferdinand urges us to build alliances and create policies that put dignity at the center. “We need to think of environmental issues and climate change not just in terms of social justice, but also in terms of an emancipation from the colonial legacy and structural racism.”

“You have to work in a multi-level way,” says Ferdinand. “My book is a contribution to that end, trying to bring together people on both sides of these divides, trying to build alliances in the movements. That means having ecological movements engaging in the struggle against racism, and inversely, antiracist and decolonial movements engaging with ecological issues. Additionally, for France, in the same way that there is a need to preserve the environment in the Outre-mer, you need to implement better infrastructures, raise the standard of living, and make sure that citizens who live in these places have equal say and are considered equal participants of a common world.”

Relevant far beyond France and the Outre-mer, this message is one that needs serious deliberation and action.

“Until we start with the foundation that humans and non-humans, wherever they are, have the right to be on this Earth, we will have difficulties changing our actions and building a liveable world.”

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Angie Tran

Great article on the intersection of colonialism and environmental sustainability