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If you mention colonialism’s modern day effects to citizens of former colonial countries, you often receive a response like ‘how can you blame the people of today for past oppressions?’ which is basically like saying ‘can’t you just forget about the past?’ But that’s not how trauma works, especially when the effects of the trauma are ongoing.
Former colonial nations benefit today from the link between capitalism and colonialism — two systems of production and extraction that have shaped and defined the world’s deeply unequal global structures whilst causing the vast majority of historical fossil fuel emissions in the process. Colonial trauma to the people, environment and economies of former colonies has restricted development and prevented mutually beneficial relationships with natural resources. Any environmental justice movement must look to recognise the role of colonialism in contemporary environmental relations.
One major aspect of colonialism is the ideology of extractivism, a philosophy deeply tied to the Judeo-Christian worldview where the rights of white man supersede the rights of non-white people and their land. In practice, this meant colonial powers sucked all the valuable assets out of colonial countries and exported them back to their own countries. These processes of extraction were enacted without any regard for the people or land they abused, leading to visible geographical and psychological scarring that persists to this day. The developmental benefits of effectively stealing resources over centuries, have been instrumental in the accumulating a disproportionate chunk of global wealth, concentrated in the hands of former colonial powers to this day.
Even more insidiously, colonial powers made it almost impossible for these resources to be extracted or used independently of the colonising country - locking entire regions of the world into a unilateral “contract” that continued to profit colonial nations long after occupation of the colonies ended. As Lawrence Wood, author of The Environmental Impacts of Colonialism, puts it: “colonial powers developed their nations off of a surplus extracted at the expense of the people of Africa, Asia, Latin, and South America”
The Ogoni people are an indigenous community that have lived in the southeast of Nigeria for 500 years. They are reliant on agriculture, fishing and livestock herding for trade and have always lived sustainably. The land that is home to their communities, cultures and customs has one of the highest population densities in Africa but it is also ecologically rich and highly valuable. Britain had invaded Nigeria in 1885 and, in 1956 near the end of their colonial rule, they realised the fecundity of the area and supported exploration of the Niger Delta region for oil by the Royal Dutch Shell oil corporation.
After identifying oil, they began the same process of profit-driven extraction that colonial countries throughout history have recklessly carried out. The Social Development Integrated Centre’s article on Ogoni people vs Shell details how “Shell began extraction in 1958, a venture that was hugely profitable for both the corporation and the British crown but which led to thousands of oil spills in Ogoniland in just the first fifteen-year period. An estimated 2.1 million barrels of oil were spilled during this time, accounting for 40% of the total oil spills of the Royal Dutch Shell company worldwide, with appalling environmental and social consequences.”
British rule in Nigeria ended in 1960 but their commercial stranglehold never left. Shell stayed in the country and continued to pollute waterways, make land infertile, displace the Ogoni people and extract wealth from Nigerian land to make profits for Britain. With the egregious damages these spills caused to the land and practices of the Ogoni people, you might think that the Nigerian government would have been on their side. But in another insidious aspect of colonialism’s legacy, national governments who have been placed at a global financial disadvantage by extractivism, often side with neocolonial companies such as Shell in order to share in the profits from the resource extraction process.
When the Ogoni people organised in protest against Shell’s oil operations in the Niger Delta, Shell paid groups of the Nigerian military to crack down on the Ogoni. Nigerian soldiers used deadly force and massive, brutal raids against the Ogoni people throughout the early 1990s to repress a growing popular movement against the oil company. This crackdown culminated in the torture and execution of acclaimed writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders, known as the Ogoni Nine, on November 10, 1995.
The killings caused international outcry and led Ken Saro-Wiwa’s family to bring a legal case against Shell in Nigerian and American courts. After years of trying to get the company into a courtroom, Shell eventually paid a legal settlement of $15.5m in 2009, which was a small price to pay to avoid proper legal scrutiny and continue their exploitation of the region.
Even with the uproar around the killing of the Ogoni Nine and multiple court acknowledgements of the damage oil spills have had on land and livelihoods, Shell are still operating in Ogoniland. Like a parasitic tree sucking Nigeria’s natural resources from its land and stealing its profits, Shell continues its vampiric relationship with Ogoni land — The tree’s trunk acting as a visible neocolonial monument to shell’s continued influence, held up by the subterranean roots planted by British colonialism centuries ago.
Colonialism has always sought to benefit colonisers at the expense of colonies, removing the valuable resources that represented future prospects for prosperity and wealth creation. Extraction came in many different forms but each one had severe effects on the regions and people it impacted.
One particularly shocking example is the desiccation of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan where Russian colonisers used a more subtle method of extractivism: Farming. According to Laurence Wood, it all stemmed from when “the Soviet Union expanded irrigation in the Aral Sea basin in order to ramp up cotton production in the region” to enhance their position as leaders in the global cotton market. They “created a massive network of irrigation canals by diverting water away from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers” to increase farm land capacity in Uzbekistan.
Wood writes that, “as irrigated farm land doubled, total flow towards the Aral Sea was cut down to a 1/5 of its previous amount. This diversion of water essentially choked the Aral Sea and caused it to rapidly contract, leaving the Aral-kum dessert in its wake and causing the salt content of the sea to multiply.” The hyper saline sea that remained ruined the local fishing industry whilst salination rendered the land completely infertile for agriculture.
Now dust storms blow toxic clouds of sand, salt and agricultural runoff across the region, which has led to a dramatic rise in tuberculous and other respiratory diseases. But perhaps even detailing these effects understate the mind-blowing reality — colonial extraction caused the disappearance of a entire sea the size of the Republic of Ireland. Extraction of ores, minerals and raw materials were the primary target of colonialism, but the ripple effects that future generations were forced to bear are among the most deplorable aspects of the colonial project.
These examples are not isolated incidents — they are endemic to the colonialism. In 1900, on the other side of the world, German colonisers altered the Pacific island of Nauru forever. The island was rich in phosphates, crucial chemicals in creating synthetic fertilisers. At the time, increasing agricultural productivity was a priority to eliminate hunger and modernise the food distribution system. When colonisers found the island’s land contained valuable resources they began strip mining, removing all of the vegetation and the top layers of the soil. By the end, they had stripped bare 80% of the island, leaving behind a barren moonscape, inhospitable to future life.
According to Gowdy and McDaniel’s analysis of Nauru, “The process of colonialism turned Nauruans from a self-sufficient people, living within the resources of Nauru, into economic persons.” The population of Nauru multiplied by 10 as the colonisers forced people to move to the island to work on the huge strip mining project that would turn their new home into an infertile desert. The territory was passed between Germany, Britain and Australia throughout colonial rule and, in that time, 34 million ton of phosphates were extracted. The mining and land restoration debilitated the country economically for decades until 1993, when Nauru filed their case demanding reparations to the International Court of Justice.
They eventually agreed to an out of court settlement with Australia, where they agreed that they would be paid £50m over 20 years — a tiny amount for a rich country like Australia and an even smaller amount when considering the profits gained from phosphate extraction. Nauru still hasn’t received compensation from Britain or Germany for the damage caused in pursuit of exploitative profit motives. They continue to work to restore the biodiversity that once existed on the island and regenerate the conditions for the Nauruan people to thrive.
Extractivism isn’t solely contained in the theft of natural resources, it also manifests as the stolen labour of colonial populations, the displacement of indigenous peoples from their lands, the fragmentation of traditional cultures, and the pollution and depletion of natural resources — to the point that a country’s economic and social future is ruined for the long term. Re-evaluation of the way we think about these historical crimes is a vital way to work towards redressing the damage and inequalities colonialism caused. To do this, discussions about reparations are the best way to start.
Colonial reparations is a contentious topic in global politics. Speculation about what they could involve for rich countries often leads to questions of whether it is possible to quantify the damage colonialism caused and hand-ringing about the amount of money that would have to be repaid. But there are a multitude of ways to make reparatory changes for the victims of colonialism, many of which don’t necessarily involve monetary compensation.
The most significant example of reparations is the money that Germany was ordered to pay after World War Two to neighbouring states that suffered damage under German occupation, as well as to individual survivors of the Holocaust. But financial reparations for environmental damage is only one aspect of the reparations process and it certainly isn’t the most important one. There is no guarantee that lump sums of money will be effectively infused into society in ways that will reach the people most impacted by colonialism. There has to be clear directives for the reparations process that are embraced by the international community.
The international organisation of Caribbean states, CARICOM, has taken the lead on the issue of postcolonial reparations. In 2013, it established the CARICOM Reparation Commission (CRC) with the aim of engaging former European colonial powers on the issue of reparations for hrimes against humanity committed by colonial rulers, which include the institution of slavery as well as the genocide of indigenous peoples. Their work has led to research and development of a Ten Point Plan for Reparatory Justice in the Caribbean. When adapted slightly, they form a blueprint for just reparations in other regions.
“The healing process for victims and the descendants of the enslaved and enslavers requires, as a precondition, the offer of a sincere formal apology by the governments of Europe.” Not offering such an apology suggests that victims aren’t worthy of one, so the apology represents a ideological and cultural shift in the West that recognises the damage done.
“Over 10 million Africans were stolen from their homes and forcefully transported to the Caribbean as the enslaved chattel and property of Europeans.” The descendants of these stolen people must have a legal right to return to their homeland through a Repatriation program that addresses such matters as citizenship and deploys best available practices in respect of community re-integration.
The murder, enslavement and displacement of indigenous communities by colonisers is one of the great crimes of history. There must be a comprehensive plan to rehabilitate this community and reintegrate them into societies built from the land their ancestors shepherded.
“European museums serve to reinforce within the consciousness of their citizens an understanding of their role in history as rulers and change agents.” Cultural institutions must allow descendants of colonialism to tell the story of their past and inform present and future generations.
“The African descended population in the Caribbean has the highest incidence in the world of chronic diseases in the forms of hypertension and type two diabetes.” The chronic health conditions caused by the human rights abuses perpetrated in slavery must be adequately compensated by the former colonists who caused these conditions.
“At the end of the European colonial period in most parts of the Caribbean, the British in particular left the black and indigenous communities in a general state of illiteracy.” Literacy on a national scale is a precondition to prosperity, colonisers have a responsibility to help establish education structures to help former colonial countries prosper.
“The forced separation of Africans from their homeland has resulted in cultural and social alienation from identity and existential belonging.” To build community rehabilitation, there must be projects such as school exchanges, culture tours and political interaction that reconnect people with cultures they have been estranged from.
Colonial history has inflicted massive psychological trauma upon descendants of former colonies. A reparatory justice approach to truth and educational exposure can begin the process of healing and repair.
“For 400 years the trade and production policies of Europe could be summed up in the British slogan: ‘not a nail is to be made in the colonies” The technological and industrial development of colonies was artificially stagnated by colonists to enable massive wealth creation in Europe. Lifting patents on COVID vaccines and other essential technologies is a key aspect of making up for stolen time.
Haiti was ordered to pay reparations to France after the end of their colonial occupation. Other colonies had land, resources and infrastructures so badly destroyed by the colonisers that they had to go into debt to repair colonial damage - many are still paying to mitigate its destructive effects today. Support for the payment of domestic debt and cancellation of international debt are necessary reparatory actions.
Aspects of these points are being brought in by grassroots movements like Decolonise the Curriculum — a campaign to integrate colonialism into the school curriculum to educate people on British history. On a personal note, I studied History in the English school system for over 10 years and I can honestly say that I never heard colonialism mentioned in any meaningful way. The fragile nationalist pride of modern Britain is determined to erase the negative elements of British past and present them as a regal global power. Britannia rules the waves. And so the impact of grounding people in this understanding of history still has huge impacts throughout society.
In a Guardian article, Maya Goodfellow wrote that a leaked draft of the independent review into the Windrush scandal earlier this year interrogated the government’s handling and “recommended that all Home Office staff should ‘learn about the history of the UK and its relationship with the rest of the world, including Britain’s colonial history’.” Governmental and societal attitudes towards immigration policy and the rights of people from former colonies could be totally transformed by a new generation that is grounded in this more justice-based conception of history.
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